The silence that says everything
I’ll begin by explaining the somewhat cumbersome, enigmatic title of T. Sean Durkin’s film debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). Martha is the name of a young woman, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who runs away from her life and joins a cult. Marcy May is a name the cult’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), feels suits her better, and Marlene is the name all of the female members use when answering their compounds phone. It’s a strange title, awkward to say out loud and hard to remember in its correct sequence. It is disorienting and, when you look at it written in a straight line (as above) the names appear to run together. After seeing the film and the trance-like state its main character exists in, past and present events bleeding into one waking nightmare, I think that the title isn’t just perfect; it’s actually quite brilliant.
MMMM (as in: MM-MM, good) is a film more interested in observation than statement; the space between words. A great deal of its scenes focus exclusively on Martha, character’s often speaking to her from just off-camera. Sometimes they are onscreen, but out of focus. Nothing feels real to her. It is precisely this kind of observational approach, this kind of respect for the silence that makes the film’s most emotionally palpable scenes work.
Shortly after Martha has arrived and been dubbed Marcy May by Patrick, she sits in a small barn on their compound during what appears to be a sort of cult talent show. Patrick encourages artistic expression, at least from the men. Eventually, Patrick himself picks up a guitar and announces that he’s written a song for Marcy May. She is flattered, then, entranced. He sings that she’s “just a picture that lives on his wall,” and in that moment she feels, and is, beautiful. The scene reminded me how powerful a film can be when it doesn’t get in its own way.
We are taught in film school that you shouldn’t say what you can show. Film is a visual medium, but often times clever dialogue (which of course has its place) supersedes the visual art one can create with silent observation. Take, for example, the intro sequence to There Will Be Blood (2007). Fifteen minutes of quiet tells us about Daniel Plainview better than any piece of dialogue could have. Or how about my favorite moment in one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier films, Boogie Nights (1997)? It’s the scene when Dirk Diggler, strung out on coke, flinching from the firecrackers his dealer’s Asian boy-toy keeps setting off (yeah, you read that correctly), finally realizes what he’s gotten himself into. The camera slowly creeps towards him. He says nothing because it’s all over his face. It’s a long take and that’s precisely what makes it work: the transition. “What. Am. I. DOING. HERE?!?!”
The ending of the (underrated) film Michael Clayton (2007) has another lovely, silent moment. After all that Michael has been through (questioning your place in this world can be exhausting) he hops into a cab and tells the cabbie to just drive. The camera holds on his face the entire time the credits roll along side it. He doesn’t run home to tell his son he loves him or try to reconcile with his ex-wife. He doesn’t dramatically quit his job. He doesn’t even say a word, but there it is.
Then there is the classic ending of The Graduate (1967), with Ben and Elaine sitting in the back of a bus, Elaine wearing her dress from the wedding Ben had just convinced her to abandon. The two laugh at the absurdity of what just occurred, then, slowly, they stop. They sit in silence. They are not really in love, so what do they do now?
Don’t say what you can show. When Marcy May sits and listens to Patrick’s song it isn’t the words that have captured her, it’s his steely, confident gaze. It’s his body language, exuding quiet confidence. It’s the way he makes her feel like she’s the only one sitting there despite the fact that we are certain this isn’t the first time he’s written a song for one of his girls. He tells her that “she’s just a picture,” and a picture is worth a thousand words.
Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, as well as being an occassional film review contributor for Real Detroit Weekly, a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.