Thursday, 1 December 2016

Memories on the Wind: Silence (Pat Collins, 2012)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)

When a film calls itself ‘Silence’, you can, I think, be excused if it passes you by without claiming your attention. Do seek it out though; it’s a lovingly-crafted exploration of the experience of rootlessness and belonging, in which a sound recordist leaves Berlin for his native Ireland to record the sound of locations as far removed from man-made interference as possible.

Any journey into a space of reflective quiet is also, inevitably, a journey into one’s self and one’s past. ‘Are you going to go home?’ asks a woman of Eoghan, the sound recordist (the film’s co-writer Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde), early in the film. ’No, won't be going that far,’ he responds, as if home were purely a question of physical place, ‘don't particularly want to go.’ But go he does, for work, ‘purely work’, as he says, believing that he can remain at a distance from the places in which he listens and records. And yet, as a voice we hear from later in the film says, ‘such an old, humanised country that we have; two-way transmission between people and places.’ The woman he is leaving also knows better than he his trajectory: ‘and so I follow the arc of life and return to my starting place,’ she says. And so he does, first gliding hermetically westward along the autoroutes of Europe as images from home – a couple by the range in a kitchen, sun and bonfire-lit super-8 memories – flicker through his mind, and then, by the wayward but certain route of an inner compass across Ireland to end up at his birthplace on Tory island, off the north-west coast of Donegal.

The film opens with the words, subtly altered, of the final stanza of John Burnside's poem, Insomnia in Southern Illinois, from his collection, Black Cat Bone:

The cuckoo calls from the well of my mind,
more echo than thought as it fades through the wind
and flickers away to the silence beyond
like the voice, in myself, of another.

The original has ‘the barred owl calls…’, but the cuckoo provides a richer, and more geographically appropriate, symbol of migration and uncertain belonging. For all the excitement occasioned by its seasonal return, it’s a creature that outgrows its host environment and flies away ­– a link made explicit a little later in the film when Eoghan makes the call of a cuckoo in The Burren at dusk by a campfire and is answered. The line ’like the voice in myself, of another’ is the pertinent one here, though. It tallies with a phrase in an earlier poem from the collection, The Listener – ‘something like the absence of ourselves from our own lives’ – which is perhaps the same thought seen in a different light. It’s this space in which the film takes place, not just the physical land and soundscape of rural Ireland, but the mental landscape of a man unmoored from his past and his heritage; in the distance one travels from one’s own self, and the emptiness of returning to familiar places when the songs and the need, especially the need to be there, are lost.

Birds, in sound and story, are a theme throughout the film. The first person we see Eoghan talk to, listen to rather, is a publican, who shares a story about the starlings on an uninhabited Scottish island, which still mimic the noise of the mowing machines last heard there in the 1950s. Eoghan responds, ‘I’m not really collecting stories, it’s more quiet that I’m after,’ failing to realise how the two are intertwined. Later, when he talks to Michael Harding, who comes across him in the middle of a recording and invites him back to sup with him, their discussion revolves around the meaning of the Gaelic word for silence, alighting upon ‘the gap between noise … the in-between’. Harding talks of the silence he finds in his mother’s house, where she no longer lives. It’s ‘not the absence of aeroplanes, or the absence of wind,’ but something else that remains undefined, a ‘door into wisdom’ perhaps, that one gains by resisting movement. He prevails upon Eoghan to sing, which he does, though the tune peters out when he loses the words, and they discuss the pros and cons of being rooted in a place; the flip side of belonging ­– feeling trapped by circumstance, confined by heritage.

For all its apparent simplicity of approach – a man regaining his old tongue as he journeys west and ponders what he has left behind – this is a film assembled with subtlety and affection, in image as well as sound. Indeed, it’s a film in which sounds seem to seek correspondences and affiliation, as when the passing trams at an intersection in Berlin resemble the noise of a wind filling a tree in full leaf, or when the stick of rubber tyres on tarmac, or traffic heard from a bridge sounds like the wash and drag of waves on shingle. Later, on Tory island, a rock of unseen gannets heard against the waves could be children at breaktime in a playground.

Sounds from one location seep into another too, as when birdsounds of dusk enter onto a scene on Mullaghmore, or the noise of a passing car melds into that of a river at dusk. For all its emphasis on sound, as with the different character of wind in grass, in trees or in wires, there are subtle tonal variations in the look of the film too, as colours wind through scenes from Eoghan’s journey. The vivid yellow of a sign on a telegraph pole picks up on the gorse in flower by the river in a previous shot. And when Eoghan drives through the artificial yellow-grey light of a road tunnel, this same colour transmutes, in the next scene, to that of the sound editing software on his computer screen. As he listens to a trapped blackbird fluttering up against the glass he runs his finger against a damp window-pane, and we then move to a shoreline, whose rocks are slathered with the same yellow-green, this time of seaweed, as a curlew trills through the fog. The film is not above confounding us either, as when all sense of scale is lost in a slow pan of the camera on The Burren; is that a stone wall and a copse seen from high above, or a close-up of the grikes and clints of lichened rock? Later, on Tory Island, a dog barks in the distance, filmed from so far away its sound reaches us after the movements of its mouth.

At dusk one evening, Eoghan pulls apart the flowers of a hawthorn, perhaps to throw into a water’s flow, the petals sticking to his fingers and nails like so many memories that cannot be lost.

A man on the Atlantic coast talks of a ‘velvety texture to the stillness, made up of subliminal sounds coming in from great distances,’ as Eoghan turns a shell between his fingers. ‘It’s like listening to the sound of the past,’ he is told, ‘all the bits of the past that don’t get into history.’ At this, Eoghan looks over his shoulder and into a black and white past of families leaving for the mainland and weighting their dog for the water.

Another time, he tapes his microphones to the window as if he is conducting an EVP experiment to see what he can catch of voices of the past coming across the waves: song, a baby’s cry, a snatch of conversation. Perhaps he is listening for sounds of the fishermen of his childhood, singing to each other on a calm night across their CB radios.

And so, as Gaelic, a language more meaningfully rooted to the natural courses of the land in which it was shaped, begins to be spoken, Eoghan steps off the quay on Tory island to an indifferent welcome from the mewling gulls.

The film features many maps, actual ones of the terrain through which Eoghan is journeying to record his sounds, but many more, with neither names nor directions. There are those that resemble worn and ancient charts, like the yellowing birch bark that Eoghan sees as he runs his fingers through the mossy rowans and the tips of spring bracken, or the sedimentary layers of wallpaper and flaking paint on the walls of his abandoned family home. Then there are the maps of song, from Eoghan’s own mother singing ‘The Breeze and I’ to songs of love and parting, the words lost, and then the maps that birds leave in our lives, from the sparrows chirping in the middle of traffic noise in Berlin to the cuckoo, blackbird and  curlew, and the corncrake that scrapes out its song in the background as Eoghan talks to an old resident of Tory Island.

All lead to what we have been flashing forward to in snippets throughout the film, tattered lace fluttering through a broken window in an old bedroom that looks out upon ruined walls and the sea. And the realisation that whatever silence Eoghan finds will be temporary respite from the claims on his life and time, and not one rooted in the depth of belonging. It is a place where many of us dwell these days. The land awaits our connections anew.

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