Quote of the Week: Silent Television

In a recent essay at ctheory.net, titled “Silent Television: A Virtual History of Voice and Voicelessness in Divergent Media,” Robert Briggs discusses a negligible cultural territory by energetically taking the measure of its relative absence.

There has been no significant silent television, unlike in film, which was preceded by a full and popular “silent” era. Briggs, naturally, points out the “myth” (in the words of Raymond Fielding) of silent film, how few if any “silent” films were viewed in silence — if anything, they were rambunctious affairs, with live musical performance, choreographed sound effects, and an audience comfortable with discussing the on-screen activity.

If anything, Briggs notes, it’s the rise of the talkie that turned the movie theater from a convivial place to a library-like zone of quiet. To this effect, he quotes Alexander Walker’s The Shattered Silents:

Silent movies had enabled the casual customer to drop in, and within a minute or two be locked into the story and characters. Mime-acting made the characters’ predicaments easily intelligible; sub-titles gave people emotional cues to follow rather than narrative points to recall. But dialogue changed all this: it demanded attention, it enforced silence on the audiences who had hitherto been able to swap comments on the movie below the music of the pianist or pit orchestra. Now one had to shut up, sit up and pay attention to a plot that more and more was conveyed in words, not pictures.

It’s odd that an article such as Briggs’, with a subsection titled “Art” and several references to the avant-garde, makes no mention of the television-set abstractions of Nam June Paik. But Briggs does dive deep into popular television, noting the silent show of Ernie Kovacs and the “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he expands the purview to include amateur video postings to YouTube and the like. (He doesn’t mention Yule logs — perhaps it’s an American custom, as he’s based in Australia — but he does touch on nature documentaries.)

Especially of interest is Briggs’ attention to the rise of the DVD, and how the presence of commentary tracks “shatters the ‘naturalism’ of sound that has dominated audio-visual production since the late 1920s.”

One thing Briggs’ doesn’t state directly but does make room for, by emphasizing the manner in which radio (not film) was the real precursor to TV, is the extent to which it is a writer’s medium. That’s the main tension inherent in silent television. A show like West Wing was, deservedly, praised for its scripts, which reportedly were notably thicker than the TV average. As shows get more and more cinematic, we’re witnessing more sequences that move the story forward without dialogue — think of the interstellar shots Battlestar Galactica, the fights in Human Target, the Oceans-style heists in Leverage — and we may yet be entering into one of the more “silent” periods in television’s history.

(Photo licensed via Creative Commons from flickr.com.)

6 thoughts on “Quote of the Week: Silent Television

  1. Hello. Thanks for your posting of the interesting topic. When the medium itself is objectified, it may become silent, as in Nam June Paik’s works or Harmony Korine’s films. I’ve just taken a quick look at Brigg’s essay….I think he is focusing more on the possibility of TV show (contents) than the possibility of the medium (box). Correct me if I’m wrong. I think he urges more “artistic” way of using of the sound in TV show, but I feel his term “silent television” is a bit confusing… In my view “silent film” was (re)discovered by filmmakers who started their career around WWII, so silent film became silent film. At the same time use of silence became effective because of the existing sound within the film.


  2. Thanks for the response, Yasuo. I agree Briggs is focusing more on the content than the medium, but given his energetic enterprise, I figured video art deserves a mention — he invites as much by using the term “avant-garde” when discussing Ernie Kovacs. I think that’s part of the confusion you noticed — if you’re looking for silent television, there’s quite a lot of it these days, and it’s a fascinating subject, as he suggests. I marvel at those CSI shows that spend expensive minutes each week just showing people putting dye into test tubes, not to mention the endless cycle of the Weather channel.

    If you come back to this entry, please explain your WWII comment further. Thanks.

  3. Thanks Marc. I’ve just looked at some clips of Hush. I imagine the Kovacs’s German expressionistish dramaturgy was rather the result of his choice of the classic theme (vampire) and experimenting something new was not necessarily the priority. Those genres of mystery and horror appear to be good place to experiment. For example, I like Kingdom Hospital, though I actually prefer Riget, the original version made by Lars von Trier.

    By the way, my knowledge about TV is limited to those from the internet and rental DVDs. I’ve never had a TV set at home.

    About the WWII comment: Filmmakers who were born during the 1910-20s, exposed to many silent pictures when they were young, but didn’t have an opportunity to make a silent picture when they became a director, might have been the first generation who tried to “restore” the essence of the silent pictures. Kurosawa was an exemplary, according to Donald Richie. The form of silent picture and its modernist–Surrealist, Formalist, and Expressionist–agenda might have appeared to be a lost cause before those filmmakers. In a way, silent pictures became silent not because they were voiceless, but because they were in those filmmakers’ memories. It is symbolic Kurosawa had a brother who was a silent picture narrator and died too young. There is a kind of mourning in using the old mediums, such as 8mm, home video, photograph. Harmony Korine did this very effectively. Those images in the old mediums show “what has been,” which is shadowed by “what will have been.” But Kurosawa already did it in the 1950s, in his underrated I Live in Fear.

    I’m afraid I’ve been talking about cinema too long, since the topic should be revolving around the possibility of TV. I agree with you saying that video art should be mentioned. Pipilotti Rist may be a good example to discuss, because we don’t have to bring a TV set into galleries in order to appreciate her works and these are deeply connected with popular culture.

    But these days I feel Rist obsolete, or even nostalgic, for the separation between the audible and the visible in the media, including lip syncs, glitch effects, time stretching, looping, shaky images, collage, and so on, is rather cliched. Some overtly sexualized singers’ music videos look like Rist’s.

    We are not just consumers of TV shows, we interpret them and broadcast our own versions by editing, recapturing, swapping the sound, etc. So the audience’s participation in creative process is good to discuss about.

    And yes, there have been minimalistic aspects in TV shows, such as Weather channel you mentioned and the international news (which I watch every day on the computer). If my memory is correct, there were some channels just showing images of nature or computer graphics as “furniture video” in the 1980s, probably due to the ecology boom. Do you have any information about them? Thanks.


  4. Hi, Yasuo.

    Ah, I see what you mean: There weren’t silent films until there were un-silent films, and a generation of filmmakers consciously decided to make films that are silent. That makes silent films sort of like what we today call chiptue or 8-bit music. (At a practical level, it’s a bit like how we now call acoustic guitars “acoustic guitars,” but needn’t to have before the invention of the electric guitar. In reverse, I imagine that these same milestone-marking adjectives occasionally disappear — perhaps after the home phone disappears, “mobile phones” will simply be “phones.”)

    Rist is a great example. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the tiny screen embedded in the floor of PS1 in Queens, New York, this tiny woman looking up at us, all the more tortured because she was unheard. I’m not sure I can as of yet speak to her relative longevity.

    I do recollect those nature furniture-videos, or moving-wall-art, but have no information handy.

    I do have a TV — in fact, just a week ago finally upgraded to HDTV, as my twitter.com/disquiet notes have made all too clear. I think the only time in my life I didn’t watch it regularly were during my four years in college. I really enjoy serial narrative, especially serial narratives that obviously are impacted by influences outside the filmmakers’ control (like fan feedback, the aging and career choices of artistic participants, broader fluxes in cultural life).


  5. Roger Smith wrote and starred in an episode of 77 Sunset Strip (early ’60s) that was totally without dialogue. There was background music and sound effects, however.

  6. The TV of today, and movies of 100 years ago, has/had less dialogue partly because those mediums are/were consumed by a more international audience with primary languages other than English. Limiting it to too many words in one language cuts off more global marketing.

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