Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Power of Silence: Beckett and No Country For Old Men

Pauline Kiernan's notes on Creativity, Writing
and Thinking.

One of the writers I'm mentoring at the moment is asking how to de-clutter her writing. She says she wants to discover how to stop over-writing. It got me thinking about all the artists and writers who seem to pare down what they create as they move on. Samuel Beckett took this to an extreme with a 35 second play called Breath. It consists of light and breath and silence with no actors.

Maybe it's partly because artists and writers get more confident the more they create - they've discovered how to trust their unique voice to 'stand alone', and don't feel the need to try to fill up the space of what they're expressing in case it's not enough.

A lot of movies get stuffed with overcompensating matter. My personal bugbear is music that tries to punch the emotion and tell the audience what to feel, which has the opposite of the effect intended - it just detaches us from the characters. A movie that I can't seem to stop thinking and talking about, No Country For Old Men, is a magnificent exception to this rule. Film composer Carter Burwell's score is only 16 minutes long, and the majority of it is heard during the end credits.

Director/screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen are still quite young, but they seem to have reached the stage where they trust their superb cinematic story-telling instincts. And, perhaps, more importantly, they trust in the intelligence of their audiences. The power of silence and stillness in this movie demonstrates something I think all creative people can get inspiration from.

I've been writing about this film a lot lately, and I've been covering the often misunderstood element of screenwriting - subtext - and how it's much much more than simply a question of dialogue, of the difference between what someone says and what they mean. It's what you leave out. The unspoken, the stasis, the deeper meaning that is what lies beneath.

I'm not sure I could want to go as far as Beckett in stripping away words and actions to a raw core of meaning, but I think he helps me to understand that what a writer leaves out can be more important than what you put in.

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