The Aesthetic Power of Silence

Note to Readers, November 3, 2009: I have a question: Recently a lot of people have been reading this post.  I’m curious how and why you found your way here and what you thought.  I wonder if you might email  me at  I really would be grateful.  Valuable prizes will be awarded. Thanks, Steve


How true.

One of the reasons this caught my eye is the great experience I have had in recent years with outstanding young documentary ffilmmakers in our MFA program in Integrated Media Arts  at Hunter.

Often,  watching fragments and rough cuts of films in which the filmmaker is either doing an interview or even a more direct and personal film in which he or she speaks, I have held my breath as other characters in the film begin to speak. Will, I wonder, the filmmaker let the character speak without interruption? Will the filmmaker allow the camera to linger on a subject after he or she has stopped speaking,  potentially capturing after-moments in which  the subject offers a subtle and nuanced facial expression that might be more revealing than all of the words they have spoken?

I have to tell you that most of our students  do know how to stay quiet and allow the subject to peel off their own layers of character.

One reason I think about this was my own propensity to open my fat trap during recorded ethnographic interviews of journalists I did  years ago. Time and again, I would sit at home listening to my interviews and suddenly start screaming:

“Steve, shut up. Shut up.  The guy was just about to say something earthshaking and there you were, talking over him just to …….talk.”

I learned my lesson and ever since have pretty successfully struggled to avoid the pitfalls of a certain late night host of a PBS interview show who contantly talks over his guests, usually to signal his knowledge rather than hear the answer to a question.

My favorite doc film that reveals the almost unbearable tension and sublime beauty of silence is the classic “Salesman” by the Maysles brothers. The film is a must see for anyone even slightly interested in doc film.  Watch how the camera lingers and lingers on subjects after they have finished speaking or when they are not speaking at all.

These are some of the most powerful moments in the history of doc film,  bible salesmen leading lives of quiet desperation who are photographed sitting  or walking in silence, visibly anguishing over their failures or their  loneliness. The  scenes in which they are trying to close a sale are extraordinary, to be sure, but next time you watch the film, pay  careful attention to the moments of uneasy silence either right after or right before the pitch. Part of  the  Maysles genius is leaving the camera on during silence and not becoming “speech-centric.”

One unbearably tense scene (of many) shows a salesman walking in silence up to the door of a prospect.  The anticipation that grows during the silence is brilliantly excruciating. A sale? A rejection? Who knows?


Don’t underestimate the  unbearable loudness  of  perfect silence.

Note: George Steiner’s “Language and Silence” is a wonderful exploration of some of these issues. I think one of the reasons I so deeply admire silence is my own apparent inability to maintain it!

1 thought on “The Aesthetic Power of Silence

  1. Agreed, Steve. “The Salesman” is a powerful film, especially because of its silence – and that’s all I’m going to say.

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