(Credit: United Artists)

How Martin Scorsese uses the art of silence to create a masterpiece

The cinematic virtuosity of Martin Scorsese is imbued with iconic era-defining music and the transcending arc of melody that is not a mere auxiliary auditory aid but a bonafide storytelling device. The choice of music and eclectic soundtracks in a Scorsese’s films is as didactic as the visuals. In an interview, Scorsese elucidated on the impact of music on his storytelling, stating: “Going back to my childhood my family was working class and didn’t have any books in the house, so it was music and pictures. And the music spoke to me in a kind of abstract way, but emotional and intellectually simulating…it comes right from the body and voice. And I am always inspired by it.”

Scorsese’s inclusion of contemporaneous iconic songs is underscored by ‘Layla’ in Goodfellas, ‘Casino’ in House of the Rising Sun and ‘Gimme Shelter’ in The Departed. New Yorker film critic Paulina Kael, while reviewing Mean Streets, wrote: “The music here is not our music, meant to put us in the mood of the movie, but the character’s music”. Scorsese’s use of sound is interspersed with his use of an underutilised cinematic device; Silence. The auditory punctuation and absence of non-diegetic composition is used as a tool and “lets the director build a full cinematic structure around sound”. If you travel through the trajectory of Scorsese’s filmography, you will find examples of his use of silence and quietude to enhance the subjectivity of a scene or the central theme. 

Tony Zhou’s six-minute video essay ‘Martin Scorsese – The Art of Silence’ elucidates the director’s use of silence as a powerful cinematic device to create tension or draw the viewer into the skin of the character. In his popular Youtube channel ‘Every Frame a Painting’, Zhou analyses the use of silence in Scorsese’s filmography, drawing on examples from GoodfellasRaging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed and more. Zhou points to the famous scene in Raging Bull in which Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) masochistically succumbs to being pummelled by pugilist Sagar Ray Robinson in what Zhou calls “a kind of spiritual slaughter”. The sudden silence in this scene in contrast with the auditory onslaught of Madison Square Garden is more ominous and helps us connect with the pain and numbness of the character. 

In an interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Scorsese explained: “Where the camera decides to make you look is the philosophy of the storytelling, the visual storytelling. But, for me, it has to come from music and the lack thereof. In other words, silence is important. In Raging Bull, we never really thought too much about the sound effects until Frank Warner and I worked on it…Then, at one point, Frank looked at us and says, there is no sound. I said, you’re right. Take it all out. Take it out. You go into a whole meditative state and then, wham, the sound comes back in. What is it like to pass out in that ring?”

Zhou examines Scorsese’s use of silence as a thematic anticipatory crescendo in Goodfellas, where Henry (Ray Liotta) is silent after Tommy (Joe Pesci) confronts him for calling him funny. The drawn-out nail-biting silence builds the ominous tension of probable violence only to break when Henry tells Tommy to “shut up”, and they burst into laughter. The silence created synergy between the audience and the undercurrent of tension within the characters as a prelude to comic relief. 

Zhou illustrates how silence is used to establish the central dramatic beat of a scene and is used to relay the thoughts and feelings of a character; he uses the example of The Last Temptation Of Christ in which the silence after the crucifixion of Jesus is almost transcendental as the pain and noise recedes only to sublimate into enlightenment. Zhou uses the example of Infernal Affairs to establish the contrasting use of sound and silence. In the original Infernal Affairs, music was used to crucial moments to establish tonality only to be substituted by silence in the same moments in the remake to emote with the language of silence. Scorsese uses the element of contrast by following a loud auditory crescendo with an auditory synaptic break – loud sounds followed by silence. 

Zhou’s didactic visual essay also examines the depreciation of quietude over the years bashing Man of Steel as an example of auditory hammering. 

Watch the video below to see Tony Zhou unravel the Art of Silence as used by Martin Scorsese.