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Film Scratches: Songs Behind the Silence – Stille Stadt (2015)

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Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

Stille Stadt (Silent City), Stephen Chen’s hauntingly powerful feature film, shows us the daily life of a character called Everyman (portrayed by Chen) in contemporary Toronto. The film has no dialog, and the soundtrack is made of ambient sounds and a remarkable score of operatic arias, both classical and original, sung by Chen in a pure, expressive counter-tenor. These arias provide a window into Everyman’s inner world. One might worry that a film about one character, played by the filmmaker, who is onscreen in virtually every shot, accompanied by a nearly two hour solo recital of the filmmaker’s singing, might be self-absorbed, or in any case that it might focus overmuch on one personality, but this is not at all the case. As an actor, Chen’s reserved, inward-looking portrayal of a chronically shy and alienated man is consistently gripping with its honest simplicity. As a singer, Chen’s voice is technically exquisite and has a lovely, sensual quality. Furthermore, Chen has a rare ability to fully immerse himself into the lyrical and melodic world of each aria, allowing the individual quality of each song to come vividly to life. Even though a large number of the arias could be called “slow laments,” they do not feel repetitive, as Chen renders each one distinct.

Although the character is called Everyman, he is not the kind of blank slate you would see in the 15th century morality play. He is a single, middle-aged gay man with a corporate job and with no close ties to any human being, and this makes his experiences very particular, but his state of complete alienation from both his work and his fellow city-dwellers is surely emblematic of an alienation which is endemic to modern urban life, and in this sense he is truly an Everyman.

The film opens with the earliest moments of dawn. We soon see the man having coffee with a handsome stranger, a man he evidently picked up in a bar the previous night. Immediately, it becomes clear that the “silence” of the film is not generic, but is a sequence of highly specific kinds of silences. In this case it is the charged silence of casual lovers who find they have nothing to say to each other.

StilleStadtSideTo a Rossini song about conquering Babylon, we see Everyman in endless walks around the city, and the camera lingers on streets, plazas, bridges and glass towers, creating a portrait of a complex, expensive environment, one which generates autonomous, solitary people like the protagonist. Sometimes he looks longingly at another man in the street, and sometimes another man looks longingly at him, but no one connects. This is the silence of being alone amidst bustle and noise. He walks several times past a bar with a big sign that reads “This is Paradise,” and the words are seen both normally and upside-down. The anonymous character of city life can be both paradise and its opposite. The city is very much a character in the film, and the story is a love/hate relationship between man and city.

In one haunting sequence, accompanied by one of Chen’s starkly lonely and beautiful songs, he shares coffee with a voluble man on a bench on the street. We see a close-up of Chen’s hand near the man’s leg. He wants to reach out and touch the man, but his hand resignedly settles back down on his own leg. The chasm is uncrossable. This is the silence of chattering conversation which doesn’t communicate.

Amusingly, a Handel aria which begins “Whirlwinds, lend your wings to my feet” accompanies a montage which shows the vast number of cups of coffee Everyman consumes throughout the day, simply trying to accumulate the energy and courage to deal with the stress of his high-pressure office job. The lyrics are in Italian, and the sequence playfully puns on the word venti which refers to the whirlwinds, to the twenty cups he drinks, and to the Starbucks size he prefers.

A soft, lyrical aria from Norma about longing for beauty accompanies his trip to a bar, where he once again fails to connect to anyone. The contrast between the tender lyricism of the song and the ear-splitting disco music which we know he must really be listening to dramatizes the split between his inner experience and his environment.

Chen’s beautiful short song Like two doomed ships… accompanies a sequence where Everyman and a stranger exchange a glance, both frankly interested in each other, but both are too scared to pursue it further. It is a simple, powerful expression of a common urban experience, one which often leads to a feeling of regret.

A particularly gorgeous original song by Chen explores the oddly alienating experience of living in a high-rise building, literally ungrounded. Slow motion shots of billiard balls cascading down the steps poetically express a state of free-fall, and shots of tall, majestic trees make an ironic reference to urban rootlessness.

In one of the most sophisticated sequences, Dido’s Lament by Purcell accompanies a fairly abstract sequence focusing on the tasteful yet utterly impersonal details of the man’s apartment: the chrome handles of cabinets, light switches. He assembles some ornamental objects he has collected on a shelf, but their pale attempts at self-expression do nothing to assuage his loneliness. This sterile place where he spends so much of his time merely accentuates his isolation.

His one close encounter turns into a nightmare, leaving him physically and emotionally devastated. To a despairing Handel song, he wanders slowly past a graffiti mural depicting a world of ravenous fish, and a poetic collage sequence shows us many scenes of war, protest, and devastation, examples of a world collectively exhausted by violence and fear. He is Everyman indeed.

The film ends with a song which is a prayer for freedom from Handel’s Rinaldo. We see Everyman amidst barbed wire fences, and we see glimpses of the sky between the buildings. Chen’s portrait of the city is ultimately a portrait of a prison, and the prisoners who long for liberation. A man’s inner world is lit with lyricism, even at his most despairing. Chen has created a highly original film form, revealing to us the songs hidden behind the silence.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches, or to submit an experimental film for review, contact david (at) lakeivan.org.

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