Long, long ago, when VHS, DVD, DVR and video streaming lay cogitating in the brains of their inventors, Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday appeared on the TV Guide’s weekend schedule. Dad fidgeted at the dinner table, counting down as he anxiously anticipated herding us to the couch in front of the television. Attendance was mandatory.
The 1953 film is virtually dialogue free, with a snowflake’s blanket of background noise, music and overheard conversational accompaniments. It showcases multiple slapstick shenanigans and interactions with the friendly, but clumsy, uncoordinated and socially quirky Mr. Hulot during a summer holiday.
Mom, Kathy and I congregated on the couch, suspiciously eyeing the creature that had inhabited Dad’s body. His inability to sit still was as captivating as the saxophone/vibraphone intro to Alain Romans’ film score. I had never seen him in such a state. His face was that of a child presented with an unexpected gift.
Dad was a highly respected reporter for the Los Angeles Times and, even at that young age, I was struck by his reaction to a film virtually devoid of dialogue. This man made his living with words. Yet, here he was, doubled over, clutching his belly with extreme glee, his face bathed in tears of laughter.
A few years later, my ninth grade history teacher, Mr. Burch, presented the class with an assignment to interview a family member who had witnessed a natural disaster or tragic event. We were to record the interview on cassette tape and present it in class the following week. With his vast experience as a journalist, I chose Dad as my subject and the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake as the natural disaster. The opening of the interview went something like this:
Me: Where were you during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake?
Me: Did you feel the earthquake?
Me: How big was it?
Me: (silence) Um…uh…on the Richter scale? H-how big was it on the Richter scale?
Me: What did you do?
Dad: Woke up.
Me: Then what did you do?
Dad: Got up and checked on you girls.
Me: Yeah, about that…why were you in your bathing suit?
Dad: No comment.
As painfully tedious as it was capturing the rest of the interview, the end result was informative and hysterical. When the day came to make our class presentations, I stood front and center, glowing garnet – the class was howling with hilarity, including Mr. Burch. Whatever creature had possessed Dad’s body the night we viewed Tati’s film had apparently discovered sanctuary in Mr. Burch. His body appeared frozen in a mid-Martha Graham contraction, face in an Edvard Munch Scream state, voice and breath in an asphyxiated, noise-free guffaw. I got an A.
At dinner that night, Dad asked how it went. I gave him the recap and then asked why he handled the interview the way he had. He said:
“Can you guess what my most important tool is?”
“Silence. When I sit down for an interview, I wait. People are uncomfortable with silence, so they fill it. And sometimes you get answers to questions you never would have dreamed of asking. It is amazing and often wonderful what you discover by just listening. By being silent.”
During my junior year at Cal Arts, I was lucky enough to work with John Cage, just one among many incredible composers in residence during my years there. While studying Cage’s essays, I discovered this quote: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” It reminded me of the importance of listening and of the use of silence in all we do. It changed the way I approached the piano and it affected my musical relationships in my ensembles. I started listening. To everything.
Several years after graduating from college, I became convinced that Wendy and Morgan, at two and four years old, held late-night secret meetings where they drafted architectural renderings to wreak intense havoc. Subsequent to one such covert assemblage, I emerged from the opposite end of our New York City apartment to find “bear footprints” tracked on the wood floors throughout. During the two minutes it took me to use the restroom and grab a basket of laundry to fold, they ninja-monkeyed to the kitchen counter for a jar of chocolate frosting teetering on the edge of the top shelf of the pantry, pried it open with their clamp-like fingers, reached into the jar with their front “bear paws” and smeared frosting on the right then left hind paws. Smear, right left. Smear, right left. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…
The menu of possible reactions was jammed with recipes that included ripping my hair from my scalp. The mess was unbelievable. I calculated at least 14 mop jobs to absorb all that butter (or whatever greasy hydrogenated crap was in that jar). The impulse to scream was rapidly advancing, but something stopped me. Resonating in my father’s voice, one simple word echoed through my head, as it had so many times since Messrs. Hulot, Burch and Cage. Silence.
I silently removed myself from a Pavlovian response and looked at my chocolate covered bear cubs. I watched their joyfully animated faces and listened to their giggles and growls. They were completely engrossed in their creative playtime and their innocence was breathtaking. We eventually got around to making a game out of cleaning up the mess, and as the years passed, they would naturally discover the consequences of such a mess. But not now. Not in this moment. What creative impulses might I have destroyed had I been immediately reactive? I am grateful for my lessons in silence and for the beauty of those moments.
Explosives are never necessary. Unless, of course, you’re Mr. Hulot.
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday – Fireworks Scene – Click Here