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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 52.4: Justin Horton
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"Spells of Speech and Silence”: Sound and Voice(-out) in "Hush”

Justin Horton, Georgia State University
www.justinhorton.net | @justinbhorton

 

My recent Cinema Journal article "The Unheard Voice in the Sound Film” provides a classification of "the voice-out,” which I define as any instance "in which characters are seen speaking but nonetheless go unheard partially or completely by the audience.”[i] As a typology, it is necessarily a work of breadth rather than of depth; throughout the article I cite more than 25 examples of the voice-out, but due to space constraints, I was unable to treat any of them in a sustained manner. Therefore, in the forum provided here, I’d like to take up a text that prominently features the unheard voice, so much so, in fact, that it pushes against my claim that the voice-out is a momentarydisruption of the predominant, Hollywood-style sound-image relations (13).[ii] "Hush,” an episode from season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is an extremely prolonged—and thus quite rare—example of non-audible speech, as some 27 of the episode’s 44 minutes do not feature a single instance of spoken (or better, hearable) dialogue. This episode is frequently described as either "silent,”[iii] which is of course inaccurate, or "almost silent,”[iv] which is at best vague. Here, I ask in what ways and to what extent is "Hush” silent, and I aim to answer through a close analysis of how the episode plays off of its supposed silence to produce novel (and funny) results.

In "Hush,” a group of demons known as the Gentlemen descend upon Sunnydale and rob its residents of their voices, rendering them unable to speak. Thus, the bulk of episode is one sustained voice-out. I offer that thinking of the episode in terms specific to the voice is preferable to the binary of "sound” versus "silence,” for "Hush” is not silent so much as voiceless.[v]That is, we still hear the diegetic world (think: the grunts and crashes of the episode’s climactic battle), and this distinction is crucial to understanding how sound functions within this example. Indeed, this episode is rather noisy, which suggests the extent to which scholars tend to conflate "speech” with "sound.”

We might say, then, that the predominating voice-out category of the episode is the "verisimilar,” wherein "the film presents to the ears of spectators [...] sounds consistent with what a human of ‘normal’ hearing capacity might hear from spatial coordinates roughly consistent with those of the camera’s implied position within the diegetic space” (16). But "Hush” complicates matters, for, according to the logic of this narrative world, there are no voices to hear—”point of audition” therefore doesn’t factor. For all intents and purposes, then, the lack of the voice is in this instance "realistic.”

I don’t mean to suggest, however, that the show doesn’t feel as if it were silent. In fact, much of the pleasure of the episode derives from the viewer falling into the rhythms and expectations of silent-era cinema only to have them disrupted. "Hush” cleverly manipulates the sound mix to make the viewer "forget” that it is only the characters’ voices that have been silenced and not the world entirely.

This becomes apparent in two gags—pardon the pun—especially. In one scene that is accompanied by a thrilling nondiegetic score, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) leaps from his offscreen bed and into the frame, silently shouting. Upon realizing he cannot speak, he turns to Spike (James Marsters), points at him, and screams, "you did this to me!” Two interesting sound-image relations are at work here. First, the dramatic music covers over diegetic sounds, lulling one into thinking, perhaps, that the diegesis has as well been silenced, and, hence, for a moment, "Hush” is seemingly operating according to silent cinema conventions. But, second, the show quickly reminds us that this is not the case, for as Xander reaches for and dials the telephone, the sounds of touch tones become jarringly present in the sound mix.

A variation of this tactic is at work when Tara (Amber Benson) enters the student lounge. Here, the scene carries no score, and the diegesis is uncommonly quiet: we only hear offscreen birds chirping, the soft sobs of students, and their faint shufflings about the space: ambiance, in a word. Then, suddenly, a student drops a glass bottle, alarming the other characters and viewers. Suffice it say, though, that neither of these gags would work if they were staged in noisier environments (e.g., a gravel parking lot or with characters outfitted in high heels or military boots), for the illusion of silence would not take hold. Thus, a quiet-loud dynamic is at work, one that is by no means "silent.”

Anti-redundant voice-out

A second element of "Hush”’s playful use of sound is apparent in the earlier example of Xander and Spike. We only infer the nature of their argument through the reading of their lips and their demonstrative gestures. And here as elsewhere, even though the verisimilar voice-out predominates, we are still capable of following the communicative exchanges via the characters’ nonverbal language and the actors’ pantomime—thus the visual gag of Xander misreading innocent gestures (e.g., Willow pointing at her chest for heart, Buffy making a repeated stabbing motion for to kill with a stake) as carrying sexual connotations. Though Xander misinterprets, the viewer does not; hence, what I call the "anti-redundant voice-out” is at play alongside the verisimilar. Here, one can read the lips and body language of the characters and infer the gist of the conflict that is playing itself out. And this is certainly the case with Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), whose affection towards the Scoobies elsewhere in the series is almost always implicit in his words and rarely physical, for in "Hush” he expresses his relief and fear through hugs and pats on the shoulder, a physical tenderness uncommon for the normally stoic character.

But nonverbal language is not alone sufficient for the characters and viewers to make sense of all the events transpiring. For this reason, "Hush” makes extensive use of the written word, as with Professor Walsh’s (Lindsay Crouse) gesture to the "in case of emergency sign” and Giles’ overhead transparency show—the episode’s funniest set-piece—itself a sendup of cinematic exhibition. This is most apparent though through the device of the dry erase boards that a street vendor sells to the suddenly voiceless denizens of Sunnydale.[vi] These inscriptions are occasionally framed as insert shots with the camera positioned perpendicular to the board, thus filling the entire frame in a tip of the hat to the silent era’s intertitles.

Yet for all its inventiveness, "Hush” still operates in accord with a number of well-established sound-image conventions. In one scene, Buffy walks the downtown streets at night surveying the damage that has resulted from the voiceless panic. She encounters Riley, and they exchange (what appear to be) heartfelt words (anti-redundant voice-out). As they lean in for a kiss, the diegetic sounds of the burst fire hydrant and the commotion of the street are dialed down in the mix just as the romantic theme is brought forth. As the couple lock lips, the chaotic din is almost entirely replaced by the score, but as they pull apart, the procedure reverses itself, and the roar of the hydrant returns to sonic prominence. This moment works much like my conception of the "escorted voice-out,” wherein one element of the sound mix—most often music—comes to the fore at the expense of other sounds. But here, there are no voices to supersede. Thus, the reduction of the diegetic sounds in favor of the "Buffy-Riley love theme”—its first appearance in the series[vii]— works in tandem with the conventional two-shot of the kiss to underscore the importance of this moment, for, by episode’s end, each will have discovered the other’s double-life, thereby lifting the veil of secrecy that had dogged their relationship to this point.

This short analysis of "Hush” by no means exhausts the clever use of sound that runs throughout the episode. What I’ve aimed to show, though, is how one may take the notion of "silence” and put a finer point on it, for the lack of speech in this episode does not operate the same way in all instances. Rather, it shifts in relation to other portions of the sound and image tracks, making diegetic ambiance, score, the written word, or the actors’ bodies carry the burden of "meaning.” And these frequent manipulations are precisely the means by which some of the episode’s most inspired and humorous moments play out.



NOTES

[i] Justin Horton, "The Unheard Voice in the Sound Film,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 4 (2013): 4. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[ii] "Hush” is in this regard very much a rule-proving exception, and its atypicality is precisely why it is so often cited as evidence of Buffy’s daring formal experimentation. See, for instance, Jason Mittell, "Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, 58 (2006): 32.

[iii] Robert Bianco, "‘Buffy’ Returns to Chat Up the Dead,” USA Today, November 12, 2002; Joyce Millman, "Blue Glow,” Salon, March 21, 2000. http://www.salon.com/2000/03/21/glow_236/; Kelly Kromer, "Silence as Symptom: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Hush’,” Slayage: The International Journal of Buffy Studies 19, no. 5 (2006): http://slayageonline.com/essays/slayage19/Kromer.htm; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season (Berverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment: 2008), DVD.

[iv] Noel Murray, "‘Hush,’ etc.” The A.V. Club, August 14, 2009. http://www.avclub.com/articles/hush-etc,31725/; Ian Spelling, "Sticking Her Neck Out,” September 26, 2000. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2000-09-26/features/0009260306_1_buffy-vampire-slayer-dawn; Mittell, ibid. Cf. Katy Stevens, who writes that "‘Hush’ operates as a televisual homage to silent cinema, which in fact is hardly ever silent.” Katy Stevens, "Battling the Buzz: Contesting Sonic Codes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in Music, Sound, and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, eds. Paul Attinello, Janet K. Halfyard, and Vanessa Knights (Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010): 82.

[v]And even this claim requires qualification, for we thrice hear what Michel Chion calls "on-the-air” voices: first, Professor Walsh’s recorded speech in the elevator; second, when a computer "reads” aloud her commands to the Initiative soldiers; and third, the news anchor’s voice over the television. See Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound On Film(New York: Columbia University Press, 1994): 76–78.

[vi] "Mess age [sic] boards” reads the seller’s sign, the extra space signaling yet another visual gag.

[vii] Arnie Cox and Rebecca Fülöp, "‘What rhymes with lungs?’: when music speaks louder than words,” in Music, Sound, and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 71.

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