Alexandra Huang | August 8, 2018
Ghastly verisimilar, aurally suffocating, and acoustically pioneering, John Krasinski’s sci-fi thriller A Quiet Place (2018) enacts the post-apocalyptic survival story revolving around the families of Lee and Evelyn (played by John Krasinski and Emily Blunt). Entangled in a fatal hide-and-seek human hunt in an unidentified wasteland set in America, the eerily predatory monsters attempt to trace the protagonists by utilizing auditory clues to target their prey across the ravaged planet. Witnessing the tragic deprivation of their youngest child by the reptilic monstrosities, the family is reduced to a miserable, quasi-mimical way of life against the backdrop of elegiac, death-like silence.
The soundlessness of the acoustics present in the movie curiously investigates the musical notion of ‘caesura’, a grand pause during which temporal value is reappraised. In the movie, a signpost is present to keep track of the number of days after the monstrous invaders obliterated the earthlings. It is the deconstructive approach of aurality, temporality and expressivity that establishes the compelling narrative of the movie. In context of music theory, caesura is indicative of temporary periods of total silence for wind instrumentalists, such as players of horns, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums and tubas, to catch their breath. The conductors of the orchestral renditions determine the length of the duration, based on psychological factors such as the build-up of suspense or the accumulation of momentum. A Quiet Place challenges this notion by extending the caesura to an indeterminate, convoluted span; while the physical, mechanical rhythms remain ceaselessly beating, the cognitive mode of time is radically reconceptualized as the caesura reformulates human’s perception of the reality. The survivors struggle with thrill-ridden suspension that irregularly delineates or contracts time particularly under two scenarios: the passage of time is prolonged when auditory interruptions break the silence, which causes an imminent threat to loom large (e.g. shrieks of the deserted man in the woods, the screech-induced suicidal near the end); the wheel of time returning to normal when caesura is restored after defusing the crises (e.g. a mattress plugging the crack on the floor and insulating the sound of conversations against the predators ears).
The use of caesura is an attribute characterizing the late style of the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He bridges the gap between musical Classicism and early Romanticism by philosophizing the groundbreaking music concept of caesura that sheds illuminating light on the cinematography of A Quiet Place. Upon the dissipation away from life’s endgame, both Beethoven’s late art and this post-apocalyptic movie view the last human strain to seize the fragmented remnants of fleshly form in anticipation of a general spiritual reawakening. Aspects of style and motifs in Theodor Adorno’s observations of the Beethovenian late arts bear similarities to the post-cataclysmic landscape depicted in the movie. In his seminal posthumous monograph On Late Style (2006), American public intellectual Edward Said (1935-2003) proffers incisive remarks on the optimism of the catastrophic force intrinsic in Beethoven’s witty deployment of caesura. Adorno, however, centers on the negative power arisen from the “lost totality” and “unsynthesized fragmentariness” of Beethoven’s conceptualization due to the artist’s intention of auditory absence. Decidedly, Said’s reevaluation of Adorno’s perspective of artistic lateness involves three-fold dimensions: a self-propelled exile from the accepted standards; irony of death; survival beyond the status quo. It is from the third aspect that Said gains his positive reappraisal; from critiquing the negative undermining gesture of caesura, Said alternatively addresses the positivity of this tactic, asserting the caesura’s persistent musical continuity as the composer’s genius gesticulates toward eternity. This association of quietness to eternal life is the crux of the maxim of the movie: “All those survive live by one rule: never make a sound; if they hear you, they hunt you.” Analogously, one of Adorno’s quotes testifies a glimmer of hope shining out of the bleak outlook overshadowing the survivors:
Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which—alone—it glows into life. He [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal. (Essays on Music 567)
Beethoven’s prolific late life is a concomitant of his aural impairment. The deprivation of sound from the great composer’s life regenerates the artistic forces that silently protect the inner voices. Silence propelled by imposed caesuras enables creative ruminations over the bawls of life’s predictable patterns. Preserving the audible fragments and limited soundscape of remaining life, A Quiet Place enlivens the essence of Beethoven’s late creativity to mutely pray for a new state of spiritual communion with the surviving family members and the wrecked ecosystem.
Alexandra is a current student studying MSc Literature and Modernity. Her main research interest is the musicality of modernist literature, as well as the literariness of Classical music. She is now writing on how music offers alternative subjectivity to the female artists in Virginia Woolf’s fictions. Besides being a literature student, she is an amateur pianist.
Adorno, Theodor W., and Richard D. Leppert. Essays on Music. London: University of California Press, 2002.
Said, Edward W. On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.
Edited by Julian Menjivar, Dhanya Baird and Gina Maya.