Joss Whedon, The Silent Era, & "Hush"
Over the past few months, I’ve been indulging in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the iconic horror behemoth from Joss Whedon, Creator of Cool. As a fan of the horror genre and everything the man has made, this is a series I have been meaning to watch for years, and it wasn’t until recently that I made the decision to abandon all priorities and take the plunge. Some days I watch more than five episodes, some days only one, and sometimes I go weeks at a time without watching it at all, but it’s nice to know that there’s a long-term story unfolding and I have the opportunity to access it whenever I please.
Thankfully, Buffy is better than I ever could have imagined. The first season was entertaining but a drag, but seasons two and three are some of the best television I’ve ever seen (not so much in the production department but in the character department). Joss’ realization of his characters shines through the best parts of his series, and when the credits read “Written and directed by Joss Whedon,” you know you’re in for a treat.
That’s why I was so thrilled to see Whedon’s name appear on the opening credits of the tenth episode of season four, entitled “Hush,” a personal episode for writer/director, who managed to make this sandwiched episode its own experimental short film, one that will live on as perhaps one of the finest standalone episodes of any television series.
From the opening sequence (Buffy dreaming about Professor Walsh lecturing her class on language), “Hush” lets its characters’ personal arcs take a backseat for an episode that centers on a certain group of new baddies that still hold up to this day as some of the creepiest villains on TV, and some of the most creative monsters in the show’s entire run. But Joss has done evil monsters before, so what makes this particular Buffy episode so special? Joss’ determination to break the mold of TV and create something that hasn’t been done for ages: silent cinema.
Whedon is an unabashed fan of other forms of entertainment, whether it be classic Shakespeare (see his exceptional take on Much Ado About Nothing) or theater (his parents were very involved on the stage); but what’s clear from “Hush” is that he has another fascination, and this is of one of cinema’s grandest eras. When we think of the silent era today, we think of channels like TCM, who, thankfully, manage to provide us with essential silent films from the early 1900s which, without them, we would not have movies as we know them today. We also think of Charlie Chaplin, whether it be the name or his signature character The Tramp, regardless, we think of him.
Whedon understood that silent cinema wasn’t just limited to Chaplin-esque comedies, relying on body language and dialogue cards to provide laughs, but rather that the medium was once home for some of the greatest films of various genres. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of cinema’s most popular entries, and it’s easily the one of the most popular to emerge from the era, but it’s more realistic to assume that Whedon’s intention while writing “Hush” was to tribute Chaplin (The Scooby Gang relies on each other’s body language), and also one of the finest science-fiction films of all time, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Metropolis, a masterpiece that still stuns to this day, is in contention for my favorite science fiction film. It’s up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind simply because of the way in which it utilizes the medium to tell an effective story. Metropolis follows a young man who inhabits a futuristic city which is beautiful and luxurious above ground thanks to laboring, mistreated workers below. When this man discovers the truth of his society, he leads a revolution.
Still, to this day, its biting social commentary is beyond relevant, and it has maintained such a close cult-following because the people who love it understand just how impactful science-fiction can be when its message is true and unchanging. Metropolis isn’t just a great science-fiction film; it’s a great silent film. It gets the message across without one person speaking a word, relying on title cards to relay some messages but often just requiring actors to actually act and convince an audience that something is about to happen because we are seeing it happen, not hearing it.
As someone who appreciates cinema as an art form, I was head-over-heels in love with “Hush” as it unfolded, because Whedon, who is known for turning genres on their heads, took his baby (this series was his from the beginning) and removed the one thing that made it so great: the witty dialogue. Even people who haven’t seen an episode of Buffy can understand that Whedon is good at writing dialogue. Almost half of The Avengers is quotable, and every other film he has been involved with has his trademark wit at every turn.
With “Hush,” Whedon twisted his audience’s reliance on dialogue and instead showed them that writing witty banter wasn’t his only specialty. Whedon is good at writing, whether that be characters, dialogue, or, as “Hush” shows us, body language. There is an excellent moment in this episode when Xander attacks Spike because of a miscommunication, only to see Spike try and tell him through body language that he misunderstood, and the two eventually make up with each other and not a single word is spoken.
This is what makes cinema so great. Movies are “moving pictures,” and whether those pictures are accompanied by audible dialogue or not is irrelevant. Cinema was created to show us stories through images, and as “Hush” reminds us, we don’t always need to hear what characters are saying to hear them say it.