Jean-Luc Godard once famously quipped something to the effect that “the history of the movies is the story of boys looking at girls.” That could be the motto for a small but rich sub-genre of films: near-plotless accounts of young male romantics ambling through picturesque cities, fixating on one beautiful stranger after the next, yet opening up to none of them, consoling themselves with their own private epiphanies while remaining essentially alone. The prototype perhaps is Bresson’s Paris-set Four Nights of a Dreamer, with José Luis Guerín’s beguiling In the City of Sylvia its closest modern-day successor—but the father of them all was Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence, a micro-budget slice of New American Cinema shot on ragged black-and-white 16mm between 1962 and 1965. Set in the streets, bars, and cheap apartment buildings of New York, and starring a handful of the director’s friends and whatever passersby the camera happened to catch, it's filmed with the resources of a guerrilla documentarian and shot with the eye of a poet.
It’s structured as a series of 15 loosely-related vignettes, each introduced by a hand-drawn title card, a watercolor painting, and a short montage of stills drawn from elsewhere in the film. Those brief photo-montages are among the rare instances when Echoes of Silence takes on any awareness of the past or future. Elsewhere, Goldman’s characters—Miguel, equally pathetic and predatory; Stasia, beautiful but desperate; and Viraj, struggling with his repressed homosexuality—seem interested only in immediate pleasure, brief sustenance, or at least temporary relief from their deep-seated loneliness. Few films have captured so convincingly what it is like to feel isolated in the company of millions of people. Few, too, are as well-named: Echoes is completely dialogue-free, but never silent. In place of diegetic sound, there’s an omnipresent jazz soundtrack: we might not hear Miguel’s conversations, but we certainly hear the twitchy, stop-start rhythms inside his head.
Goldman’s restless, roving camerawork anticipates the first-person, experiential shooting style that the filmmaker’s friend Jonas Mekas was just then adopting. In the daytime opening scenes, set on a packed New York sidewalk, the camera darts with Miguel’s eyes from face to face, picking out young women from the crowd, lingering on loose strands of hair and napes of necks, shimmying up and down their legs. Later on, when Stasia goes to a dimly lit party, it catches her face half-illuminated by the faint glow of a candle and half lost in shadow, dances alongside her and her newfound partner, mimics their caresses, then watches with longing as they disappear into the dark—the brief elation over the man she did choose replaced by the more familiar frustration of the man she didn’t.
We’re asked to inhabit Miguel’s way of seeing in much the same way, but also to regard it skeptically, even critically. He’s not viewed with the same degree of sympathy as Stasia—who, in one of the film’s most disturbing setpieces, hooks up with an overweight john for 25 dollars in a decaying art studio—because his is the sort of loneliness that, rather than being exploited, itself exploits, manipulates, controls. In one vignette he wanders among the European painting collections at the Met and glances between three potential lovers like a discerning connoisseur, his eye for beauty completely inseparable from his desire for human interaction. Goldman, too, often gets caught up in looking at people as if they were flesh-and-blood objects of aesthetic enjoyment; unlike Miguel, he does so with self-awareness and more than a little self-deprecation. An early scene in which the camera lingers over three young women as they apply makeup is especially unsettling: we watch them transform themselves into works of art not only for the consumption of men like Miguel, but for the sake of the camera—and by extension for us.
The film’s lengthiest sequence involves an extended one-night stand between Miguel and an unnamed girl—identified by the title card simply as one “he doesn’t like.” It opens with an excruciatingly prolonged lead-up, with a lot of sitting down and standing, lighting of cigarettes, fretful pacing, unfinished gestures, and arms being pushed away. In one shot of Miguel staring up at the ceiling mid-embrace, his face stretched into something closer to anguish than satisfaction, Goldman comes dangerously close to overplaying his hand. Then the girl gets out of bed and enters the bathroom, profiled by a dim light just above the mirror. She gazes at her reflection and looks close to tears; he gets up and puts his arms around her. Then, in a moment as organic and liberating as any I’ve seen in the movies, they both break out grinning, and start to laugh.
That instant speaks volumes about Goldman’s approach here, which—for all its well-placed distrust towards men like Miguel—is characterized above all by its profound sympathy for the lonely and the alone. In one scene mid-film, Viraj returns with a male friend from a disappointing night out. They go to sleep less than an arm’s length apart. Tentatively, Viraj reaches out and grazes the exposed back of his friend, who gives a start and shifts his weight. Stretching his arm out again, Viraj takes hold of the sleeper’s hand. The man wakes, but doesn’t recoil. From there, the scene slowly develops into an exquisite and understated dance between two people equally in need of human connection, and equally afraid of it. It’s a brief—and very welcome—meeting of souls in a film where souls very rarely meet.