Sunday, November 11, 2012

Berberian Sound Studio

This is unashamedly unconventional, and very specific. Using (mostly) just diegetic sound from the post-production of a fictional mid-70s Italian horror movie, Peter Strickland has followed his superb debut, Katalin Varga [2009], with a largely non-narrative nightmare hymn both to the electronic soundtrack experiments of that time, and to the gorgeous analogue gear that made such arcane chantries of the era’s recording studios.

The monoymous Gilderoy is an unassuming English soundman, brought over to Italy to supervise the dubbing and foley for a particularly nasty-sounding horror film, The Equestrian Vortex [1976]. It seems to be rather outside his normal line of naturalist recordings, and when asked why he was hired, he appears not to know. Nor do we. Nor do we really know why there is such an air of unease about the dark studio, the monumentally unhelpful secretary, the snappish producer, and the slick director. There’s even a projectionist of whom we see only the black leather-gloved hand.

But unease there is, occasionally offset by bucolic glimpses of home through letters from Gilderoy’s mum, a lovely snap of his recording studio shed, and some of his previous, rolling hills project. He is out of place, increasingly disturbed by the film he’s working on, and by the barely-understood hostility from and amongst the Italians. The repeated screams and witches’ mantras work their effect and, we can only assume, he goes mad.

Production design is by Jennifer Kernke, who started with the Quays' Instituta Benjamenta [1995]. DP here Nic Knowland was also on that one, having been kicking around doing a lot of interesting stuff since the late sixties. The conjured world is quite something, and Strickland keeps us locked in it. A number of sly cuts conflate the geography so that even Gilderoy’s bedsit seems physically joined to this black cloister. But beyond the fantastic, fetishistic close-ups of vintage recording equipment, and numerous pans across Gilderoy’s complex working charts (they’re great, but repeated), the physical takes second place to the audible. The uncanny nature of the soundtrack being worked on is heightened by the fact that we see no more of The Equestrian Vortex than its credits. The audio is quite enough to convey its gruesomeness, even as we see it being created by a hulking, bearded Italian with a load of vegetables. Strickland flatly contradicts his Italian director’s blithe statement that he has a duty to put man’s capacity for brutality onscreen; as Val Lewton preached, our imagination is more than capable of doing the work, and we can share some of Gilderoy’s disquiet both at the material, and at how the film-makers are so unphased by it.

As the slippery editing indicates early on, the film is aiming to affect in a way that requires close-read comprehension to be checked at the door, which makes it rather like poetry. We are in the mindset of the increasingly perturbed and disturbed Gilderoy. Uncanny intrusions such as the repeatedly flashing “SILENZIO” above the studio door, or the disembodied “don’t let them hurt me”, presage a transition to full-on subjectivity , as reality drops away altogether in a delirious audio-visual montage. We’re looped back to earlier scenes, with Gilderoy now dubbed in Italian, and it’s to the great credit of Toby Jones’ quiet, formidable art, that he can keep an humanity alive at the center of all this electro-horror. On set, he was apparently given little help by Strickland, but the film does provide a lovely scene where he quietly gets to demonstrate his particular brilliance during a power cut). His small, subtle gestures, and the reserves of feeling behind that polite, sadsack face, are no match for the film’s mash-up trippiness finale, however. When the machines come on on their own in the deserted studio, and Gilderoy steps into the light, it means nothing more to us than as an obvious way to tie things up.

I hear this film coined a new term, whether you like labels or not. Tumblrcore can count amongst its pioneers Amer [2009], Beyond the Black Rainbow [2010], before the fact of course Tarantino, and then his mutant offspring Wes Anderson – all the stuff you like and obsess over in movies/pop culture all in one place (gotta have the music just right too). Without a dramatic narrative this can be a real trip, but one has to submit to it. Named for Cathy Berberian, a singer and composer obscure enough to have been composed for by Anthony Burgess, as an audio-visual atmosphere and environment this is terrific (soundtrack and sonic recreations by Broadcast), as are the looming shadows and all those close-ups (from bubbling-under DP Nicholas D. Knowland), and it’s got to be great to listen to high. If you’ve interest and empathy, it’s pretty much cool as fuck, but there is nothing here of substance.

d/sc Peter Strickland p Mary Burke, Kieth Griffiths ph Nicholas D. Knowland ed Chris Dickens pd Jennifer Kernke m Broadcast cast Tobey Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro, Layla Amir
(2012, UK, 92m)
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