Sunday, October 7, 2012

Giallo's Humor: Berberian Sound Studio in the midnight lineup of the 2012 New York Film Festival (50th Anniversary)

While most films call for the viewer to suspend disbelief and look at what is onscreen as one seamless, unbroken conception of reality, Berberian Sound Studio, the alchemical creation of Peter Strickland, strips away the layers of a feature film and zeroes our attention in on one aspect in particular, sound. The movie brings us to the set of a 1970s Giallo (term commonly used for exploitation suspense, mystery and horror films made in Italy that flourished most in the ‘70s) with a pronounced absence of digital technology. We are confronted with the methods that came before: heads of lettuce and watermelon hacked and ripped asunder, frying pans sizzling, and real life damsels confined to cramped booths shrieking. These are some of the means of simulating the audio component of terror that are shown accompanying the visuals, all recorded onto large, unwieldly cylinders of celluloid, which clicks and hums its way through giant steel projectors.

We come upon this recording session by way of a British sound engineering pro, Gilderoy as he arrives at the Italian production company's offices, having been recruited to carry out the recording of the latest film by a notorious Italian B horror director, Santini. The quizically titled production is called The Equestrian Vortex, and one of Berberian's early delights is the showing of
a tantalizing trailer for the film within the film, immaculately capturing the playful yet macabre tone and spirit of just that sort of movie that was made in those times) It soon becomes apparent that Gilderoy's assignment will not be an easy one. Along with the trials associated with the meticulous and time consuming recording processes of the times are the volatile conditions of production under the lead of the unscrupulous Santini,whose excessive urges are met with little restraint, and his shrewd yet domineering producer.

The sensory pleasures of arcane production methods being lovingly brought into our consciousness is one mode that Berberian Sound Studio functions in. The other details a descent into madness that blurs the line between real life and onscreen invention for its put upon protagonist, and by extension, the audience. In a brilliant bit of casting, Gilderoy is portrayed by Toby Jones. His is a name that may not be readily associated with many lead roles, but he has worked the full spectrum of fantasy genre films, lending his character acting skills to Captain America: The First Avenger, The Hunger Games, and various others. 

Here he channels a plight parallel to that of the lead from Barton Fink, trapped against his will in the midst of a suffocating production with an increasingly fractured perception of reality. Add to this a dash of the sort of chaste outsider figure that appeared as the unwitting lead in The Wickerman who, once stranded in a foreign land, is besieged by the unrepentant hedonistic ways of those he is surrounded by.

Director Strickland makes great use of the aforementioned sound forging techniques, as well as disorienting visuals, which finds the darkened work space where most of the film takes place becomes more and more claustrophobic as the film progresses. In a near cyclical fashion, screams ring out from a screen that is eclipsed by pitch blackness. Several times this threatens (or for those not faring well with the film’s rattling effects, offers a false promise) to bring the film to an end. The sequences that turn the film we are watching and the one Gilderoy has been drafted to complete inside out are quite extraordinary, some of the most imaginative I have seen employed.  This is truly a film you experience, and not one you watch comfortably to follow a plot through to its logical conclusion.

And what of the humor hinted at above? It is certainly there, but black as can be and as dry as one could hope from a British production. There is Gilderoy’s awkward interactions with his hosts’ fantastically exotic mannerisms, letters from home that detail a saccharine countryside quaintness before taking a gruesome turn, and the over the top wretchedness depicted in Santini’s film (which we only learn of via production notes) plus the nonchalant explanation of its rather curious title. No instance is entirely innocent, and for every time a chuckle emerges from somewhere in the theater, there are bound to be shudders rippling through those who feel genuine discomfort and disgust.     

As the credits rolled, I was taken by surprise (although it makes good sense) to see the UK band Broadcast was responsible for much of the film’s soundtrack. They were a wonderful group (for most of their career a duo) that dabbled in all manner of psychedelic, analog electronic and vintage pop sounds until activity was halted by singer Trish Keenan’s devastating and untimely death. Their most recent activity found them collaborating with Julian House (another individual who worked on this film) on sounds that explored themes of witchcraft and the occult. It was nice to be able to view Berberian Sound Studio, in part, as an extension of this work. In fact many a staple of Britian’s experimental music scene, including Nurse With Wound, contributed to the soundtrack, which according to Strickland, should be released by Warp Records early next year. I cannot wait to experience the film again, the next time focusing more on surprises like this that caught me off guard the first time around.

After the screening Associate Program Director of The Film Society of Lincoln Center Scott Foundas discussed the film with Strickland before turning the questions over to the audience. Below are a few clips from the earlier part of their discussion. He discusses musical influences, such as vocal artist Cathy Berberian (no doubt referenced in the movie's title), his passion  and curiosity toward these earlier film making conditions, and coming to work with Toby Jones.

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