Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part III): Berberian Sound Studio (2012) dir. Peter Strickland

Logline: In this 1970s period piece, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a successful sound engineer of English nature documentaries, is invited to Italy's Berberian Sound Studio by the director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to work on his latest film. Though initially excited about the prospect of working on a narrative film with a renowned filmmaker, the meek and mild Gilderoy is soon put off by the complex hostility of the Italian film industry and the grisly tasks he's asked to perform to create the film's sound. What Gilderoy wasn't informed of is that Santini's latest film, The Equestrian Vortex, is a graphic horror film, and thus the sound engineer's increasing complicity in bringing to aural life the sickening images on screen is having a frightful effect on his sanity.

Analysis: Italian horror cinema of the 1970s was, in a sense, the apex of queasy on-screen violence. Certainly, horror films in the decades since have sought and succeeded to increase the sheer level of bloodshed on display, but as the '70s bled over into the '80s and on, what were once startling moments of stylized physical violence (occupying a realm halfway between delirious fantasy and sober reality) transformed into the cartoonish excesses of modern cinematic gore. We necessarily remain at a distance from cartoon violence, but the brutal hacking and slashing seen in Italian gialli like Deep Red (1975) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) was (when compared to that of their international contemporaries) impossible not to feel the visceral effect of. Even today the violence in these battered and aged Italian gialli has the power to shock viewers in a way that the goopiest modern torture porn horror cannot. With an unmatched sleazy ferocity, '70s Italian horror broke the taboos first.

In part, Berberian Sound Studio ponders the effects of such violence on those souls who labored to create it. It asks: could anything but a film industry full of monsters produce this sadistic breed of cinema? This is a criticism that's often been lodged against the likes of Argento, Fulci, and Martino, and it's a possibility that Peter Strickland's film finds fascinating to explore. We watch as Gilderoy feebly attempts to maneuver his way within an industry that is as callous and insensitive towards its financial debts as it is towards cinematic depictions of vaginal rape with a branding iron. When not popping champagne corks in honor of undefined celebrations, those in charge of the Italian movie-making machine are grinding up the human beings in their employ, disposing of them if and when they refuse to be the mere objects they're required to be for the production's sake. If not monsters-- the film appears to argue-- then these films couldn't have been created by anything but desensitized automatons, psychologically oblivious to the carnage they're wreaking on screen.

Yet, what sounds like a rather puritanical blanket condemnation of '70s Italian horror and its producers grows more complex when considered in light of Gilderoy's evolution over the length of the film. Initially, Gilderoy (a stuffy Englishman, naturally) is horrified and repulsed by the images he's forced to gaze at day after day during his employment at the studio. His halfhearted attempts to create the soundtrack to the film's murders eventually give way to outright defiance: Gilderoy can't will himself to be complicit, as if his refusal or failure to provide the required foley effects could spare the on-screen victims their fates. But as his frustration with his bosses and his situation grows, Gilderoy slowly begins to embrace the cinematic violence, insofar that he begins to lose himself in the images of the film. Soon enough, he's watching himself in horror movie situations that play out on the screen in front of him. Reality and fantasy enmesh, and Gilderoy emerges from the collision as another one of those cold-blooded movie-making automatons. (Appropriately, he also emerges magically fluent in Italian.) At the film's ear-piercing climax, Gilderoy sadistically employs his trade to cause violence to another member of the crew for the alleged benefit of the film. Immediately after Gilderoy has sunk to this new low, the camera moves in to find tears crowding his eyes with regret, and we watch as he wanders over to attempt communion, perhaps reconciliation, with the movie screen he's been battling all along. 

Perhaps in the end the film is an essentially moral one, arguing against the bloody misanthropy on display in Italian horror and the potential detriments it might bring into the psychological lives of its makers (not to mention its audience). But, at the same time, the film recognizes the allure of cinematic violence and the inherent temptation we feel to wallow in it: we can't forget that Gilderoy was smiling as he tortured another human being with his deafening sound waves, as if he were one of The Equestrian Vortex's inquisitors "interrogating" an accused witch. The Italian horror film that inspired his psychosis is appalling, certainly, and probably not of the artistic merit that its director claims, but it's essentially innocent. As a piece of lifeless cinema, it doesn't command his actions or dictate his thoughts. Ultimately, Gilderoy's failure is his inability to distinguish the screen from reality and cinematic violence from actual violence. Through negative example, perhaps the film hopes we fair better.

Technical Merits: One would expect that a film about the creation of sound would itself have expert sound design. Berberian Sound Studio does not fail on this count. Though it expresses an occasional affection for the bombastic scores of Italian soundtrack stalwarts like Morricone, Nicolai, and Cipriani (courtesy of the English band Broadcast), much of the film's sound design is deliberately subdued, placing ambient noises (those real, imagined, and manufactured) at the forefront. Thus, sonic tensions run high. Strickland's film has the distinction of employing sound as a physical weapon, both within the film and without.

Humorously, Strickland also undermines our expectations by never allowing us to glimpse a single frame of The Equestrian Vortex, the horror film within the horror film (beyond its stylish, solarized opening credits, that is). We've come to a horror film (of two sorts), and yet we're denied any bloodshed. How rude. Or perhaps not: the film's greatest visual merit is its fixation on the gory remains of the assorted fruits and vegetables that Gilderoy and his assistant foley artists massacre for their sound effects. As the lingering, nauseating closeups of the putrid, rotting husks of melons and turnips remind us, there are real victims of violence here, if not those we expect.

Relevance: If nothing else, the film is indisputably about the production of horror films, and specifically that unique moment in European genre cinema in which entire films were captured without live sound and instead employed the work of gifted sound engineers, foley artists, and voice actors to create the films' post-synced soundtracks. The effort and talent that went into producing all the sound for these countless genre classics have been largely ignored in favor of praise for the delirious cinematography of the era. I think Berberian Sound Studio successfully corrects this oversight by deftly demonstrating how these sound practitioners could manipulate the silliest of audio recordings into the truly horrific.

You might scoff at my contention that Berberian Sound Studio is itself a horror film, but I believe I have enough evidence on my side. In spite of whatever reservations Strickland might have about horror cinema, his film is clearly modeled after the Italian giallo (and his film within the film, The Equestrian Vortex, obviously derived from Suspiria (1977), that supernatural giallo supreme). Impressively, Strickland manages to imbue his film with the mood and atmosphere of a giallo without ever fully slipping into the subgenre's cliches. We encounter shady characters, implied sexual violence, a descent into psychosis, and a late night stalking with a blade, but all of these moments are approached from directions grounded (more or less) in quasi-reality, as if the film were coming at the giallo's tropes sideways. An example: The physical violence, as noted above, is vegetal. It's a humorous employment of the giallo's elements that provides them for us while denying us their full expression. Like the figure we see switching out reels in the titular studio, we sense that a fiend in black leather gloves is running Strickland's projector, too.

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