Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 16, 2013 3:40 am 
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TOBY JONES IN BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIOS

Trapped in a movie he's editing: this delight for film history buffs will leave many viewers cold

The English director Peter Strickland's unusual little film Berberian Sound Studio stars the character actor Toby Jones in a kind of nostalgic psychological monodrama set in the heyday of Italian schlock horror film. He's Gilderoy, a sound man who's been brought over from England to add class to the post-editing of something with the word "Equestrian" in the title. Having just finished a discreet documentary about the Yorkshire countryside, Gilderoy had expected something outdoorsy and nice. Instead he gets "the kind of revenge-of-the-witch potboiler Lucio Fulci could have knocked out during his prolific heyday" (AV Club). Gilderoy is out of his element. Evoking the crushing of body parts and sizzling of flesh -- this seems not only a horror film but an unusually brutal one -- becomes very disturbing subject matter for Gilderoy to be constantly immersed in. Missing his loved one in Dorking, feeling lost and alone, he's increasingly uncomfortable and trapped. And he's also being bilked: they won't even reimburse him for his flight over. Forced to tune up screams and smash cabbages to evoke violently mangled body parts, including a "hot poker into the vagina" and a woman dipped into boiling water, continually abused and mocked, Gilderoy is immersed in his own horror movie. If only the other (mostly Italian) actors were as subtle and modulated as Jones and the action were not ultimately so repetitious, this would be a genre-busting masterpiece. As it is it's a finely crafted homage to genre and to the pre-digital era, a film scholar's delight -- but ultimately a disappointment for the ordinary moviegoer.

It's fun to dip back into the world of tape and be reminded of the importance of sound in movies, especially the scary kind. A big part of the oddity is that the movie is largely in Italian with Italian actors, but it was made in London. Maybe that is why the performances of Cosimo Fusco, as the brutal, abusive producer-supervisor, Antonio Mancino as the preening, self-deluded seducer of a director, and Tonia Sotiropoulou as the beautiful but remote and lazy secretary are so broadly drawn they undermine credibility, though it's also possible Strickland wants to maintain an uneasy equilibrium between dramatic tension and mockery -- or suggest the studio and everything in it is Gilderoy's grotesque nightmare. Which he very largely does. One thing is sure: the interplay between sound and the period techniques of tweaking it provides an over-heightened awareness of technique.

In an interview Strickland shows broad knowledge of "Giallo" films, and points out that avant-garde composers wrote music for them. "Some of the Giallo soundtracks," he says, "were very advanced for the time with their use of drone, musique concrète, free jazz and dissonance. The music of Bruno Maderna, Ennio Morricone and Gruppo di Improvisazione Nuova Consonanza existed in the same high art camp as Stockhausen, Cage or AMM, but then these guys were making money on the side. . ." The plotline seems to have been added later, Gilderoy used as a point of reference as much as anything else. Strickland was drawn to the ridiculousness of horrific screams (and this film has many screamers, some tormented by the producer) coming together on the Giallo foley stage with smashed vegetables. He was also fascinated by the rich visual aspects of the analogue sound studios with their "racks of oscillators, filters and oscilloscopes; the tape boxes and dubbing charts." He tried as much as possible to recreate a sound studio of the period and to find real equipment. This conversation shows how much the attention to period technical aspects is designed to appeal to connoisseurs of this aspect of film history. The general viewer may lose interest midway along.

In the interview Strickland shows he's fully recognizant of Toby Jones' subtle, understated, and fully committed contribution to the film, but that doesn't keep equipment and technical references from absorbing far more of his attention than the human aspects. This is a film nerd's delight, and rave reviews bear that out. But in his attention to detail, Strickland somewhat loses touch with the whole and to the potential of the story he is telling about the trapped soundscapist. This is borne out in Berberian's circular structure and muddled finale, which seems to sidestep or move beyond an obvious, but effective, "it-was-all-a-bad-dream" ending. Alas, Kafka Strickland is not.

This is Stickland's second feature. His first was Katalin Varga (2009), set in the Carpathian mountains. I saw it in London and wrote, "A brutal revenge tale written and directed by English newcomer Strickland and filmed in Romanian, this was the Silver Bear winner in Berlin this year. Somewhat dubious tale, but effectively stark style."

Berberian Sound Studio, 92 mins., debuted at Edinburgh, opened in the UK in June 2012. US release began 14 June 2013 (IFC Center, NYC, following an Oct. 2012 NYFF-related Lincon Center showing).

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