Berberian Sound StudioPeter Strickland (UK 2012)Toby Jones
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 2 Sept 2012; ticket £7.00
Peter Strickland (PS) in his previous film Kataline Varga (KV) created a world invested with revenge in which the setting, the sky and landscapes of rural Romania seemed to reflect, in our subjectivity, the state of mind of the protagonist.Using the natural worldas a means of creating and suggesting mood, has an oracular quality, combining the characteristics of being simultaneously both strongly suggestive and ambiguous.KV captured these qualities folding them into the play of the film without ever fixing meaning.It is this evasive and intangible interplay of mind and nature which endows KV with its filmic movement and suppleness.
Something of the same formal concerns define Berberian Sound Studio (BSS).The protagonist of BSS Gilderoy, unlike Kataline, is a passive rather than active agent,ingested sucked into an apparatus that is designed to create a parallel world of obscene and contaminating ritual magic often expressing itself, as sound, in acts of extreme violence perpetrated on the body.I was reminded of another apparatus:the death machine in Kafka’s in the Penal Colony.
PS contrives the establishment of the sequestrated world of the sound studio with superb conviction and artistry.Set in the days of analogue sound, the eponymousstudio is inhabited by a technical crew who have a shadowy otherworldly quality.The crew Gilderoy joins are working on the Sound Track of a Gothic Horror feature filmonto which the contrived sounds of hell have to be dubbed.We never see this film.It is veiled off existing in another dimension, permitting us only to infer its nature from the demands it makes (on its technical crew) which are the cues and evidence of its nature.The only images we see from the actual source movie are from its opening title sequence.This sequence comprising graphics which deploy Medieval style woodcuts of witch hunts witch trials and the like, to introduce a world where the body is the centre of the universe and truth has to be marked in or on the body.
The structure of BSS replicates this Medaeval idea of truth in the sense that the sounds on the tracks, as they assault and confront us, cut into us.The sounds have a physicality and through their physicality, a psychic reality.Rather than just being something we hear the sound has the force of incision, of a scarification.
What we never see penetrates first body then psyche then mind.The feeling from the opening sections is of descent: watching Gilderoy’s relentless slide into unfathomable darkness;watching a man sucked down into quick sands.The studio surrounded by long corridors have the quality not of an alienation but of a nether/other world.The long corridor leading to the studioat the end of which sits the sphinx gatekeeper;the interior of the analogue sound studio with its spools cogs and bobbins all have the quality of unremitting tireless mechanical parts of the apparatus that serves some obscure function related to magic ritual rather than film production.
And so BSS reminds us of what we have always known.There is a dark magic in this art and craft of film making; this calling up of replicants and entities,Is it simply that the whole business has become so assimilated into our mechanical normalcy that we have lost sight of this essential element in movie making.And the Foley area of BSS takes on the ever more the suggestive potency of a sacraficial altar; and the lost souls, the actresses called to scream as their vaginas are penetrated by red hot pokers,calls to mind that films has always demanded sacrifices and sacrificial victims, those who have been unable to survive the devilish machinations of the industry.
But of course in BSS everything is just as it is: it is only a sound studio and any suggestion that Gilderoy is being prepared for some sort of ritual event is only a suggestive play on our minds through having seen too many movies and getting too involved in the rituals of film making that we are watching.
This establishment of the Sound Studio as an apparatus,with Gilderoy (golden king - an arche reference to pagan harvest sacrifice?)as critical to its interconnective working suggests other apparatus in which we the audience are also interconnective parts.The strong associative sound worlds which surround and intrapenetrate our lives.The world of sound in itself detached from retinal images takes on highly concentrated and accelerated intensity (noted by Marshall McCluhan)Following the news bulletins from the Iraq war, or the reports of the destruction of the towers, we are plugged into a huge apparatus projecting parellel worlds to which our defining relationship is primarily fear. The excitement of our fears feeds the apparatus which in response amplifies its output to incite further fear, until such time as the process exhausts itself and self disappears without trace, leaving the connective parts temporarily exhausted but primed for the next incitement amplification cycle.
My feeling about BSS is that PShaving established the sound machine filmic apparatus, becomes uncertain about what to do with it.
What I liked in KV was the fact that PS addressed the denouement only in terms of the forces and rules through which he had set up his filmic proposition.BSS is set up as an objectivity. We see Gilderoy as a worker in a situation, his work is beautifully counterposed by the letters from home evoking his other world. But Gilderoy has no subjectivity; we are not given his point of view or access to his state of mind.We watch him and that is what works because we have to put the apparatus together.It is the task of the viewer to understand what if anything is happening.But as BSS develops PS takes us from outside to inside Gilderoy.BSS becomes defined by what Gilderoy sees and experiences – dreams apparitions hallucinations even the letter from home – and in this realising of an internal state the original set up becomes banal.The film resorts to a Hollywood style literalism where the insecurities of the film industry mean that audience have to experience andto see what has before remained hidden. To actualise what has been only possibility.In the final sections of BSS, as PS fails to resolve his film in and on its own terms his protagonist, Gilderoy, becomes the victim of the director not of the apparatus.
For the protagonist to be victim of the writer or director is an interesting proposition if the conditions are established for the crime. But in BSS it is simply a mechanical and less interesting outcome.