Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

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BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni, Susanna Cappellaro, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Chiara D’Anna, Eugenia Caruso, Fatma Mohamed, Lara Parmiani, Hilda Péter, Katalin Ladik, Kata Bartsch, Layla Amir ..  /  Cinematog. Nicholas D. Knowland  /  Art Dir.  Sarah Finlay  /  Music  Broadcast  /  Producers  Mary Burke & Katherine Butler  /  Written & Directed by  Peter Strickland

When timid Foley & Sound Engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Italian ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ to begin work, he brings with him an innate self-effacing, parochial Britishness, which is immediately at odds with the demonstrative, fiery latins who surround him. His world is that of the Radio-Shack, spent in relative, meditative isolation amidst industrial banks of spooling tapes, flickering dials and arcane sound charts. Though expressly invited, and more than qualified for the work at hand, Gilderoy is a quiet, reclusive person, not at all equipped emotionally to deal with impassioned creative types in close quarters.. let alone the psycho-sexual world of Italian Giallo Cinema. The Berberian Sound Studio explores the tradition of dubbing and Foley work in Italian cinema, the creative process of applying voice and sound effects in post-edit.. but on a deeper level we are drawn into the clash between British and Italian sensibilities, as well as that eternal debate on the effects of violence in Cinema.

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Although there is a clear tradition of the ‘film within a film’, which goes back to the very beginning of cinema with Chaplin knocking through the fourth-wall of his Keystone set, the concept of the filmmaker himself becoming affected by his own machinations is much more a part of Sixties introspection. In 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up‘ followed David Hemmings imitation of Photographer David Bailey around Swinging London, whose ‘camera never flinches’, capturing ‘love without meaning.. murder without guilt.. the dazzle and madness of youth today.’ Not so much stealing souls with his camera, as intruding upon their private selves. The notion of capturing people on film becoming an inherently sinister activity, with Vanessa Redgrave’s insistent cry – “What are you doing? Stop it! Stop it! Give me those pictures. You can’t photograph people like that!”

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With Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom‘,  the filmmaker himself turns killer, impaling female victims on the end of a phallic, spiked tripod, only to revisit his recordings time and time again in the cozy sanctity of home projections.. “Whatever I photograph I always lose.” mournfully muses our killer. Roll forward to the early 80’s, and we arrive at Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow-out‘, essentially a reinterpretation of Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up‘, though this time around focusing on Sound rather than image.. here we have John Travolta accidentally capturing a highway accident on sound-tape, only to discover that it is actually an assassination. De Palma takes us into the world of Foley effects, with particular attention to the tenuous line between art and an actual snuff-film, as Travolta seeks the perfect female victim scream for his Horror Movie assignment.

“That’s a terrible scream. Jack, what cat did you
have to strangle to get that?” (Blow-out (1981)

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To this creative cine-spring, Director Peter Strickland pours in a generous helping of Italian Giallo, with his cast of Argento style female victims, and laces the whole piece with the arcane world of Sprechstimme, an esoteric vocal explosion of speech, singing, growling, screaming, shouting, whispering, panting and hissing. Foremost in this tradition, and inspiration behind the film’s title, is Cathy Berberian (1925-1883), an American mezzo-soprano who released a series of bizarre experimental albums (‘Visage’ in 1961 and then in 1965 ‘Sequenza III, per voce femminile’) in collaboration with her then husband composer Luciano Berio. Strickland cast a fascinating collection of vocal talents, including the 70’s year old Hungarian poet & performance artist Katalin Ladik, and the intriguingly emotive voice artist Lara Parmiani.

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This feminised world of sound reminds us of the haunting one-man-band (or one-woman band rather) Delia Derbyshire, creator of many of the strange sound effects and themes for the 60’s Doctor Who serial.. willowy, elegant, and other-worldly.. exploring dreamstates and rippling sonics tucked away in her BBC cupboard. In some senses woven into the character of Gilderoy himself. Of course, we have to add both Dario Argento and of the Italian electric band Goblin to proceedings, since it is Argento’s cult film Suspiria that is being heavily referenced throughout. Argento films more than any of his contemporaries utilised American and English stars alongside his Italian cast, to contrast and to compliment in comparison. From David Hemmings in Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), to Jessica Harper in Suspiria, and Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena.. each with that rather curious double release, one with the whole cast dubbed into Italian (the Italian speakers re-dubbing themselves), and then the same in reverse. Though this may seem strange to those uninitiated into the world of Argento’s horror work, it is nonetheless immediately familiar to most, recalling any of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.

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It’s ever been a supreme irony that exploitation cinema has tended to employ more actresses per quota than in the mainstream, whilst at the same time being shamelessly guilty of blatant sexism.. and yet, somehow Peter Strickland with Berberian Sound Studio, and his second feature ‘The Duke of Burgundy‘, has managed to explore the genre, yet elegantly critique at the same time.. Fatma Mohamed, the central female lead manages to turn the tables on Berberian’s male aggressors, and exit the fray before any retaliation for her sabotage. What we have is a melting pot of Latin femininity, filtered through a British perspective. Even the production itself depicts a fictional Italian Sound Studio on film, though in reality was filmed at The Three Mills Studio in Bow, East London. This fascination with duality that Strickland toys with, no doubt originates from his own dual heritage of both Greek & British. To twist us into a further eddy of confused location, Gilderoy is queasily sucked into the very fabric of the melting celluloid, taking us with him as the bubbling and melting filmstrip resolves itself into a 1970’s documentary about the rolling countryside of Box Hill, in England’s Surrey. This too is a double illusion, since the incredibly believable short film is in fact another Strickland forgery, with a flavour of Robin Hardy’s seminal 70’s Horror piece ‘The Wicker Man‘, peppered with Pagan symbolism.

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Ultimately all sense of reality vapourises, as Gilderoy loses his own voice entirely, Italian force-fed through his lips, quite literally dubbed out of character, his Englishness overridden.. helpless to the dictates of the Director. If it seems familiar, this loss of control to the author.. a voice in the back of your head may be whispering Dennis Potter..

“You just don’t know writers. They’ll use anything, anybody. They’ll eat their own young.”

(‘The Singing Detective’ by Dennis Potter)

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CINE-INFLUENCES

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CAST PHOTOGRAPHY

On-Set

Toby Jones   Fatma Mohamed   Eugenia Caruso

Lara Parmiani        Katalin Ladik          Susanna Cappellarom photography by Joerg Brunsendor

Chiara D'Anna Hilda Péter Tonia Sotiropoulou

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Cathy Berberian

CATHY BERBERIAN

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BROADCAST – Earlier work: Ha Ha Sound (2003)

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In Collaboration with Peter Strickland:

THE SONIC CATERING BAND – A Gourmet’s Slumber (2012)

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Katalin Ladik - Phonopoetic

KATALIN LADIK – Phonopoetica (1976)

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Delia Derbyshire 0

Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001)

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SISTERS (1973)

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SISTERS

SISTERS

Margot Kidder as Danielle & Dominique, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Bernard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Olympia Dukakis / Screenplay Brian De Palma & Louisa Rose / Original Music Bernard Herrmann / Cinematography Gregory Sandor / Editor Paul Hirsch / Produced by Edward R. Pressman / Directed by Brian De Palma

I saw a murder, and I’m going to prove it!

It’s not that Brian De Palma’s Sisters is a bad film, but rather that it makes some decidedly dubious mistakes.. or does it? Well, yes it does, but to what extent these were intentional, it’s difficult to quite decide. It’s that familiar De Palma dichotomy, to find yourself confused as to whether you are eating sirloin steak or a thick layer of cheese. Every simplicity is layered with an enigmatic undertone, whilst each bold epiphany is counter set by a certain unbelievability. This duality both attracts and frustrates the filmgoer in equal fashion.. perhaps the familiar domain of the auteur filmmaker? But one thing is certain, De Palma will not be told, and nor should he be, since we love him for his tenacity of personal vision, and utter disregard for the ordinary solution.

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It’s perhaps unfair to be too critical of Sisters, since it was nevertheless a pretty accomplished piece for a Director still finding his sea legs. Considered as the beginning of a progression of cinematic ideas, it whets the appetite very nicely.. but viewed in the singular, it somewhat stumbles and loses its footing once too often. It’s not so much a matter of yelling at the screen ‘Don’t go in there!’, but rather, ‘Who the hell would go in there?!’ Incredulous though we are throughout the story, nothing quite prepares us for the concluding journey that murder victim Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) makes for the finale, when he arrives bound-up in a sofa at a deserted station next to a Canadian cow. How do we know it’s a Canadian cow? Well, someone stuck a Canadian flag next to it. That cow seems to be the crux of the whole film, somehow.. If you believe in the cow, then you believe in the nature of the film. As avant guard touches go, that cow is a pretty wonderful one, but even David Lynch might scratch his head a little trying to justify it’s reason for being there.

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As if Ray Boulting’s Twisted Nerve hadn’t upset the disabled community enough, by creating a fearful parallel between Downs Syndrome and murderous psychotic tendencies, ‘Sisters’ managed to go one step further and tar all twins with the same phobic panic. The plot of Sisters spends much of it’s time attempting to prove whether or not Margot Kidder has a twin, which in itself is no evidence of foul play in the context of the film, nor indeed are Siamese twins particularly synonymous with mental illness. One might naturally then be perplexed as to why on earth Danielle & Dominique are in a mental hospital to begin with, and not merely in a State hospital or private clinic. Okay, this is a horror film, so we should be prepared to drift into an exaggerated reality, but still, reason and logic must still prevail, or else we enter into the absurd.

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De Palma of course had Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo in mind for his psychological study on twins and split-personality, even to the extent of convincing Hitch’s old composer Bernard Hermann to come out of retirement to write the score in direct homage. Psycho, Vertigo and Sisters all exploit mental illness, but in Hitchcock we get a clear-cut cause established for the psychosis. In Psycho we have the life-long problems associated with an overbearing mother, and Vertigo gives us Kim Novak playing the part of a damaged woman to deceive James Stewart, but winds up competing with her other self for his affections.

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With Sisters, we have an interesting little dynamic which adds a curious series of flips to the usual Hitchcock archetypes. On the surface we’re presented with a straightforward good twin / evil twin situation, but then we come to realise that these twins were once conjoined, now separated. This might be fuel enough for a study on identity, but De Palma doesn’t stop there, he throws another spanner into the works *Spoiler Alert*, by revealing that the ‘bad’ twin died years earlier during an operation to separate the two. Also, given that we learn of the sexual advances of the twin’s Doctor towards one twin, whilst drugging the other for sexual ‘privacy’, we come to realise that the bad twin had every reason in the world to turn out a wee bit funny in the head. Flip once more, considering that when the surviving ‘good twin’ has her little murderous episodes and becomes her ‘evil’ twin, she is in actual fact acting out how she believes her sister would be, but in actual fact it could be said that this so called good twin, was always the evil, considering the lengths she would go to for some ‘alone time’ with her Doctor lover. Indeed, we even discover in flashback that the Doctor favoured his lover in the separation, sealing the sad fate of the other to die on the operating table.

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Shot in a low-budget tv style, Sisters mirrors elements of the Psycho ‘look’, which Hitch developed out of necessity, when Studio concerns over his alarming subject matter reduced him to shooting Psycho on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents Tv Lott. Somehow the impression I get with Sisters though, is more that of a Columbo murder mystery, with it’s 1970’s haircuts and sense of camera off on a wander in search of clues. Especially since we have this long build up to the murder after half an hour or so, which is plotted out with hints and mistakes for our reporter to follow up later on. Not that Columbo had to deal with too many dangerous paranoid schizophrenics.

Sisters - Onset

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