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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PEEPING TOM (1959)

PEEPING TOM (1959) Moira Shearer

PEEPING TOM

‘Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?’

Karlheinz Bohm, Anna Massey, Moira Sheaer, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Jack Watson, Pamela Green / Screenplay Leo Marks / Soundtrack Brian Easdale / Cinematography Otto Heller / Produced & Directed Michael Powell

Whilst Britain dragged it’s feet through a monotony of drab, ‘keep the home fires burning’ war stories, Powell & Pressburger almost singlehandedly kept the British Film Industry afloat with a series of bold masterpieces. Despite a wealth of literary, theatrical and poetic traditions to draw inspiration from, British cinema had begun to idle in a routine of dusty, formulaic productions, with just the occasional flashes of inspiration from the likes of David Lean and a certain Mr.Hitchcock. Director Michael Powell & Hungarian Producer Emerick Pressburger confronted this lingering malaise with a series of passionate films that luxuriated in gorgeous colour experiments and provocative subject matter: ‘A Matter of Life & Death’, ‘Colonel Blimp’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Black Narcissus’, and most subversive of all, Powell’s solo project ‘Peeping Tom’ (1959). With the New Wave set to engulf the entire world’s artistic communities, the transition for a still somewhat Victorian Britain would not be an easy one, and Powell would ultimately pay the price for his creative efforts.

Screenwriter Leo Marks approached Powell with the initial idea for Peeping Tom, a short story about a voyeur who kills what he observes. Grounded quite literally in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey .. ‘For let it be known, that each man kills the thing he loves. Some do it with a bitter tongue, some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss. The brave man with a sword.’ Powell had been seeking a pet project to sink his teeth into, and took the project to heart. Understand, that for Powell to even consider such a topic was shocking. P&P may have been a groundbreaking team, but they were nonetheless solidly rooted in the establishment. Inevitably the critics were going to ask why a Director of such quality would waste his time on such trash? But, as with Chaplin’s ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ & Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, nothing of any worth has ever been produced by taking the easy path.

The screenplay presents us with cameraman, Mark Lewis who kills his subjects in search of capturing their most extreme moments of fear.. an attempt to make the ultimate snuff film. The product of an abusive childhood at the hands of his Psychiatrist father, a sociopath who used his son as a test subject in his studies into the human fear response. Filming his son’s every childhood moment, inducing fearful situations & ultimately imprinting upon the son his own Scoptophiliac voyeuristic obsession. Powell makes Mark a very modern madman though – quite unlike any Norman Bates or other such character of the period, being in full possession of his faculties and most importantly, the knowledge of how his compulsion came about. He explains to Helen (Anna Massey) and thusly to us his observers what his father did to him, and we feel sympathy for his case..that if only the right girl came along, then he wouldn’t have to do all this unpleasant killing.. then our minds chastise us for sympathising with this murderer. This is essentially what worked the critics up into such a sweat, and at the same time casts it in such a modern light. The lines are blurred, forcing the audience to recognize the grey area wherein the killer is also the victim..that monsters aren’t born, but are rather a product of the worlds in which they find themselves.

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Mark’s lair, to which he brings his prized films for processing is the loft of a suburban house where he lives a secretive existance, seperate from the fellow residents who unbenownst to them is actually their landlord. ‘..but you walk about as if you haven’t paid the rent.’ exclaims a puzzled but intrigued Helen from the groundfloor flat. In Helen we have a rational attempt to probe the killer’s psyche. ‘I like to understand what I’m shown.’ she urges, drawn in by the mystery that we ourselves have a horrible fascination for. ‘This is..well..so many things..it’s so..completely unexpected.’ Helen’s mother is a blind, house bound Maxine Audley, prone to drunkeness, and instant threat to Mark’s visual bias. She bids Mark take her to his cinema.. and being that his films are silent, he is briefly able to project his secrets before an unknowing audience, but her closeness to Helen protects her from any serious harm. Moira Shearer doesn’t fare quite so well, falling prey to Mark’s killing camera. Her fate mirrored by her role in the earlier P&P film ‘The Red Shoes’, where she again dies for art’s sake.

The childhood incarnation of Mark, as shown to us by way of home movies was portrayed by Powell’s own son, and Powell himself is momentarily seen in turn as Mark’s father. The effect is somewhat autobiographical then, and provided more fuel for the film’s critics upon release. On the cabinet in Mark’s dark room sits Powell’s first camera, and Mark’s name is merely Leo Mark’s surname (the author of the screenplay). Such interactions between life & art are commonplace in cinema today..fuel for the DVD featurettes. The revelation that Mel Gibson insisted it be his own hands to hammer the nails for the crucifiction scene in his ‘The Passion’ is infinately more suspect to me than Powell’s use of his own son for a scene or two, that seems more disturbing on film than it was no doubt to act.

Shot in wonderful old Eastman colour by Otto Heller (Ipcress File, Ladykillers, Alfie..) Peeping Tom has more tricks up it’s sleeve than a blog can fairly explore: A biting criticism of Studio System production; Early prediction of the importance of street, hand held filmmaking (Cinema Verite); Use of overheard soundtrack (borrowing from incidental record players, tape recorders & street sounds), later used to high effect in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.. and so on.. At the time though, all the critics could see was an attack on their cosy cinematic world, and they lashed out with a tirade of vitriolic abuse for Powell and his creation that verged on the hysterical. With the revolutions of the 60’s just around the corner, their last act was to consign Peeping Tom to the scrapheap & oust Powell from British cinema. The filmset that Mark works at in ‘Peeping Tom’ is shooting a film by the precient title of ‘The Walls are Closing in’.. For Powell & the 1950’s.

The film’s influences on later cinema are numerous, from Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up’ & Brian DePalma’s ‘Body Double’..Hywell Bennett’s whistling killer in ‘Twisted Nerve’ (which in turn found it’s way into Tarantino’s Kill Bill) and Scorsese sights Powell as a major influence on his development (personally paying for Peeping Tom’s re-release after nearly 40 years in obscurity).

I’ll leave the finale of ‘Peeping Tom’ a secret for those who have yet to experience ‘..what the most frightening thing in the world is.’

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NEGATIVE REVIEWS

‘In the three and a half months since my name last appeared at the
head of this page I have carted my travel-stained carcase to (among
other places) some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But
nothing, nothing, nothing – neither the hopeless leper colonies of East
Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta – has
left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week
while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom..’

Daily Express – 8th April 1960

‘The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom
would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest
sewer. Even then the stench would remain.’

THE TRIBUNE 29th April 1960

Sunday Times 1994 apology

‘Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country’s most distinguished film-makers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist. The original story and screenplay come from Leo Marks; at their centre is a cameraman (played by Carl Boehm) whose scientist father used him in childhood in a study of fear. The boy grows up obsessed by images of the human face frozen in extremes of terror. He multiplies them by himself photographing death, and, in fact, becoming a multiple killer. With so gifted a director this can hardly be anything but a frightening movie, but its object is the examination of emotion and not titillation. Interesting that it should be revived now when there has been much concern about the influence of cinema. All the more reason to distinguish between the serious and the merely sensational horror. Reading now what I wrote in 1960 I find that, despite my efforts to express revulsion, nearly everything I said conceals the extraordinary quality of Peeping Tom.’

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