Monday, March 10, 2014

Berberian Sound Studio: This Is A Journey Into Sound

I cast my net pretty wide in terms of what I consider horror movies, and this is largely by design, since after a certain point a lot of the distinctions between horror movies, thrillers, and even dramas become sort of arbitrary. Genre classification is inherently limiting and as I've argued, can have some icky class implications. In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, I try to stick to one simple criterion: Does the movie evoke (or seek to evoke) one of the constellation of emotions we have come to associate with horror? Whether it was the intent of the filmmakers to make a horror movie is, to me, less relevant than the experience we have actually watching the movie. And horror movies haven' t just been about horror for ages. Fear, disgust, anxiety, dread, doom, sadness, terror - all of these are part and parcel of what we have come to call the experience of watching horror films. And ultimately, part of the success of a horror movie (loosely construed) has to be the degree to which it evokes an emotional response. A bad horror film is one that offers no opportunity to experience any of the abovementioned emotions, or which attempts to evoke them and fails, or sacrifices any sort of emotional resonance for empty signifiers and cheap startles.

That's a lot of words about movies (which isn't all that dissimilar from words about music, which is like dancing about architecture), but there's a point to it, and a point to the analogy I just made in that parenthetical statement just now. They're all necessary to talk about Berberian Sound Studio, which manages to be not so much a horror movie as a movie about the horror of making horror movies, and still evokes, albeit incompletely, a range of emotions that - I would argue - make it a horror movie.

It's the story of Gilderoy, no other name given. He's a quiet, shy, retiring English man who is apparently a very talented sound engineer. He's been hired by an Italian filmmaker named Giancarlo Santini to do the sound work on Santini's latest masterpiece, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex). We get the impression that it's not the sort of film Gilderoy usually does (his typical gig being documentaries about small towns in the English countryside), and although we never get a clear sense of exactly what the film is about, a wonderfully hallucinatory opening credits sequence glimpsed by Gilderoy as he arrives at the titular recording studio makes it apparent that it's about as far from being his typical gig as possible.

The problems start almost right away. Gilderoy would like to talk to the director, but the director is absent, and instead he has to deal with the film's producer, Francesco. Francesco is casually evasive about Santini's absence, saying only that he's "busy", and that Gilderoy will meet him soon enough and why all of the impatience, hmm? Santini's very excited to work with you, he admires your work very much, so don't get so hung up on these things. The message is clear: Shut up and get to work. Even the simple act of getting reimbursed for his flight to Italy turns into a dead end for Gilderoy, as the receptionist tasked to deal with it flat-out dismisses and ignores him, and Francesco chides him for being so hung up on money, suggesting that he should be working for the love of film. It's a working environment that's immediately toxic.

And that's pretty much the movie. It's the story of one meek, reticent man with excellent ears, stuck in another country working on something that is completely outside of his experience and sensibilities. Gilderoy is immediately understood as a man for whom simple home comforts are best, and a letter he receives from back home details the lives of his neighbors, business surrounding the little local interest pieces he does, and some birds who are building a nest in his shed. That the letter is signed "Love, Mum" tells us everything we need to know about Gilderoy. He is a man in completely and thoroughly over his head. The entire film seems to be set in the studio over an indeterminate amount of time, loosely conveying our protagonist's slow disintegration. Here is someone who doesn't seem capable of standing up for himself in an environment where everyone is more than happy to walk all over him. It's hard to parse how much of the free-floating hostility he experiences is the culture and how much of it is the politics of the studio (there's a strong undercurrent suggesting that there's not enough money to make the film, and the whole thing feels really dysfunctional), and we're left just as much at sea over this as he is, because the film is largely in unsubtitled Italian. Gilderoy's left out of the loop on almost everything and so are we, unless we're fluent in Italian. Having viewed it once, I wouldn't mind watching this again with subtitles to see how my understanding of the movie differs, but I think going in without that context is actually preferable, because it forms the foundation for a sense of profound isolation that is thus both the experience of the protagonist and our experience as the audience.

This isolation extends to the visual language of the film as well. Much of the run time is occupied with montage - reels, tape, capstans, projectors, mixing boards, effects lists, recording, sound divorced from imagery, silence. It's all process, and that plus the language barrier makes it a profoundly alienating experience, as it should be - if Gilderoy is who we're meant to identify with, we're as on the outside as he is. He is his work, and that's all he's allowed to be. He continually asks what the movie is about, and never gets a straight answer. We're denied any understanding on that ground as well - everything we know about the movie being made we know from inference. There are lists of sound effects ("interrogator yanks hair", "monica falls", "monica hits ground"), foley artists making awful squishy, stabby, splattery noises with produce, Gilderoy's reactions to what he's seeing onscreen with bewilderment and unease. Is it going to be a good movie? Who can tell? When we finally meet Santini, he's kind of up his own ass, telling Gilderoy not to call his movies horror movies, they are movies "about life itself", but every clue we get as an audience suggests that it's a cheesy horror movie about witches who are tortured and cursed and who get their revenge, and there's a goblin in there for some reason. Everyone's saying it's one thing, and it's pretty obvious that it's another. The recording continues. There is silence, then there is sound. There are disembodied screams and people in recording booths, screaming soundlessly. The reels turn, the projector flickers to life. The pile of rotting produce (used to produce the sound of casualty, then discarded) grows higher and higher. Nothing is certain, our protagonist (and the audience) is denied understanding at every turn, and soon there is nothing left to hold onto.

It's not strictly a horror movie. It's subtle, careful, and isn't especially interested in spelling things out for the viewer. It's a highly impressionistic piece about one man's disintegration in the face of a profoundly alienating experience, and it's a comment on the relationship between representation and reality - we're denied the experience of watching a movie (or even the movie within the movie) and made to confront the artificiality of the process to such a degree that the lines blur between them. Don't call it a horror movie, call it life itself. In the absence of any way to exchange immersion in the work for the fresh air of home, Gilderoy drowns. Berberian Sound Studio isn't especially scary in a conventional sense, but in a way it's telling us that the denial of any conventional understanding is just as horrifying in its own way. The end result doesn't quite drive the thesis home - you could argue that its climax is just as much an exercise in denial as the rest of the film, but the whole thing feels like it's building toward something and doesn't quite reach it. Nevertheless, the end result is disquieting and sad, just as worthy of the title "horror" as the pulpy (in multiple ways) extravagance whose bones it lays bare.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

No comments:

Post a Comment