Friday, July 25, 2014

Reconsidered: Berberian Sound Studio

(What I'd like to do in my Reconsidered posts is take a more in-depth look at films that I think have something to offer beyond the text. A solidly composed horror film is a wonderful thing, but a solidly composed horror film that keeps me thinking about it for days afterward is an even more wonderful thing and a joy forever. I'll be writing with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the basic plot and characters, so needless to say, all kinds of spoilers ahoy.)

This particular reconsideration is sort of an exception. Usually I’m going back and looking at a movie in terms of how particular cinematic or narrative elements impart particular themes or express ideas that might not be immediately apparent. I’m usually looking at subtext. Here, though, the reconsideration is one explicitly of text.

A big part of Berberian Sound Studio is the way that Gilderoy becomes increasingly isolated by language - he doesn't speak Italian, and so for him (and anyone else watching the film who doesn't speak Italian), it's a very alienating experience - we can infer much of what's going on but we can't be for sure. There’s always some ambiguity at the least, and some parts of the film become downright impenetrable. And this is as much a part of the film as anything else - it’s about Gilderoy losing his way, losing himself in this very dysfunctional situation. So in this particular case, it isn’t so much about looking more closely at what’s already there as looking at what we can’t necessarily “see” because language keeps it hidden. So I watched the film again, this time with an English subtitle track that also translated all of the Italian dialogue. What I discovered was that watching the film with subtitles for the Italian didn’t completely change its meaning - it mostly just sharpened what was already there. It did, however, clarify some things, and to a certain extent, being less immersed in the isolating aspect of language highlighted some other ways that sound and silence are used to define Gilderoy’s relationship to the filmmakers.

For the most part, what we already suspect is confirmed - the production is highly dysfunctional. They don't like paying people unless they have to, and will find all kinds of exciting ways to duck shelling out money, mostly because there’s not enough of it to pay everyone. Francesco is an abusive asshole to pretty much everyone, not just Gilderoy. If anything, he's more subtle about it with Gilderoy than he is with anyone else, and that's hardly saying much. He has a tremendous amount of contempt for the actresses working on the film, but it becomes clearer why when Santini is introduced and it's made clear through the Italian dialogue that the actresses were hired because the director thinks they're hot and he wants to sleep with them. It makes much clearer the idea that Santini ends up actively interfering with his own film and costing the production time. As up his own ass as Santini comes across when he talks to Gilderoy, the Italian dialogue reveals that he’s like that about everything, and if anything Francesco is trying to keep the train on the rails. It might be a little much to say it makes Francesco look sympathetic by comparison, but it does provide a little bit of context for his behavior. He alone out of all the upper management types seems to want to bring the film in on time. But he's as terrible in his own way as Santini - he's just more up-front about it. He’s manipulative with Gilderoy, but he’s outright hostile and insulting with the actresses, and we discover that the actresses are just as contemptuous of him and the film that they’re acting in. They aren’t under any illusions that it is art.

And that’s the next big thing the Italian dialogue does - it makes clear exactly what kind of movie this is. As it turns out, The Equestrian Vortex is about two young girls at a private school who discover that the school was built on catacombs where a group of witches were tortured and executed centuries before, and the girls do something to wake up the spirits of the witches, who in turn begin to kill students off in various gory ways. It’s just as lurid as the hysteric opening credits sequence we see suggests. There are also flashbacks to the torture of the witches, and one scene where Gilderoy seems really reluctant to drop oil into a hot pan for the foley track becomes clearer when the subtitles reveal that's he creating a sound effect for the insertion of a red-hot poker into a witch's vagina, which is pretty upsetting even for someone who isn't as gentle a soul as Gilderoy. It sharpens the different between Santini's contention that this is a film about life and history and the reality that it's pretty much just exploitative trash in which beautiful women are tortured and killed against the backdrop of some seriously Christian imagery. (And no, the presence of a goblin is never fully explained - in fact, now it's made clear that it's a horny goblin who tries to molest one of the characters, so nope, not a serious film about history and life). Every time a sequence begins with a reel of film, there’s an announcement of the reel, the scene, and a description of the scene, and it both reinforces the monotonous, mechanical nature of Gilderoy’s work - the divorce of process from product - and gives us a window into just how far this is removed from Gilderoy’s usual gigs of local-interest features about the English countryside and children’s programs.

It’s the last act of the film where the Italian dialogue starts to become more important in terms of understanding what’s going on, after the point at which Gilderoy has what appears to be a break with reality, and the entire film switches to Italian. Without subtitles, the effect is that he is entirely consumed by the madness surrounding him, and again, the addition of the subtitles tends to sharpen this reading, rather than offering a different one. It begins with a recapitulation of his introduction to Francesco from the beginning of the film, and as it transpires, the dialogue does not change, it's just in Italian now. The effect then, at first, is largely cosmetic. However, later, as we're introduced to Silvia's replacement after she storms off, the merging of Gilderoy's life and the film becomes more explicit, as Elisa (the replacement) starts practicing her lines in front of Gilderoy - only they're excerpts from one of the letters from Gilderoy's mother, and dialogue already recorded begins to incorporate bits from these letters as well. Nowhere is safe from the intrusion of this film, his life and the film really are becoming one. There’s less dialogue all told at this point that beforehand, and certainly there are visual indications that this is happening, but it was startling to realize what Elisa was saying and what that meant.

Having the Italian dialogue translated also freed up my attention in other ways, and so I noticed that sound and silence really do define Gilderoy’s existence in this work environment. Gilderoy interacts with the world through sound - when he misses home, he listens to recordings he did for local interest films. When ordered to harass an underperforming actress, he uses high-frequency tones to make her uncomfortable instead of directly confronting her, and the closest he gets to ingratiating himself with the other people on the production is when he uses a light bulb and some metal to simulate the sound of a UFO. This occurs during a power outage, and so it’s even more pronounced - he’s using an instrument of sight to generate sound in the absence (or at least diminishing) of sight. This is him at his best, and it’s just for the briefest moment. He’s quiet, hesitant in speech, but eloquent in the language of pure sound. The more violent the things he has to do, the more assertive his speech becomes, but also the more he begins to lose his identity. As the nature of the sounds he makes change, so does he. Also, you never hear any of the other men responsible for sound on the production speak in the film - not the sound tech, not the foley artists, not the musicians. Their entire role in the film-within-the-film (and thus the film itself) is pure sound, only Gilderoy crosses from the realm of pure sound into language, and this dovetails nicely with the way people seem to constantly treat him like he’s committing some kind of breach or affront. He dares to place himself above his station, in a way, even to the point of his opposite being Luigi, who is ostensibly responsible for reimbursing him for his travel expenses. This is a recurring sign of frustration and disconnection for Gilderoy, and Luigi is just language - a voice on the phone. In that sense, sound can almost be seen as a hierarchy in this movie from the lowest being the pure sound effects made by the foley artists, and the highest being language, which lends some interesting dimensions to interactions between Francesco and the actresses - the sound booths mean that the sounds being made and the person making them can be juggled separately, and there are many scenes of disembodied dialogue or screaming over other action, or a person in a sound booth talking or screaming in utter silence. Sound - what kind of sound you get to make and who gets to hear it - then is the currency of power in this movie, from stem to stern.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Mr Evans. I am from São Paulo, Brazil, and I have only recently watched Berberian Sound Studio. I do not know whether the film has had a theatrical release in Brazil or even whether it has been released on DVD or Blu-Ray; I had to find an 'alternative' way of watching it. Anyway, one of the (many) things that got me thinking immediately after I had finished watching the film was whether the Italian dialogue had been subtitled when the film received its theatrical release. From what I gathered, it was not, which I think was a brilliant move, because of the reasons you mentioned in your text. Being a native speaker of Portuguese, a language that, like Italian, is derived from Latin, I was able to understand good portions of the Italian dialogue but felt I might have missed important information. Your text has assured me that I did not, and I thank you very much for taking the time to write a more-in-depth analysis of Berberian Sound Studio. I really liked your writing, and I look forward to catching up! I thank you again and wish you all the best.