Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Berberian Sound Studio

WARNING: I give away a fair few plot details here - although as it's not a particularly narrative-driven film, it probably doesn't matter too much.

Peter Strickland’s film Berberian Sound Studio begins with a scene in which the protagonist, Gilderoy, a small, neat and quietly self-contained man (played with great subtlety by Toby Jones) walks along an anonymous, institutional corridor. It could be the entryway into a hospital, council offices or the exit from a small airport. In fact it leads to the sound booths of the dingy Italian film studios in which he will be incarcerated for the foreseeable future. The melancholic, descending scale on the soundtrack, its lonely, echoing notes plucked on an autoharp and drawing on the Broadcast song I Found the F from their Tender Buttons LP (Broadcast provide much of the music for the film) sets the mood of isolation and dislocation which will predominate throughout. Then, Julian House’s extraordinary title sequence explodes upon our senses, letting us know the kind of film whose post-production Gilderoy has stumbled into. Its roughly outlined, silhouetted images imprinted upon a scarlet background spatter across the screen with discomforting, eyeflashing rapidity. It’s like a kaleidoscopic, monochrome slide show of the cover art which House produces for the Ghost Box record label, which he also co-runs and records for under the alias of The Focus Group. The skeletal facades of ruined abbeys, a watching horseman on a hill and jagged, blasted winter trees resurrect memories of films such as Roger Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia (with its ruined abbey and colour-saturated scenes of psychedelic disorientation), Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (also partly set in the hollowed shell of a church), and Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (the title sequence of which begins with a zoom in on Vincent Price’s witchfinder watching the results of his visitations – the hanging of a witch – from horseback, the background then filtered to a benighted blue). This is the title sequence of the film The Equestrian Vortex, for which Gilderoy is to assist in the recording and mixing of the sound, and it is all that we will ever get to see of it (in objective form, at least). The titles suggest an English gothic sensibility at work, the kind of horror which blended with a pastoral romanticism and was typified by Hammer films in the 50s through to the early 70s. But what we glean from the sounds we hear throughout and the minimal plot details which are provided (both to us and to Gilderoy) suggests a film far more rooted in the Italian exploitation genre of the 70s – less restrained, more heavily stylised and self-consciously cinematic, and graphically, even gloatingly violent. In fact, just the kind of film which supplanted Hammer’s more traditional fare in the mid-70s period in which Berberian Sound Studio is set. The disjunction between the images of gothic romance presented in the titles and the graphic, hardcore violence which they presage embodies the cultural, temperamental and moral divisions which run throughout Berberian Sound Studio.

The horseman on the hill - Vincent Price is The Witchfinder General
Sound design is obviously absolutely central to Berberian Sound Studio. There is a close visual focus on the means of sound production; the analog equipment with its rows of faders and bobbin-like dials, its revolving reel to reel recorders, undulating oscillators and glowing, coloured buttons and switches. It’s all visually fascinating, right down to the spiral op-art graphics on a tape box, which could almost be part of a graphic score, suggestive of a particular sound and pitch. The equipment makes its own music, comprised of hums, clicks, the fluttering of unspooling film and the flicker of running off tape reels. Gilderoy’s recording charts, which the camera pans across at various intervals, with their grids and columns patterned with blocks and occasionally circles of colour, like some rigorously abstract work of art, codify and categorise the sounds of violence. They too are like graphic scores, the kind produced by experimental and avant garde composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman – instructions and intuitive guidelines for a music of coloured sound which transcends conventional notation. The screams and their electronic transformation provide a sonic expressionism, as do other sounds which permeate the film. The sibilant sighs which accompany Gilderoy along the corridor during his arrival recall the insistent whispers of ‘witch’ which punctuate Goblin’s soundtrack to Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and the hissing of the doors which open to thrust her out of the airport into the teeming rain upon her arrival in Munich.

This haunting sonic quality is given an added dimension for fans of Broadcast when Gilderoy plays the actress Silvia Teresa’s song, the wistful melody which her character sings. The voice we hear is immediately recognisable as that of the late singer Trish Keenan, crooning a gorgeous lullaby as if soothing herself on a dark, lonely night. The tape loop which spools around on its repetitive circuit seems to capture the voice in the way that radio waves travelling through the aether were supposed to pick up spirit voices in the early twentieth century. I found to be a quite heartrending moment, which felt like a conscious tribute on Peter Strickland’s part. He had paid tribute to her in his Sight and Sound interview about the film, stating that ‘speaking purely as a fan of the band, Trish’s passing is a huge loss. It’s not an overstatement to say she was one of the most remarkably gifted musicians of my generation’. There is a further dedication to her in the credits at the end. Broadcast’s music perfectly captures the sound of the era whilst remaining recognisably their own. The music of Ennio Morricone and other Italian soundtrack composers had after all proved an important formative influence. There is some swirling gothic horror organ of the kind used in Roger Corman’s Poe movies; pastoral synth flutes similar to those found on the Witch Cults of the Radio Age and Mother Is The Milky Way records; some rolling jazz drums and bustling harpsichord; and looped and treated vocals which recall Trish’s live improvisations. Further musical or sound design contributions (if there is a distinction to be made between the two) are provided by the Bohman Brothers, Steven Stapleton and Ghost Box artist Roj Stevens, a former Broadcast band member from the early Work and Non Work period. Strickland’s own Sonic Catering Band, whose long experience of producing musique concrete from the recorded sounds of cooking and food preparation must have proved particularly useful. An extract from a Luigi Nono piece adds a little period authenticity, as someone who worked in the Italian radio studios in the 60s and 70s.

Haunting sound design
Some of the musicians we glimpse on the recording stage look like avant garde refugees or moonlighters from the self-same studios, highlighting the fluid traffic which flowed between European experimental and conservatory traditions and the worlds of film soundtrack composition and recording. A moody fellow in a dark cloak is glimpsed bowing groaning metallic sounds from a pendant gong, and the Vangelis-like sound recordist is seen and heard playing sepulchral melodies on a walnut-encased synthesiser, the kind of music which might seep up from dank torchlit catacombs. The unconventional playing of and electroacoustic sculpting of sound from gongs also recalls Stockhausen’s Zyklus and Mikrophonie I pieces, in which their presence (or that of tam-tam gongs) is central. You can imagine the musicians bringing the ideas from these pieces into the film studios. Their sounds, unsettling in their newness and unfamiliarity, their rejection of conventional tonality and sound colour, proved ideal for horror soundtracks, adding to the atmosphere of disorientation and sensory derangement. Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire provided electronic arrangements and sounds for The Innocents and The Legend of Hell House and Tristram Cary created unsettling electronic pulsations for Hammer’s film of Quatermass and the Pit. Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting gains a great deal of power from its disturbing sound design, created by BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe, filling its eerie house with a full spectrum of noises ranging from booming crashes to bending creaks and whispered exhalations. It’s like a further cinematic variation added on to Pierre Henry’s musique concrète piece from the previous year, Variations Pour Une Porte Et Un Soupir (Variations for a Door and a Sigh).

The Studio di Fonologia, Milan
Modern composition was incorporated into horror films in the 60s and 70s, with the music of Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and others for Italian movies blending pop and avant garde styles, and The Exorcist using extracts from pieces by Penderecki and George Crumb (the brief movements of whose Black Angels could have been specifically designed as a sampler for use in such movies). A decade or so before, Toru Takemitsu’s spare score for Kwaidan, which mixes traditional music, musique concrète and modern composition, was uniquely unsettling, especially in the black hair sequence. And Bernard Herrmann’s much-imitated score for Psycho is very Bartokian in its savage and stringent use of strings. Stanley Kubrick would later use part of a Bartok piece, Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste, in The Shining, to disorienting and vertiginous effect. Jarring dissonance and scrabbling, stridulent strings are now almost generic clichés. The vocal performances also recall some of the electronic music which came out of the state-funded RAI (Radio Audizioni Italiane) Italian radio studio (the Studio di Fonologia in Milan) in the 60s and 70s. The composers who worked there often produced pieces deriving from the voice, with Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio in particular favouring vocal works. The groans and inhuman creaks and barks emitted by the actress playing the awakening witch sound like they could have been extracted from Cathy Berberian’s epic psychodrama Visage, an electronic piece created in the Milan studios in 1961 with her then husband Luciano Berio (and it is evidently Berberian who lends her name to the titular studio of the film). An astonishingly powerful piece and performance, this has passages which are genuinely alarming, and seem to put the listener uncomfortably at the centre of a disintegrating psyche. The witch’s vocalisations also bring to mind Mercedes McCambridge’s remarkable vocal work on The Exorcist, begging the question as to whether these performances could be considered as musical themselves. Trevor Wishart’s remarkable Red Bird is another related piece, with its superbly realised transformations of the screams of a political prisoner into the cries of a flock of birds flying overhead – an escape from torment into an Edenic landscape of the mind similar to that which Gilderoy will effect at a moment of unbearable emotional stress. The ‘dangerously aroused goblin’ who records in the sound booth (its only male occupant) begins with a low sustained growl which sounds like the rumbling split tone bass chanting of Tibetan monks before working itself up into a full improv gibber; the sort of vocalisation practised by singers like Phil Minton, Maggie Nicols and Julie Tippetts and sound poets like Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing and Ernst Jandl.

Kafka's immaculate secretary
Gilderoy’s experiences of the Italian studios are and remain throughout those of an outsider. He is excluded by language, and also by the deliberate slights, subtle and not so subtle bullying and rude rebuttals and rebuffs which he buts up against each and every day. It is a Kafkaesque environment for him, with the simplest requests met with deferrals, redirection, aggression and ignorance. An absurdist plot thread which runs through much of the story concerns his attempts to claim expenses on his flight costs. He is treated as a tiresome intrusion by the coolly immaculate secretary, whose smoothly rounded orange phone seems more a fashion accessory than a means of contacting the relevant people. Rows of small wooden drawers are arrayed up against the wall behind her, and look like they could have stood there for decades, remaining unopened in all but the most extraordinary circumstances. When Gilderoy brings up the issue of his flight expenses with the tyrannical director, Francesco Coraggio, he is treated as if he were a mercenary money-grubber, somehow dishonourable in his request for payment, and is told that there are many who would die for a chance to work on the film for nothing (a statement which runs counter to his later exhortations towards unquestioning professionalism). During his introduction to the film’s monstrously egotistical producer and presiding creative ‘visionary’, Giancarlo Santini, Gilderoy is asked if he has everything he needs. He mildly suggests that a piece of recording equipment needs servicing, and is immediately berated by Coraggio for his unforgivable rudeness in being so negative upon his first meeting. Such inexplicable social blunders and traversals of obscure manners seem to be a component of his every encounter, despite his scrupulously polite demeanour, and they lend proceedings the air of an absurdist drama. Finally, like Kafka’s prospective employee in The Castle, Gilderoy’s very existence is brought into question, with the blank denial from an anonymous official at the end of the line that there ever was a flight from Heathrow at the hour of day he claimed to have travelled.

The director of the film, Coraggio, is like a 70s period Peter Wyngarde character, with wide and gaudily patterned ties, sharply cut suits and a lengthy, looping, neatly trimmed moustache. But there is no trace of Wyngarde’s oily charms in his dessicated and humourless manner. He is a joyless bully, the actresses in particular bearing the brunt of his misogynist contempt. Silvia, who plays the central character of Teresa in the film within the film, is curtly told to keep her opinions on giving nuance to her character to herself and to just do what she’s told. The women are frequently confined to the soundproofed cell of the recording booth where they are required to scream and scream again. These screams become a recurrent punctuating sound motif of the film, a counterpoint to Gilderoy’s temperamental inability to answer back to the workplace bullying which he suffers, and to the pulsing red Silenzio sign which fills the screen at various points. The other male figure of power in the studios is Santini, the self-regarding producer who enthusiastically constructs his own legend. When Gilderoy nervously confesses that he’s never worked on a horror picture before, Santini affects a look of wounded hurtfulness. ‘This is not a horror film’, he explains, as if it is self-evident. ‘It is a Santini film’. Perhaps there are hints of grandiloquent figures such as Andrej Zulawski and Alejandro Jodorowsky here, whose cult messes Possession and Santa Sangre most certainly are horror films, albeit of a singular kind. Santini comes up with the kind of justifications for the lingering scenes of violence against women which he presents which are familiar from European directors of the period, when levels of explicitness grew exponentially in the post-60s liberal climate (this liberality ironically put to illiberal use). Most notorious was Dario Argento’s response to accusations of misogynistic violence in his films. He stated that he found the death of beautiful women more emotionally affecting, or indeed arousing, taking a Berlusconiesque approach to sexual politics (‘I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or a man’.) An honest response, if hardly likely to assuage his critics. Santini is more hypocritically evasive in his response, claiming to ‘hate what is done to these women’, and to be representing historical reality in his inquisitorial sequences (shades of Ken Russell and The Devils). There is a certain amount of questioning of the nature of the more extreme 70s horror material, then, but this, along with the unseen film, is essentially and incidental, background element of Berberian Sound Studio. It’s what happens in front of the screen which engages our attention.

Dario Argento's Suspiria
Producer Giancarlo Santini is smooth and assertively charismatic producer, well aware of his own charms, with his neatly controlled, affluent beard, its grey flecks giving a permissibly minimal hint of maturity, and his Clooneyish good looks, enhanced by a relaxed but expensive sense of 70s style (open-necked and wide-collared shirts and casually chic jackets which project a swinging self-image). Both Santini and director Coraggio’s modish dress (the kind of thing we would expect of studied 70s retro chic) contrasts with the plaid overcoat, woollen cardigans and knitted ties which Gilderoy wears for most of the film. These are clothes which speak of unglamorous but cosy post-war British comfort – practical anti-fashion for a cold and wet island climate, and for drab and austere times. They suggest that Gilderoy is more of an old-fashioned product of the 50s and early 60s than of the liberated 60s and 70s of official retrospective portrayal (that liberation in fact contained within a fairly restricted social compass). He breezes in with his dog at widespread intervals, asserting his ownership of the film and generally acting like a cut-price mogul, demanding obeisance. His initial charm assault, with its instant arm around the shoulders intimacy, swiftly wears off on Gilderoy, who ends up watching his unsubtle advances on favoured actresses with weary indifference. There is an absolute male and female divide within the studio. Although the studios bear a female name (Berberian referring to the singer Cathy Berberian, who recorded some incredible contemporary electronic and vocal music in the Italian radio studios) it is a wholly male environment. The men greet each other effusively in the morning, embracing warmly and joking amongst one another. The women are treated as dumb creatures, however, objects to be coerced into providing what is needed from them. They are frequently isolated within the imprisoning padded cell of the sound booth, a confined space within a confined space, a box within a box.

Gilderoy becomes a part of the women’s world, excluded from the Mediterraenean male camaraderie. A man more in touch with his feminine side, he’s tender-hearted and wholly lacking in aggression. He is far more at ease with Silvia than with the men alongside whom he works. When he wanders out from his room at night, he meets Silvia and talks about his longing for home, expressed through the feel and, more particularly, the sound of autumnal twigs beneath his feet. She in turn confides in him, and tries to help him by suggesting that he needs to be more aggressively and loudly assertive if he’s to get anything he wants. When he tries this approach in his continuing pursuit of his flight expenses, the role is clearly a painful and upsetting one for him to adopt, however. Corragio and Santini talk about Gilderoy in his presence with a contempt disguised only by the fact that he can’t understand their language. When Santini brings in his dog, which ruins a recording with its barking, Coraggio is indulgent of his inconvenient intrusion, recognising his subservient position in the studio’s power structure. He says he’ll allow him in as long as he doesn’t do its business on the floor. ‘What, him or the dog?’, Santini jokes, with a nod of the head towards Gilderoy. As with the women, there is little difference in status, with the dog generally afforded more freedom. Gilderoy is even subjected to the kind of sexual harassment which Sylvia suffers from Santini. When he hears of his desire to leave, Santini confronts him alone in the recording studio and engages upon what amounts to a seduction in order to convince him to stay – perhaps the only approach he is capable of. Feeding him a roundly plum-like fruit, he tells him that ‘here we swallow the seeds’. Without wishing to resort to stereotypes (a statement which is obviously a prelude to doing precisely that), there is a hint of suppressed homosexuality to Gilderoy’s character. He lives at home with his mother, with whom he enjoys a close relationship, as his regular letter writing reveals; and he finds the company of women more comfortable than that of blokish or gruffly taciturn men, without exhibiting any signs of desire towards them. He is also genuinely appalled by the violent treatment of the women on the screen, and by the aggressive way in which Silvia and subsequently Elena (her successor in the role of Teresa) are addressed and directed. At any rate, these aspects of his personality, along with his failure to conform to the overdetermined and overtly displayed masculinity which predominates in the studio might be interpreted in such a way by Santini and the others, who have a fixed and narrow view of gender characteristics.

Gilderoy is a largely passive protagonist, subject to the direction and will of others, but there are hints of indirect resistance. When Silvia finally decides that enough is enough, that she has taken all that she can stand, she comes to Gilderoy to tell him that she is leaving, and that, like the vengeful witch in the film, she will cast her own parting malediction on Santini, Coraggio and the others. Gilderoy responds to her angry despair and pain with a tentatively compassionate ‘can I help you?’ The next morning, the mixing room is strewn with tape, and all of Silvia’s vocal parts have been wiped, with a gloating message left telling Santini exactly what she’s done and why. It’s all done so thoroughly and efficiently that it appears she’s had the assistance of an expert. With Gilderoy’s permission and help, she enters the sound-proofed booth to let out one final, cathartic scream – this time of her own volition, rather than at the relentless behest of a cruel director (who treats requests for water for raw throats as if they were an unwarranted intrusion upon his valuable time, a sign of inherent female feebleness). The banshee wail can be an expressive release of pent-up sound, as with the uninhibited vocal flights from decorative melodic constraint of singers like Patty Waters, Yoko Ono, Cathy Berberian and Christina Carter of Charalambides. The last sight we have of Silvia is of her receding within the frame of the booth against the blank void of the empty screen, swallowed up in the darkness, her mouth open in an expressionist scream. Eventually, the square of illumination which is the light of her burning self disappears, like the picture on an old TV screen compacting into a white dot of potential colour before flickering off. It is an act of self-erasure, the only possibility of defiance for the utterly powerless; the passive aggressive revenge of self-annihilation.

Vangelis - the studio engineer's double
Gilderoy falls apart somewhat after Silvia’s departure. His dress becomes shabbier and more dishevelled, tie abandoned and shirt left unbuttoned with the tail flapping loose. The distinction between inner and outer worlds becomes less clearly defined. There is a certain metaphysical division of space within the claustrophobic interiors in which the film takes place. There is the divide between the sound recording stage and the ‘backroom’ mixing booth which reflects a distinction between direct participatory involvement and the distanced observation of passive recording. Gilderoy’s natural domain is this backroom, but he is soon coaxed out onto the recording stage. When he first arrives, he is taken in there and watches as squelchy sound effects are added to a gore-drenched scene. ‘My God, what are they doing to her?’, he asks as vegetables and fruits are hacked to pieces alongside him, melon flesh standing in for human meat. When this frenzied orgy of organic food abuse is over, Gilderoy is offered a remnant quadrant of water melon by the towering, hirsute figure of the chief mutilator (who bears a certain resemblance to the Vangelis of Aphrodite’s Child days). He turns it down with squeamish politeness as if it were a dripping pound of raw flesh. The film could, in an allegorical sense, be viewed under an alternative title of The Temptation of Gilderoy. Even his name has a certain chivalric air, like something out of an Arthurian romance – the gilded king come to the Castle Perilous of the sound studio, in which the distressed damsels are besieged within the tower of the sound booth. He is drawn into direct participation in the recording stage area and told not to question the nature of what he sees up on the screen, but just to do as he’s directed, like a professional – to just obey orders. But when it comes time to provide the sound for a scene in which a witch tortured by the Inquisition is violated by a red-hot poker (a sound produced by the associatively disturbing means of sizzling cooking oil in a skillet), he refuses, finding that he cannot accept the degree of congruence with what he sees up on the screen that such an action would constitute in his mind.

The issue of complicity and identification is a perennial one in horror movies, particularly those which invite a vicarious sharing in the perspective of the perpetrators of sexualised assault and murder. The black gloves associated with the anonymous killers in Italian giallo films (essentially convoluted and ultra-violent whodunits) are seen here at various intervals switching on the projectors and turning the dials which start it up and set the flickering celluloid images into violent life on the screen. The troubling figure of Argento once more comes to mind here (troubling in part because he’s a director of such evident stylistic bravura rather than a mere seedy exploitation hack). He once more muddies the moral waters by insisting on wearing the black gloves of the killer himself in his films, often in scenes of studiedly sadistic and sexualised murder. When Gilderoy suggests that it might be best for him to leave, that he doesn’t have the stomach for this kind of material, Santini entices him to stay with a plum popped into his mouth, the fruit of temptation which he is not given the option of refusing. When the film (through its protagonist) enters its final dream fugue state, Gilderoy himself becomes the victim onscreen, the revenant witch attacking him with a knife. But he turns her over and, after initially defending himself, asserts his strength and turns defence into relentless counter-assault. This move towards complicity culminates with Coraggio ordering him to wring a scream of more authentic terror from Elisa, the nervous new ingénue actress playing Teresa, in her booth. He assumes that he will do it in the manner that he has on previous occasions, by going in there and shouting at her, intimidating her in a space which dictates uncomfortable proximity. But he does so indirectly, in the way he knows best, flooding her headphones with a painful sonic assault of piercingly shrill white noise. It’s an electronic analogue of a scream, perhaps Gilderoy’s own expression of his simmering anguish and unhappiness. Elisa, whose innocence mirrors that Gilderoy upon his arrival, doesn’t scream but throws her headphones down and strides out of the booth, out of the studio, and off the film, refusing to be subjected to such abuse. It’s a decisive gesture which Gilderoy himself has never been able to make. But his own electronic scream has acted as a warning to Elisa of what she can expect in the Berberian Sound Studio, and has driven her away. In an odd and scarcely intentional way, he proves her saviour. Out on the sound stage, Coraggio slams the table in angry frustration with his fist, his absolute power broken. A length of heavy chain slithers noisily to the floor, link by clanking link. It’s a symbolic casting off of the confining chains of servitude (workers of the world unite etc.) for Elisa and for Gilderoy himself, his cathartic electronic scream the catalyst which allows them both to walk free.

Gilderoy's room - the interior space
If the mixing room and sound stage are the spaces which mark the divide between passive observation and active complicity within the sound studio, the spaces of Gilderoy’s bedsit room (and we never see it situated in any particular external space, defined by exterior shots) and the studio mark the division between the private and public life, inner and outer perspectives, and the amateur and the professional. The film’s confinement to claustrophobic and shadowy spaces (the studio has no windows onto the outside world and Gilderoy is only ever seen in his room at night) reflects the interiority of the story. The red light which demands Silenzio pulses with the beat of blood pumping around the body. The fruit and vegetable matter used to create the sounds of bodies being cut open or shattered is also left to fester in a pile which, shot in slow-moving close-up, begins to disturbingly resemble glistening viscera, making us reflect on the vulnerable organic softness of our insides. Later, when the mixing room is vandalised, we will also see the guts of the machines, ribbons of brown magnetic tape tangled and twisted on the floor. A lingering pan across the fanned green surface of a savoy cabbage, destined for the production of a dry cleaving sound, renders it strange, its wavering rills and ridges like the folds and contours of a brain, imprinted and made complex through experience and repetitive reinforcement. Gilderoy’s room, a night space to which he retires, represents the internal, mental realm, a place for reflection, dream and imaginative exploration. It’s set apart from the social space of the studio, where he is obliged to interact with the violent images onscreen and with the involved and self-aggrandising play of human behaviour and politics which surrounds him and with which he collides with bruising regularity. Many of the musicians who worked anonymously for the Radiophonic Workshop used to stay after hours in the studio, using the dead hours to corral the equipment they needed and, perhaps more importantly, find the personal time to explore their new worlds of sound without interference from studio managers.

The boundaries between these two spaces, the interior and the exterior, which Gilderoy endeavours to keep separate, become confused for the viewer at an early stage, she or he made aware of the beginning of a perceptual shift of which Gilderoy himself is not yet cognisant. There are several cuts which immediately take us from one space to the other. We get a shot of a screaming mouth, tongue and tonsils quivering with the shrillness of the sound which Gilderoy is diligently recording, to an overhead close-up of a whirling blender mixing a red tomato sauce, which he is making on the kitchen surface in his room, simultaneously recording it to provide the sound of a chainsaw. It’s as if the sound analogy has occurred to him as he goes about his private routines, the space of the studios, with its associated perceptual state, leaking through into this personal, internal space. He has brought his work home, effectively. He forgets to put the lid on the blender, however, and is liberally spattered with this home-made Kensington gore (the affectionate name given to Hammer’s vividly bright concoctions of stage blood), crude make-up to accompany the sound effects. Gilderoy’s soaking in this appropriately Italianate form of culinary grue visually suggests that prolonged exposure to the images he is watching every day on the screen is affecting him, that he is being drawn into the world of the studio and its inhabitants, becoming increasingly infected with and complicit in its worldview. There’s something a bit Philip K Dickian about this process, with one consciousness being encompassed and absorbed by another, whether individual or collective.

Gilderoy resists being drawn into or overwhelmed by this world as best he can. But in the latter part of the film, as he increasingly enters a state of dream fugue, the two spaces become increasingly directly connected. He begins to walk through the doors of his wardrobe to emerge through those of the studio. Figures from the film itself begin to invade his room, his interior space, and these scenes are then instantly transferred to the screen in the sound studio. The only film we actually see on the screen, then, is the one playing out in the projecting room of Gilderoy’s skull, which cuts in elements of The Equestrian Vortex which has been incorporated into its subconscious unspooling, spliced together with his personal fears and anxieties. The fusion of the real and the screened is suggestive of the way in which film (and by extension art in general) can become a part of an individual’s interior landscape, and can bring features of that landscape into sharp relief, revealing parts previously hidden – ruptures and quakes throwing up new peaks and opening deep chasms. The psychic disruptions of horror films, with their direct connection with fear responses, can be, for good or ill, particularly effective in provoking the awakening of suppressed feelings. The spaces of The Equestrian Vortex mirror those of Berberian Sound Studio, the film in which it is invisibly embedded. The Academy which is its chief setting (we gather) is undermined by a dank, forgotten subterraenean corridor which marks the spot where witches had been tortured, executed and buried centuries before. The house of rationality is erected upon a dank labyrinth of primitive and violent impulses, long locked away but never really dispelled. Gilderoy’s full transition into the studio space, the equalisation of his inner and outer worlds, is marked by his sudden ability to speak Italian, an indication that he is approaching an understanding of the studio mindset. He becomes a different character in a different film, dressed in a dark and businesslike suit, watching himself up on the screen assaulting the witch. He repeats the words he first uttered in the studio (‘my God, what are they doing to her?’) but his time it is his projected self who is committing the onscreen atrocity. When the slice of melon, source of the sounds of terrible mutilation, is offered to him, he accepts, and takes a bite of its dripping pink flesh. His temptation would appear to have been fulfilled, the forbidden fruit of self-knowledge swallowed.

FC Judd - garden shed inventions
Further binary oppositions and polarities run throughout the film, fundamental differences which invite misunderstanding and mutual incomprehension. Little capital is made out of the cultural clash between English and Italian customs and sensibilities, which could have taken the film in the overfamiliar direction of the comedy of national stereotypes - a kind of Carry on Dario caper. There is a tension between Gilderoy’s intuitive approach to work and the ‘professionalism’ expected in the studio which echoes the difference between the inspired amateurism of British electronic musicians and sound designers and those in the state-funded radio studios of the continent and the commercially driven TV and film worlds. The British myth of the garden shed inventor is an enduring and attractive one – the idea of the maverick pioneer who cobbles together their own unique junk-sculpture instrumentation from wartime surplus oscillators and motors and whatever objects can be unearthed from the recycled detritus of the past, with clunkily mechanical tape machines to record and transform the resultant magical sounds. Gilderoy very much conforms to this type. He carries a picture with him of his garden workshop back in England, which is indeed housed in a shed. He has previously mostly worked on children’s programmes, which brings to mind the Radiophonic Workshop’s sound and music for Doctor Who, Blue Peter’s Bleep and Booster cartoon, and LPs for music and movement classes, as well as F.C.Judd’s soundtracking of the early 60s SF puppet series Space Patrol. It also summons up fond memories of Oliver Postgate, a benevolent inventor, film-maker and children’s storyteller who also worked out of his garden shed, which was converted into a makeshift animation studio, with equipment knocked up as need demanded. At one point, during a powercut in the studio, Gilderoy captivates the gathered cast and crew with a pure, gently wavering ‘UFO’ sine wave, created with just a light bulb and a wire letter rack. Shades of the magic sound conjured by the likes of Delia Derbyshire and John Baker from lampshades and wine bottles. By the warm, kindly glow of the candlelight, the atmosphere becomes enchanted, the sinister piles of fruit on the table props in a tableau from a Renaissance or Dutch painting. Gilderoy becomes a conjurer, and a different, more generous working environment, and film, momentarily seems possible. Then the electricity snaps back on and the spell is broken. This is the one time when Gilderoy’s own wordlview, the childlike magic of the incidental and the everyday as he perceives it, is briefly conveyed to his hosts, and wholly absorbs them. But power demands efficiency, the ‘professionalism’ and concomitant obedience to his will which Coraggio is always demanding.

The highly visible and audible electronic machinery which blinks, clicks and whirs into action throughout is also set in opposition to the vegetable world produces the sounds of the violated body, and also to Gilderoy’s reverence for the natural world. The hard and mechanical contrasting with the soft and organic. The machine world of the studio extends to the mechanical behaviour of its male engineers and overseers, and is contrasted with the ‘feminine’ world of natural form, and the women whose presence in the studio is seen as an alien one. To Coraggio and Santini, people are just another component, soft extensions of the machinery. They flick their switches, turn their dials and expect them to run in perfect synchrony every time, giving them a swift kick if the prove recalcitrant. Gilderoy bridges the two worlds, rather like the exquisitely bored secretary in the linking corridor outside, the guardian of the interzone, with her wooden shelves and rounded orange phone blending the mechanical with natural form and material. He shows Silvia a circling tape loop from which her own voice repeats a simple melody (marked Teresa’s Song) and demonstrates how he can alter the sound with various filters (the conjurer’s hand waving passes). She is fascinated, regarding him as if her were a sonic alchemist, producing aural illusions to delight her. A connection, if not exactly a friendship, is initiated. This is the benevolent, playful use of machines, toys and tools which are expressive on an innocent and very human level. Later on, Gilderoy will use the same devices to create a torturous assault of painful white noise, and unbearable and inhuman expression of pitiless mechanistic violence.

Box Hill - Gilderoy's pastoral heart
At one point in the film, the machine world of the studio in which Gilderoy toils is torn apart to reveal his English pastoral soul, which lies beneath the surface of his modernist tinkering. The celluloid image bubbles and burns, combusting in a similar way to the apparent conflagration of the film itself in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, or the nova which engulfs the final frame of Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop. Gilderoy’s Box Hill heart is laid bare, as we look down on the Surrey countryside spreading out below its commanding ridge. Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending takes over the soundtrack, the ultimate expression of yearning English pastoralism. The sight of this expanse of green fields, woodlands and downland slopes is almost overwhelming after the gloomy, claustrophobic interiors of the sound studio, tinted with the red of the recording warning signs and the baleful reflections from the blood-soaked screen. Vaughan Williams’ emotive piece also provides a burst of traditional orchestral music as a pointed counterpoint to the expressionistic electronic soundworld in which Gilderoy has been immersed. The talismanic presence of the Bohman brothers, Adam and Jonathan, purveyors of a playful variety of musique concrète and improvisatory sound-making in the lineage of post-war garden-shed inventors, on the brow of the hill, positions a different stream of music within this quintessentially English landscape. They are like more parochial Caspar David Friedrich wanderers surveying distant vistas from the heights they’ve scaled, or idealised rustic types on the Edenic Darenth Valley hillsides of a Samuel Palmer landscape. Electronic and experimental music can be human and expressive of a non-technophile present with an awareness of tradition, as witness the artists on the Ghost Box label, who create their own versions of plangent electronic English pastoralism. A collage of details from Ordinance Survey maps detailing Box Hill and its surrounds outline the contours of Gilderoy’s heart, the archaeological treasures lodged within.

Persona - the burning screen
This pastoral vision is also reflected in his reverence for nature. Alongside his work for children’s TV, we learn that he has also produced the sound for a variety of nature programmes. He’s a patient observer and recorder of the soundscapes of the natural world in the manner of Chris Watson, Bernie Krause or Dan Gibson. In his room, a spindly spider wanders several times across the desk he’s working at. Each time, he carefully picks it up with a piece of paper and carries it to the window, depositing it gently outside. On one level, this can be seen as a symbolic gesture, an assiduous casting aside of the more sinister and predatory aspects of his psyche (the spider being one of gothic horror’s emblematic creatures). But it also represents his refusal to accede to the demands of the studio, to adopt their ethos. As the film progresses and his persona begins to show signs of strain, distress cracks spreading, we await the moment at which he will break and slam his fist down on the delicate creature. But he never does. He associates nature with sound, as indicated by the nostalgia evoked by the snapping of dry branches beneath his feet. Amongst the mementoes of home which he brings with him are some of his recordings of local soundscapes, labelled and categorised with a naturalist’s taxonomical mind. The use of natural produce to create sounds analogous to those of exaggerated violence is therefore something of a desecration of his semi-Pagan reverence for nature, and his sensitivity to its soundworld. Gilderoy’s Pagan sensibilities (a kind of deep Englishness) in themselves go against the grain of the Catholicism which at least nominally presides in the studios, as signified by the crucifixes, with figures of the suffering Christ attached, which hang on the walls of the mixing room and of Gilderoy’s bedroom – his two spaces. This underlying Catholic element might in itself hint at the greater tolerance of the Italians for images of suffering and pain, of prolonged, expiatory martyrdom.

The letter which Gilderoy exchanges with his mother focus on the progress of a nest of chiff-chaff chicks brooded on the side of his creative garden shed. As he begins to unravel in the studio, the news from home also darkens. The chicks are all killed by what his mother assumes is a magpie, their torn bodies thrown out of the nest and left torn and ragged below (a scene recalling the defenestration of one of the female students at the academy earlier in the film, the sound of her breaking body provided by a ripe melon dropped from a stretching height). Nature seems to be imitating art, or perhaps there was an element of truth in Santini’s claim that his representation of brutal violence is an honest expression of the harsh way of the world. Gilderoy certainly doesn’t want to believe this. It disturbs his sense of pacific harmony, like a needle suddenly and clumsily lifted and scratched across an LP of the Lark Ascending, creating an ugly and disruptive aural tear. It could also be seen as an assault on the very cradle of his creativity, his shed, with the chicks possibly just collateral damage. There is a sense of guilt, that the senseless tearing apart of the chicks happened because he wasn’t there to protect them. There is a parallel sense that something similar might happen to the new actress Elena (the second Teresa) if her were to leave the studio. The connection is made between Elena and Gilderoy’s home, and in particular his mother (mother is home) when she reads to him from her script. The words are those his mother wrote to him in her last letter, expressing her distress at the bloody slaughter of the chicks, and her bewildered supposition that it must have been the work of a magpie. Gilderoy is horrified at what the supposed magpie has done. But could the magpie in fact be seen as his own self, or has his drift towards moral complicity with the violence onscreen, itself an assertion of greater natural or assumed male power and strength, summoned the malevolent bird? In creating an identification between Elena and his mother, and with her distress and evident sense of isolation, Gilderoy’s sonic assault on Elena (albeit insistently directed by Coraggio) is also a lashing out at his mother, adding a further Freudian element to this climactic drama.

In the end, Gilderoy reaches an understanding both of the impulses which underlie the film, and of the presence of such impulses within himself. Having committed his act of violence, and having done no harm, indeed inadvertently having helped the object of his assault, he reaches a state of calm self-awareness, and consciously rejects the lure of the studio and its reductive worldview. Like Elisa, he walks out of the machinery. He stares at the blank screen and a small circle of white light begins to glow, pulsate and expand. It’s as if Elisa’s disappearance into the void in her framing capsule of light (the light of life) is being reversed, and she is returning in a blaze of radiance – a redeeming Marian figure. The dot expands until the screen can hardly contain the blinding whiteness. The blood-red and black images which have been projected onto it (including the title sequence we saw at the start) and into Gilderoy’s tender psyche are wiped clean. Standing before the screen, his figure, face raised upwards, is outlined against the light pouring out into the studio until the high contrast background results in his being wholly absorbed into it, indistinguishable from the all-pervasive illumination. In a positive reversal of Silvia’s self-erasure, in which she was swallowed into a void of deep darkness, he disappears into and becomes light. In a sense (and bearing in mind the crucifixes in both the mixing room and his bedroom, his interior and exterior spaces) he redeems her, having asked if he could help her. We imagine him transported back to his Box Hill Eden, beginning the walk down the hill and across the fields to home, saying hello to mother before heading straight for his garden shed.


Keith Seatman said...

Excellent post. Still have not seen the film, but hope to very soon.

Tom Ruffles said...

I enjoy your posts, but is there any particular reason why you eschew paragraphs? It would make it easier to read if you used them.

Jez Winship said...

Thanks Keith. I can certainly heartily recommend the film - it's coming out on dvd at the end of the year if you can't get to see it at the cinema. Can't wait for the soundtrack, too.
Fair point, Tom, I shall try to make the paragraphs shorter in future.