Berberian Sound Studio – Peter Strickland’s Postmodern Pastiche
Peter Strickland intended Berberian Sound Studio (2012) as a film tribute to the way analogue sound was created in the 1970s giallo movies while eschewing a too retro or faithful rendition of the original. Starting from Strickland’s stated intention, I will explore the ways in which the film qualifies as an affectionate pastiche. I will also take a look at the critique of the genre, triggered by the distance from the original that the pastiche takes.
Strickland’s film, recently adapted for a theatrical representation in London, is about foley artist Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a middle-aged reserved and timid Englishman, who goes to Italy to make the sound effects for a film at a post-production company called Berberian Sound Studio. He soon learns to his dismay that the work he was commissioned to do has nothing in common with the nature documentaries he used to work on back home in Dorking, as it involves a much less innocuous type of sounds and cinematography: it is a horror movie of a genre very popular in Italy during that time, in the seventies, called giallo. Reticent and slightly embarrassed, Gilderoy soon finds himself trapped in the bizarre world he is supposed to make audible, as the difference between reality and fiction gradually becomes distorted and indistinct.
I will examine in the first part of my essay a series of associations and contrasts involved in the culture clash that Gilderoy experiences, to throw light on the psychological and emotional dynamic of the characters; this will help to better understand the narrative as well as the critique of violence and sexual exploitation that Strickland’s film articulates about the giallo movies discussed in the third part. In the second part, I tackle several aspects related to how sound is manufactured in the film, from the sound machines to the foley, which I discuss in relation to the notions of pastiche, schizophonia and rhizophonia.
The film opens with Gilderoy walking on the long corridors of the Berberian Sound Studio, having just landed from England, suitcases in hand. While he is rather cautiously pacing along the corridor, we can hear dramatic female screams gushing out from behind remote doors. The place looks like a deserted psychiatric hospital, were it not for the distressing sounds. As Gilderoy is discussing his travel expenses with Elena, the lady at the reception, a nostalgic nondiegetic tune emphasizes the eeriness of the atmosphere and anticipates the film’s thematic.
Gilderoy is part of a long character tradition, which belongs not so much to film as to the Gothic literature of English expression: the innocent man who finds himself a foreigner in a significantly different culture, going back to the fiction of Ann Radcliffe and later, Bram Stoker. The innocuous tourist-narrator of novels such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian for example, was placed in an environment imbued with mystery and dark sensuality, whose cultural difference accentuated the feeling of hostility that the land engendered, forcing the boundaries of the man’s self-understanding and ability to adjust. Just like his literary predecessors, Gilderoy comes out as the typical Englishman from the very beginning: polite, restrained, resilient and rigorous in his pragmatism. His middle age notwithstanding, he seems to have little life experience and becomes easily baffled and bashful. First, in front of beautiful and mean Elena who either refuses to help him with his travel reimbursement requests or is very reluctant when she does help; then, in relation to Cosimo (Francesco Coraggio), the producer, who constantly reproaches him various slights and oversights; and finally, to Santini, the director with a womanizer’s reputation, whose name is the Italian for “little saint”.
The linguistic and cultural differences increase Gilderoy’s initial adjustment difficulties. When first meeting Cosimo, Gilderoy is promptly sanctioned for his reserve and introversion, and his cultural difference is formulated as a shortcoming: “What’s wrong with you English? You don’t believe in handshakes? No hugs, no kisses?”, he asks. The language differences gradually exacerbate Gilderoy’s feeling of isolation and unease, and add incomprehension to the bewilderment of his task. He doesn’t get reimbursed for the trip, he is constantly mistreated and bullied, and his moral limits are pushed beyond what he is capable to accept. The garden shed he used as his sound studio at home –“Only two in at a time!”, as he describes it—naturally seems preferable to the sophisticated Berberian studio. In the privacy of his apartment, Gilderoy reads his mother’s letters and listens to his personal collection of sounds from home: his mother’s footsteps, the mantel clock, the doorbell, etc. These sounds recreate a domesticated space of simplicity and innocence, predictability and serenity, a space which he can master, opposed to the out of control space of the studio, as a producer of terror.
His awkwardness when it comes to sexuality and his rather stereotypical English prudishness –rendered with great nuance and subtlety by Toby Jones– further separate him from the nonchalant exuberance and sensuality of his Italian colleagues. Sex appears only twice in visual suggestion. First, in a scene when Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), one of the actresses, comes to him visibly distressed and confesses how she was molested by Santini, in an awkwardly sensual moment that blends English with Italian. The second occurrence takes place in a short scene showing Santini in one of the studio rooms engaged in a less than saintly activity with a woman he was casting. Aside from these two instances, all sexual scenes are rendered exclusively through sound. They refer to the film within the film (The Equestrian Vortex) and Gilderoy needs to contribute to them, a point to which I will return in the second part.
His innocence and distinctive prudishness, coupled with the trope of the foreigner whose mode of relating to the world he visits is that of “first sight”, function as defamiliarization devices: Gilderoy’s unadulterated gaze is the perfect vehicle for looking at the giallo genre. When he first encounters Santini, the director tries to defend his work from the debasing word “horror”. He suggests The Equestrian Vortex is an auteur film — “a Santini film”– with a very specific vision that treats violence as part of the human condition. “These things happened”, he tells Gilderoy, referring to the torture of the witches, and claims that it is his moral duty to show the truth; Gilderoy seems unconvinced. In a scene close to the moment when the boundary between reality and fantasy becomes indistinct, Santini embraces the word “horror” with more honesty in conversation with Gilderoy, saying that “nobody has seen this horror before”. He believes Gilderoy is by now more inured with the genre and therefore more ready to accept complicity. However, Gilderoy hardly seem to be initiated. The repeated misunderstandings and cultural differences, coupled with the aggressive and almost bullying treatment they come with, paint a picture of a nightmarish reality which eventually wears him down. The foley artist who used to give life to nature documentaries in the bucolic English countryside, now has to give death by torture in a film of sexploitation and vengeance, in a sexually unrestrained, decadent environment. We may say that he lives the drama of the Romantic hero, deracinated from his natural environment and suddenly forced to deal with what gradually takes the shape of an unconscious out of bounds and its desires. This line of thought will make the topic of another essay, however.
2. Pastiche and Postmodernism
Postmodernism made pastiche one of its main aesthetic practices illustrating, to use Frederic Jameson’s words, the cultural logic of late capitalism. There are various ways of understanding this notion as the preferred mode of expression for postmodernism, three of which are important for my analysis. First, pastiche was coherent with a certain irreverent attitude toward authorship, as the postmodernists proclaimed the death of the author. No longer do we need an authorial voice who privileges a particular set of meanings. Texts can be played with, deconstructed and reconstructed to create new meanings – an endeavour which privileged the reader as a producer of meaning and reclaimed the text in a gesture of appropriation, which is a reproduction in the artistic realm of the capitalist logic. Secondly, pastiche is the reflection of a playful attitude towards the text that was promoted by postmodernism. Since meaning is no longer fixed, one can play with the language and conventions of a text; a text is no more than a free play of signs within language. Interpretation is no longer organized by any customary hierarchy of concepts, hence playing with ideas, styles, fragments of texts is not only encouraged in postmodernism, but a militant stance against the hegemony of interpretations of the past –and especially of a modernist understanding of art as high art, accessible only to the elites. Thirdly, if responding emotionally in a way that was characteristic of the masses was something modernists avoided at all costs, postmodernism comes with a vindication of emotion and affect as important ways of relating to the work of art – a work that blurs the boundaries between high and low culture and is largely targeted at the masses.
In my analysis of the film, I draw on Richard Dyer’s theorization of the concept of pastiche. Dyer discusses the use of pastiche as a way of honouring the works of the past that comes with a critical stance against “today’s emotional economy”. The work of pastiche, Dyer explains, helps us realize the historicity and cultural embeddedness of our own frameworks of feeling by exposing us to what was and what no longer is regarding ways of expressing and relating to emotion. In Dyer’s formulation, pastiche “imitates formal means that are themselves ways of evoking, moulding and eliciting feeling, and thus in the process is able to mobilise feelings even while signalling that it is doing so.”
Berberian Sound Studio is not a mere collage or imitation, but a reworking that involves certain exaltation of the original while keeping its distance from it. It represents both an appropriation of the original in a playful postmodernist manner, unafraid of displaying its nostalgic gaze, and a distantiation from it, as I will show in what follows.
2.1 Sound Machines, Artifact Fetish and Schizophonia
“A new world of sound awaits you. A new world that requires all your magic powers”, Cosimo tells Gilderoy as he welcomes him to the Berberian Sound Studio. This new world of sound is actually old and forgotten for the contemporary audience, and it is precisely its obsolete character that makes it worthy of being dug up from the past and made new as pastiche. Back in the seventies however, it was ground-breaking and state-of-the-art, as giallo films innovated with music and sound more than any other genre of film in the sixties and seventies. Drawing inspiration from the various experimental styles used by the giallo, the music of Strickland’s film ranges from free jazz, to prog-rock, to Italian modernism. The compositions are mostly British and belong to avant-garde musicians such as James Cargill of Broadcast, and Nurse With Wound (the recording name of musician Steven Stapleton). They reflect a rather eerie contemporary type of music in Britain called hauntology, which combines synthesized sound with musique concrète and melancholy vocals. A significant source of inspiration for the soundtrack of the film as well as for its title is a 20-minute piece called Visage (1961) composed by Luciano Berio for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian.
The film opens with a close-up shot of the switches on an industrial design sound machine, whose clicks we can hear, coupled with an off-screen haunting, nostalgic music. The various machines and gadgets that take up space, as if sound itself were visible and tangible, become objects of aesthetic pleasure in the film, shown in repeated close-ups. One can see the mixing desks, with the retro switches and cables, the metal reels, the copicat machines and the looping tapes that, in one of the scenes, fill the floor of the room–testimony to an actress’s revenge on being maltreated. The physical, kinesthetic pleasure of making sound, the fetishistic indulgence in watching the tape spooling and unspooling, in hearing the click of the on and off switches operated by the sound technicians, all these are foregrounded in a nostalgic pastiche of the ways of creating sound back in the 1970s.
During a power-cut in the studio, Gilderoy shows his colleagues how he can produce the sound of a hovering UFO by using just a lightbulb and what looks like the metal comb of an electric radiator. Everyone stands in awe of his craftsmanship and someone even asks him childishly for an encore. Another time, he holds Silvia in thrall with his knowhow of the Watkins Copicat – a device that can double, triple and quadruple the voice echo, by giving it enhanced reverberation effect. The film lingers on Gilderoy’s awe-inspiring feats of ingenuity and takes the viewer as a secret co-participant in this affectionate celebration of the bygone days of analog sound.
By highlighting the recorded quality of sound, with its props and sound distortion devices, Strickland does not only create a nostalgic pastiche, but also brings to mind the schizophonic quality of recorded sound and dubbing inherent in filmmaking. M. Schafer defines schizophonia as “the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction.” If each and every sound used to be “uncounterfeitable” and “unique” in the past, as it was not separated from its source, Schafer explains that nowadays “sounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence”. Sounds can be cut out, displaced, replaced and inserted into any desirable context, corrupting the purity of the natural soundscape and contributing to the lo-fi sound pollution. However, if Schafer was critical of the technological developments that affected the production of sound, Strickland is playful and celebratory of the artificial in sound-making. Discussing Schafer’s World Soundscape Project, M. Akiyama explains that these two attitudes (looking for the naturalness vs. playing with technology in sound) belong to different cultural paradigms: the time when Schafer’s theory appeared was tributary to a modernist outlook that still held grand narratives in high regard, a time in which “media storage still captured the stream of the real whose flow would eventually be fragmented by digital encoding”. Schafer’s rather modernist notion of schizophonia with its underlying binary opposition between nature and technology is reinterpreted by Strickland’s postmodern celebration of technology. Berberian foregrounds the artifice in its use of sound: the natural takes the backstage, while the artifice takes center stage in a postmodernist manner that shows the constructed character of reality and places value on the sound as a tool, as opposed to the part of an untainted original.
2.2 Foley Effects and Rhizophonia
A more topical notion to explain Strickland’s celebration of technology is that of “rhizophonia”, which Neepa Majumdar discusses in her account of another film that centers on the contrast between image and sound: The Halfmoon Files (2007). Quoting Stanyek and Piekut, Majumdar defines rhizophonia as the “fundamentally fragmented contemporary sonic condition in which the separation of sound and source or sound and image is not only endemic, but also endlessly proliferative and provisional.” As a rule, film always tries to disguise the schizophonia that lies at the basis of its production to present a natural coming together of image and sound on the screen. Strickland’s film flaunts this hidden distinction for the spectator and embraces rhizophonia, where “sounds and bodies are constantly dislocated, relocated, and co-located in temporary aural configurations.” In order to better grasp the notion of rhizophonia in connection to the film, let us take a look at the foley effects.
In opposition to the awe-inspiring sound machines, comes the comical pantomime of making foley effects. This opposition is strengthened by the fact that the foley is all about nature: vegetables and other derived products. We never see the visual treatment of horror in The Equestrian Vortex, but we do see how the horror is made by way of sound: melons are slashed to produce the sound of slashing heads, radish stems are ripped off to signify a witch’s hair being pulled off, cabbage is stabbed, overripe vegetables are forcefully thrown on the floor to suggest bodies falling from high towers, and so on. They subsequently make up a huge rotting pile, an image that is shown recurrently throughout the film, in alternation with the intermittent electric sign Silenzio.
In shifting attention from the images that the sound is supposed to accompany to the visual aspect of how sound is produced –to the story of sound itself—Strickland shows the extent to which sound can be manipulative, much more than the image, as we need to compensate with our imagination for what we do not see. Critic Sam Davies explains that the film “comes to exist for the viewer as if in negative: things normally hidden or disguised in its production are unveiled and foregrounded. Instead of human viscera, we see watermelons laid out on tables as studio assistants belabor them with machetes, creating a sound-only orgy of violence.”
The emphasis on the repetition of screams that do not come out as required and on the foley effects that Gilderoy does not have the heart to perform takes the scenes out of their context and inserts them in an endless loop, from which they can be replaced and displaced ad infinitum. The focus is no longer on a linear, unique narrative but, in a postmodern fashion, on fragmentariness, endless repetition and circularity that comes closer to rhizophonia, with its proliferative and provisional character.
The recurring images of rotting vegetables and the Silenzio electric sign that punctuate the narrative are visual symbols used to enhance the pastiche quality of the film. Together with the sounds constructed in the studio, from the elaborate screaming to the foley effects, they represent aesthetic elements, floating signifiers placed in the economy of the film for stylistic effect. They are taken out of their context and cannot make a coherent whole in the absence of a unitary representation which is supposed to serve the story. Without this representation, their function is rather fetishistic and their presence points to a certain contemporary sensibility with a bent on revisiting the past.
3. “Maybe it’s best I go home!” or Berberian’s Critique
The contrast between the fear that the horror is supposed to elicit and the silly way in which it is produced by foley should normally have a comic effect, and partially, it does. The juxtaposition of the gruesome descriptions of the scenes with the rather banal imagery, creates a bathos effect –a combination of exaltation and commonplace that lies at the basis of Berberian’s comic. However, the film insists on showing the slashed melons and the piles of rotting vegetables lying on the floor, which suggests how making such sound effects does violence to nature. This critique is strengthened through Gilderoy’s striking difference in the context of the claustrophobic Berberian Sound Studio. Gilderoy’s closeness to nature and the comfort he seeks in it make him a Romantic soul straight out of Wordsworth’s lines. The contrast between his previous work, which was respectful and praising of nature and the rather ridiculous, undignified acts that he is asked to perform round off the ecological injunction the film articulates.
Berberian Sound Studio shows how films of the giallo genre do violence to human nature as well, through their sensationalism and the sexual exploitation of women. There is an interesting analogy between the making of sound in the foley effects, which resembles the preparing of food (cutting and boiling vegetables), and the making of movies, which are also ingested figuratively, consumed. Strickland, referring to the critique the film raises, mentioned that “when you deal with the illusion of violence, you’re inevitably making a reflexive piece of work that questions both an audience’s consumption of it and how filmmakers represent it.” This questioning is made apparent in a scene at the beginning of the film, when the demonstration of the foley effects achieved by melon slashing ends in one of the Massimos –the two men who did the foley before Gilderoy arrived– offering Gilderoy a slice of melon to eat. The act of consuming the outcome of the representation of violence is made literal.
We get indications of violence that begins to touch Gilderoy quite early in the film. In one of the several scenes from his apartment, he is in the kitchen and he pours tomato juice in the blender after which he turns it on: he is working to create the sound for a chainsaw effect. The red liquid splashes on his face and shirt, as if he has been wounded.
Strickland’s critique extends to the violence against women onscreen and the sexism present in the horror film industry, as it is clearly evident in both Cosimo’s and Santini’s attitudes to the women they work with. In a later scene, we are in the studio and Cosimo and Santini explain in a condescending machoistic way to an actress that she did not produce the sounds of a scream to their required degree of intensity. Gilderoy asks what is the matter, since the conversation was in Italian, and Cosimo replies in his characteristically crude manner that Veronica can’t use her imagination. Instead, we soon find out that Gilderoy can use his, and after repeated tries in the studio to make the foley with liquid that he is supposed to pour slowly on a hot pan to suggest the penetration of a witch with a hot-poker, he gives up. Cosimo tries to persuade him by emphasizing the fiction of it all and Gilderoy’s own part in creating it. Apparently, this doesn’t comfort Gilderoy — “Maybe it’s best I go home”, he concludes. The critique of the assumptions behind the genre transpires through the character of this essentially decent man, whose carefulness and respect for nature and human nature make him reject performing those brutal gestures, and who is finally broken by the gruesomeness of the task.
The scream as a performative act — the “Holy Grail of horror cinema” as Kulezic-Wilson calls it— is also relevant. Its placement in the cinematic narrative is essential, as it must initiate an outburst at the right moment and have the highest effect calculated. From this perspective, the scream as the Holy Grail of The Equestrian Vortex is misplaced because the real scream of horror –with the right pitch, tone and feel that Cosimo is looking for– happens outside the screen: “I just need to scream”, Silvia tells Gilderoy, asking to go inside the recording booth. As Kulezic-Wilson remarks, “this one moment in the film gives voice to all the badly treated, harassed, and exploited women in the horror industry.” Partly shown as a muted image, the scream scene –like other images similarly divorced from their attending sound—has another function as well: it is a postmodern self-reflexive device of drawing the audience’s attention to the constructed nature of the film.
Berberian Sound Studio is a pastiche of the giallo genre and especially of the way sound was produced in the seventies in those movies. The film foregrounds a nostalgia about the craft of creating sound through an art whose very materiality has been replaced by digital sophistication, while also voicing a critique of the way foley effects were achieved. The film distances itself from its own model and subverts the conventions of the horror genre by flaunting its constitutive mechanisms, deconstructing the narrative and the image, and divorcing the sound from what it is supposed to represent, in a playful attitude. These aspects qualify Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio as an affectionate pastiche of the giallo genre and of its way of making sound. The double rapport that Strickland’s film has with the past –the perpetual tango of closeness and separation– can best be illustrated by the mise-en-scene of the film, which is predominantly that of the Berberian Sound Studio. The place contains awe-inspiring sound machines and devices reminiscent of the past and triggering nostalgia, but it also emanates a claustrophobic atmosphere connected with that very past. Idealization of a bygone age and of a certain way of doing things is in human nature and it fulfils a certain need for feeling deeply, but it is equally quite stifling and oppressive.
- Peter Strickland, “Special Features, Director’s Commentary,” Berberian Sound Studio DVD, Artificial Eye, 2012. ↑
- The play premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London, on Feb. 18, 2019. ↑
- The genre is a combination of sex and violence, exploitative of women, and has a mixture of Gothic, mystery and supernatural elements as well as soundtracks that were quite innovative and musically complex. ↑
- In discussing the aesthetic practices and modes of expression of postmodernism, I draw on Cristopher Butler’s Postmodernism. (New York/London: 2010), 28-30. ↑
- Richard Dyer. Pastiche. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 180. ↑
- R. Murray Schafer. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977/1993), 90. ↑
- Schafer’s term was intended as a “nervous word” and relates to the notion of schizophrenia to convey a “sense of aberration and drama”. He decried the development of “a synthetic soundscape in which natural sounds are becoming increasingly unnatural while machine-made substitutes are providing the operative signals directing modern life.” (Schafer 91) ↑
- Mitch Akiyama. “All That Connects Us is Imagined Sound.” Sound, Media, Ecology. (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 117. ↑
- Neepa Majumdar. “Audible Traces: Sonic Specters and The Halfmoon Files”. (Unpublished transcript of a paper presented at Visible Evidence XVII, Aug. 9-12, 2010, Istanbul, Turkey), 8. ↑
- Sam Davies. “Berberian Sound Studio.” Review. Sight and Sound (22 Sept. 2012), 86. ↑
- Strickland quoted in Jason Wood, “The Art of Noise,” Sight and Sound (22 September 2012), 34. ↑
- Danijela Kulezic-Wilson. Sound Design Is the New Score. Theory, Aesthetics, and Erotics of the Integrated Soundtrack. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 85. ↑
- Ibid., 87.↑