11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Berberian Sound Studio is undoubtedly the best British film of 2012. The deceptively simple tale of a mousy English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) working on a seedy '70s Italian giallo horror film The Equestrian Vortex, Berberian is a nightmarish blend of Lynch, Kafka and Polanski's the Tenant, and features such MOJO-friendly ingredients as a soundtrack by Broadcast, titles and design by Ghost Box's Julian House and nods and references to the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai and the enclosed sound-worlds of Joe Meek, and Vernon Elliott. To herald the release of the film, director Peter Strickland chose his five* favourite film soundtracks (*Peter Strickland writes: "It's eight not five. It was too difficult to list just five. Hope that's OK").
Warning: Some of these clips and the links within the text are NSFW.
1. John Barry - Body Heat
My favourite John Barry soundtrack is Walkabout without a doubt, but there are so many other beautiful scores of his that seem to slip below the radar. Body Heat is a really great soundtrack. I remember watching the film very late at night on ITV in the long, hot summer of 1989. I was sixteen and supposed to be revising for my exams, but I crept downstairs when the rest of the family were in bed and watched this simmering noir at low volume. Everyone spoke about Kathleen Turner the next day at school, but I was into the soundtrack. It definitely has an '80s feel with its wine bar saxophone vibe, but it's Barry's unmistakeable dark chords that take the score into more nocturnal territory. Saxophone aside, it could be a more oppressive cousin to Georges Delerue's Le Mepris that hangs the heart up to dry so well. Body Heat has remarkably close soundtrack; close in the sense of the weather and how the air changes during hot summer nights. There's also a dark lust that's all-pervasive and infects every chord. It's very simply evoked, but I imagine it would be incredibly hard to do. I can't think of any other soundtrack that is so evocative of the magnetic power that lust has over a male character, along with the crestfallen aftermath.
2. Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
I saw the film on a scuzzy bootleg VHS around 1994. I didn't think so much about the soundtrack at the time, but a friend of mine suggested I focus on it. As with Eraserhead [see below], the Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack is mostly just atmosphere, but it's equally effective as a piece of demented musique concrète in its own right. If Stockhausen or Pierre Schaeffer left Europe and became hillbillies, this is what it would sound like. It's an incredibly feral soundtrack that feels like the sonic equivalent of sniffing glue. There's a noxious quality to even the sound of the wind and it makes the likes of Merzbow and Whitehouse feel slick in comparison. One could imagine that the actual tape heads the soundtrack was recorded on were clogged with grease and dust, but that's what I love about it. It's the filthiest recording out there in every sense of the word and the noise never lets up. Along with Goblin's music for Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack claims more victims when turned up to 11.
3. Curtis Mayfield - Super Fly
What I love about this soundtrack is the way Mayfield sings about the characters in the film. There are some great examples of similar soundtracks in the '70s such as Harold And Maude by Cat Stevens or Anna by Serge Gainsbourg but Super Fly wins me over with its majestic euphoria. You hardly ever find songs that refer to the film's characters these days. I think the closest we had to that in the last decade was Belle & Sebastian's smashing Storytelling soundtrack. To have a soundtrack composer just sing Eddie You Should Know Better to one of the main characters is genius. It's a very effective form of 3rd person narration and gives so much colour and additional layers to a narrative. It probably would've been inappropriate to have Bernard Herrmann sing Travis You Should Know Better in Taxi Driver, but in Superfly, this approach just works. The soundtrack itself is so much better than the film. The mistake I made was buying the soundtrack before I saw the film and I guess by then, expectations were too high.
4. Stavros Xarhakos - Girls in the Sun
I've never seen the film, but when I was in Athens to promote my first film, Katalin Varga, I was let loose for a few hours to go to some record stores. I often pick up CDs or records on spec if the cover looks intriguing enough and this soundtrack lived up to its sleeve design. It's not a typically Greek soundtrack and largely avoids the bouzoukis and mandolins. The guitar arrangements are very gentle and the melodies are just great. As with every good soundtrack, the main theme is repeated several times with different variations. There's a kind of lazy vibe, which is too sun-drenched to be melancholy, but you feel we're only a couple of notches away if the musicians ran out of cigarettes and ouzo.
5. Alan Splet, David Lynch - Eraserhead
An obvious choice, but for a bloody good reason. I was lucky enough to see this film at the Scala Cinema with the Northern Line rumbling underneath. This is the soundtrack that started it all off - the industrial wall of sound. Alan Splet was the Phil Spector of industrial Gothic. His influence not only etched its way into future generations of film directors and sound designers, but also musicians. As with all great innovators, his trail has been lamely appropriated by the wrong hands to only resemble a generic rumble. The extended Splet reverb on a punch or a flame is so much part of the grammar now that it wouldn't seem out of place even in an episode of Emmerdale Farm. But this is the source and it's still so full of wonder, depth and a thousand possibilities. And there's the story of how the soundtrack was made: Splet and Lynch painstakingly abusing instruments, objects and putting bottles in the bath. It's such a powerfully unique piece of work. Hardly anyone bothers to manually come up with that sound anymore. There are so many sound libraries and atmos CDs that it's a case of "who's going to notice?" That's not the point! The sound Splet and Lynch came up with is part of what this is all about, but what so many people ignore is that this soundtrack is about the process of making sound and the discovery that leads us to. Nobody discovers anything by clicking on atmos effects they've just bought. It's not out there, it's just lazy.
6. Bruno Nicolai - A Virgin Among the Living Dead
Nicolai's genius can often be found hidden within some of Ennio Morricone's more devastating soundtracks. He was the conductor on The Bird with The Crystal Plumage soundtrack and I bet he's responsible for some of the more paranoid sonic intricacies on there. Even the trumpets sound like deadly mosquitoes on that soundtrack. On A Virgin Among the Living Dead, Nicolai nabs Morricone's muse Edda Dell Orso and locks her up in Jess Franco's haunted castle. It's almost impossible not to be amazed by any of Dell Orso's singing, but in this film, she really does sound as if she' s calling to us from beyond the grave. It's one of Nicolai's sparest, most barren soundtracks and it stays with you long after the film's characters disappear into a pond. I only saw the film earlier this year when Pete Tombs, the co-author of Immoral Tales, recommended it. It's my favourite Franco film so far, though I still have another hundred or so films of his to get through. A Virgin Among the Living Dead is like a hot-blooded Mediterranean counterpart to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls. I bought the Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack in 1996 during the heyday of that lounge fad, but it didn't make me feel like delving further into Franco's world. That's something I regret and I have years of catching up to do. This Nicolai soundtrack delivers the goods; from the heavily delayed opening high notes on what sounds like a dulcimer to the achingly plaintive wordless echoes from Dell Orso. There's even a psychedelic jam that seems randomly pasted into the film with the kind of bass/organ face off you'd expect from bands like Broadcast. Wonderful stuff.
7. Claudio Gizzi - Flesh for Frankenstein
I could list so many Italian composers and soundtracks worthy of deification. Riz Ortolani's Cannibal Holocaust, Nicola Piovani's Le Orme, Stelvio Cipriani's Anonimo Veneziano, Franco Battiato's Brunelleschi and Morricone's soundtracks for The Devil Is A Woman and Who Saw Her Die?, but Gizzi's soundtrack for Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein is a thing of equally rare beauty, but not mentioned as often as it should be. It's a typical example of a highly emotive soundtrack elevating a film beyond its artistic range. As much as I love Messrs Morrissey, Kier and Dallesandro, Flesh for Frankenstein itself is not their best work, but Gizzi's score transforms my experience of the film into something full of yearning. The bitter truth is a great soundtrack can con me into worshipping what might otherwise be a forgettable film. Flesh for Frankenstein is far from forgettable, but the same couldn't be said for some other 'exploitation' films made in Southern Europe during the '70s.
8. Luboš Fišer - Morgiana
Fišer's is mostly known for his soundtrack to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which was unearthed a few years ago to deservedly high acclaim. Here's another soundtrack that puts him on the same high pedestal as his contemporary, Liška. Morgiana shares some of the same musical and textural motifs as Valerie, but delves into more melancholic and intricate resonances, especially during a wonderfully strange music box sequence. I don't know what it was about soundtracks made in the former Czechoslovakia. There's something about the microphones they used or just the room tone. So many of these soundtracks sound as if they were recorded in a catacomb. There's a hauntingly distinctive natural reverb to be found in the recordings that no amount of plug-ins could replicate. You have plug-ins that can replicate all manner of different room tones, but to my ears, it's not that close. One of the sound engineers on Berberian Sound Studio got a bit carried away with his plug-ins claiming that the technology is finally here to replicate the sound of Luc Ferrari's Presque Rien. Well, he was wrong and we ended up with egg on our faces.
After the jump, MOJO's Andrew Male speaks to Strickland about the Berberian Sound Studio's sonic influences.
When did the idea of Berberian Sound Studio first come to you? Was it always going to be a film about sound?
I started it as a short film, a really short one-minute film in 2005 with The Bohman Brothers in 2005, who have a cameo in the film and then it just came back. It was a whole bunch of different things. I used to listen to the Mondo Morricone compilations soundtracks in the '90s, not knowing what films they were for. I'd listen to the music and think, Oh this is beautiful. And then you finally watch the films and you think, Oh my God. Because apart from Italy, horror usually has a very hard soundtrack. Then you start to read more about these composers and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and Bruno Maderna who did the Death Laid An Egg soundtrack and studied with John Cage so I was really piecing together in this scenario where these very academic guys, very formal, avant-garde artists are making a bit of money on the side with these giallo soundtracks. But because academia isn't really paying attention to their extra curricular jobs, they kind of freed themselves up and did even more outrageous stuff. This is really advanced stuff. Like Morricone's soundtrack for Space 1999 which is like Sun Ra. It can be beautiful stuff, especially if you divorce it from the film. Like Riz Ortolani's soundtrack to Cannibal Holocaust I was playing that to someone the other day and they were saying, Oh this is beautiful. But that's a very hard film to watch. And I saw the unedited version. So that's one side of it of it but the other side where, if Penderecki is on record, difficult sound guy but as soon as you put him in The Shining people can understand that. The other side of that is Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Fans of avant-garde music wouldn't accept that as a great soundtrack but if you played it to them in a concert hall, This is fantastic, phenomenal musique concrete.
So, those are just some of the sound influences on Berberian Sound Studio?
We're just playing with those ideas, hopefully not in an art-school way, but just having fun with it. I guess the film swings, in this sonic no-man's land, between academia and also exploitation. This world of opposites. Also, you have to factor in how the film was made. This is a film about analogue that was shot on digital camera.
This is one of the questions I wanted to ask; the tricks you played on the audience. For example, in the scenes where you see Gilderoy and the foley artists using melons and cabbages to soundtrack stabbings and split heads were you really using melons and cabbages?
Yeah. Sadly, with the foley work, for personal reasons I had to be away so. That was done in Helsinki and I didn't see any of it but I heard rumours that they used meat to recreate the sound of the watermelons being sliced. I'm still trying to verify that. But I was there for the overdubs. I was there for the screaming.
Were the actresses doing the screaming the actresses we see doing the screaming in the finished film?
Half and half. Two from the film did their own screaming. Chiara D'anna who plays Elisa at the end and Eugenia Caruso who plays Claudia. The other ones were either friends - I had one of my English students volunteer in exchange for a free lesson - and the other one was ['60s and '70s horror "scream queen"] Suzi Kendall. That was surreal. She took a bit of convincing but she was incredibly graceful and told me some very funny stories about the giallo days, which made me feel better about the chaos of the Berberian studio. She said it was like that. Physically, the weird thing for us was the use of the white noise on the actress at the end of the film. Every time you see a horror film you vicariously feel what they do but you never physically feel what they do. The William Castle days are gone. So I guess I wanted to bring back a bit of William Castle and subject the audience to what the characters are going through. But, at the same time, you don't want to give them tinnitus. How far do you go with that? I was a big fan of My Bloody Valentine and when they first did You Made Me Realise live I was just annoyed but when you come home, and you're still hearing it, I thought, that was genius. Within the context of rock music. You hear white noise all the time now and it doesn't work, but at the time it was so radical. You could enter that sound. It was beautiful. It wasn't aggressive.
What is your favourite use of sound in the film?
Well, my favourite bit is when the sound cuts out completely. Even the room tone in the film is turned off and you're completely aware of the room tone of the cinema you're in or your stomach rumbling or whatever. I always loved the idea of sound being noticeable by it's absence. I just like playing games with all these things. There's a scene in the film when Gilderoy is in his apartment, where you hear rain but when he opens the window it's a sunny evening. It's actually the sound from his reel-to-reel. All the sound in the film is diegetic. It was really liberating to restrict ourselves to that. Every single sound in the film can be located to a physical source: the revox, the tannoy, the speakers. All the music is coming from somewhere. A non-diegetic feeling but always with a diegetic source.
When did you bring Broadcast into the project?
That was always there. They were the only choice for the film, really. I used to collect those Duophonic 7-inches. They became amazingly good. So incredibly psychedelic and delicate and they really evoked this sound from Midnight Cowboy but without the pastiche element. They really transcended that and it was just a joy to read their interviews because you always found out about new stuff. They were the first group to talk about Basil Kirchin Czech soundtracks. It's not just about what I watch or listen to, it's about reading interviews to find out what they're referencing. It is that treasure trail. I got into artists who gave me that trail. People who just spoke about who they were sleeping with I wasn't interested in. Some people say it's a shame to copy something. It's not. Berberian is full of that. So, luckily, I new Broadcast's keyboardist, Roj, socially without knowing he was in Broadcast. He put me in touch with Trish [Keenan] and James [Cargill] from the group in 2009, then Warp got involved a little later which made it more official. It was like a no-brainer. But, obviously, we all know what happened with Trish so some of it was done when she was alive and James did a lot of stuff afterwards. There are a lot of dubbing charts in the film and they might look really alien but I made sure that I put them in after James put all the music in, so they're completely accurate. It was a lot of fun to do that but, again, if you don't get that it doesn't matter.
There is a real magical beauty to that world though, isn't there.
I remember [Ghost box designer] Julian House talking about this. We spoke a lot about Joe Meek, a lot of the garden-shed eccentrics, Vernon Elliott , Trevor Wishart and about how the nature of analogue sounds, the physicality of the razor blade cutting, and people like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire were... where concrete sounds were being transformed, and it's like a spell, an alchemical thing, but also you've got the tape box, which always looked a bit pagan, didn't it. So you can see someone late at night, the vision gets a bit blurred, OK, that's a message. Julian was instrumental because he came up with the Equestrian Vortex credit sequence. That was not in the script. He just said, 'How about we do an actual credit sequence for the film that Gilderoy is working on?' I thought that that was a brilliant idea. We wanted to start the whole film with those titles. Everyone was behind it but it just didn't work.
Did you write The Equestrian Vortex as a finished film? Are we meant to want to see this film?
The problem with that film is the attitude the director has to it. It's a bit like the tabloids when they talk about an horrific act of violence and, in bold lettering, detail that act of violence: sensationalizing but trying to make out how terrible it is. I've got nothing against exploitation when it's honest. So Santini to me is not a classic giallo director. He's like a playboy. Even if were done by a different director it would be a particularly nasty giallo, like What Have You Done To Solange crossed with Black Sunday Suspiria. But, yes, I wrote it out in my head as a synopsis to the point where it intersects with Gilderoy's life in Dorking. So, yes, Santini's film. It's a bit too much for my liking. It's a bit weird writing these things. It's obviously a step too far but it was an experiment to see how an audience reacts to these descriptions of unspeakable horror but, at the same time, the pantomime of watching these vegetable being cut up. This happens every day. These guys do that. There is a jaded quality to these foley artists who've been doing this for decades. They still do that. That's the one element in film-making where you still need the human element, the human rhythm, the human touch. I was talking to Peter Howell of The Radiophonic Workshop about that and he was saying, "Please, always remember the physical element".
Given what you went through making Katalin Varga, this Englishman stranded in a foreign country desperately trying to finish him film, worried about his finances, how much autobiography would you say is in Berberian Sound Studio?
I'm always disappointed when directors say, Yeah, this film is about me. I'm very careful about that kind of thing but, I'm half Greek and half English so in a sense I've been Gilderoy in a Mediterranean studio my whole life. They're two massively, extreme differences, the Greek way of thinking and the English way of thinking, and I have that in my bloodstream.
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 4:31 PM GMT 30/08/2012