A Question of Silence: review of “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Numbers Station”, Nthposition, early 2014

The original is here . Recently I watched Computer Chess which is similar to Berberian Sound Studio in many ways – an unusual setting and milieu usually ignored by filmmakers, and a main character’s descent into paranoia reflected in the filming style itself. I was ultimately disappointed with the latter aspect of Computer Chess, which seemed to me to be a cheap move, somewhat of a cop out. Retrospectively, something similar can be said of Berberian Sound Studio.

Full text

Smartphones have made video technology ubiquitous, and the ability to upload instantly to video sharing sites (you know their names, or rather the name of the 800 pound gorilla site) has made us all filmmakers. The ubiquity of mobile video technology has not been matched by a wide availability of sound recording technology.

�Silent� films were, of course, not in any way silent, accompanied as they were by a live orchestra or organist. Nevertheless, free from the need for naturalistic dialogue soundscapes, they adopted other storytelling techniques – and the use of sound, ironically, being one and the one which was most localised and decentralised. No doubt in 90 years, artefacts of our thrusting, self-congratulatory digital age will seem as quaint and olde-worlde as the cinema organ.

The skill of the Foley artist is appreciated most if you try and create a film yourself using substandard recording equipment. You realise the degree to which film is a sonic medium; not only in the use of music (which, after all, can so often seem forced and manipulative) but in the whole sonic equivalent of mise-en-sc�ne; footsteps, crowd noise, the sounds of nature.

Two somewhat underappreciated films of recent years explore sound and silence as means of communication, of deceit, of representation, while simultaneously exploring sound as a cinematic force.

The more accomplished of the two is Peter Strickland�s 2012Berberian Sound Studio, which seems to be catalogued by most websites as a horror. It is the story of Gilderoy, played by Toby Jones, a certain kind of repressed, uptight Englishman abroad of much mid-20th century fiction. This Gilderoy is a sound engineer of uncommon virtuosity, recruited by the apparently legendary director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to work on what, it rapidly emerges, is a schlocky piece of mid 1970s Italian sub-giallo horror. The opening credits of this, the one sequence of the film-within-a-film we actually see, are a perfect pastiche of this kind of thing.

Initially, the film has the plot of a Beckett play set in the angry, alienated Italy of the 1970s, a sort of �Waiting For Santini�. Gilderoy is treated with elaborate rudeness by the studio staff, and particular disdain by Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the producer who does most the actual work. We see and hear Gilderoy retreating into tape recordings of his parents house, a bucolic English soundscape. He did not expect to be working on �this kind of film�, he comments to Francesco as his assistants smash watermelons to create the sound of crushing heads. In one astonishing sequence, the Serbian actress Katalin Ladik plays an actress voicing the wails and screeches of a resurrected witch. This is a far more frightening scene than anything I�ve seen cooked up by CGI.

As the film continues, Gilderoy�s plight goes from Beckettian to Kafkaesque, as he tries to get his flight expenses reimburses, and then into something even stranger. He begins to inhabit the psychic world of the film itself. The film�s tricks (�trick� is not meant in any pejorative sense) with sound and vision begin to unravel the whole form of cinema itself.

There is, about halfway through, one lovely moment of childlike wonder during a powercut, as the Italian cast and crew abandon their bullying contempt of Gilderoy for a moment to marvel as he uses a lightbulb to create a UFO sound effect. It is a sequence all the more touching for the immediate return to a sort of psychodrama, a portrait of a crack-up reminiscent of the braver, more adventurous British cinema of Roeg and Russell and yet with more restraint than either.

Kaspar Barfoed�s 2013 The Numbers Station is a much more typical thriller fare (I found it quite entertaining, although readers who care about such things may like to know it has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). John Cusack plays Emerson Kent, a CIA assassin, disgraced for refusing to execute an innocent witness to one of his killings. As punishment, he is assigned to a �numbers station�, a transmitter of coded messages to field agents to assassinate targets (this is unambiguously the interpretation taken by the film, as a quick search on �numbers station� will reveal there is certainly an intelligence use for these stations, but the exact nature of these is unknown) , in Suffolk. He is paired with the code operator Katherine (Malin Åkerman), whose somewhat bouncier demeanour contrasts with the depressive, burnt-out Emerson.

The operator and their guard pull shifts of days at a time, and Emerson and Katherine work opposite Max and Meredith. During their brief interactions at changeovers, it is evident Max and Meredith are becoming a couple. As mentioned above, this is a much more conventional movie than Berberian Sound Studio, and what happens next is fairly predictable. Emerson and Katherine come under attack, and the film follows their attempts to work out what happened to Max and Meredith as well as defeat the baddies.

What is interesting is how this detective element to the plot is handled. A recording system was activated, and we see Emerson and Katherine listen to the events that previously transpired. The film doesn�t quite have the courage of its aural convictions, and as well as this we see live action of these events, but for a while it touches the hem of Berberian Sound Studio�s garment, and we see a cinematic world created not visually but in sound.

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