Berberian Sound Studio – Part 2 (The Sound of the Giallo and Narrative Sounds)

Part 1.

The Sound of the Giallo

There are certain facts about the Giallo sub-genre that critics enjoy repeating over and over again.  It seems unlikely that viewers approaching Berberian will not know at least something basic about the genre yet it is still something that takes up such a large chunk of the analysis surrounding the film, there could be an argument for them actually missing its point.  Giallo, of course is Italian for yellow which refers to the colour of the covers and pages of the pulpy novels that inspired many of the movement’s big directors; namely Mario Bava and Dario Argento.  Other names that come to fore are video nasties maestro Lucio Fulci, macabre voyeur Sergio Martino and later on Mario Bava’s son Lamberto Bava.  These are just a few of main players in the movement which is filled to the brim with copycats and adaptations of the same stories.

Visually, there are a number of elements often repeated, though they are only vaguely related to Berberian.  The black leather gloved killer is one aspect that dominates the genre.  An often unknown killer of mostly women (and sometimes turning out to be a woman in spite of the strong masculine image) who is only shown even in distance of one extreme close-ups of the gloves as they stab, strangle and kill in various, often very grisly and disturbing ways.

This is just one of a number of visual traits often associated with the genre, another being very large and ominous knives.  This aspect is often picked up upon by critics and much psychoanalysis of the emphasis on the items takes place, often to interesting conclusions especially due to the dramatic revelation of the killer being a woman.  One aspect that is rarely discussed though, other than for the additional cataloguing of “favourite cult soundtracks”, is the use of sound and music in these films.  There are three main themes of interest for the sound scholar, all of which are explored, satired and expanded upon in Berberian Sound Studio.

The first and most obvious of these is the use of scored music.  These scores would often be aptly vortex like in their repeated motifs and ranged from being collaborations between composers such as Ennio Morricone to prog bands such as Goblin.  The latter is one element that is taken to heart in Berberian with its faux opening sequence having a score by “Hymenoptera”; a very obvious but effective nod to Goblin who scored many of the most celebrated Giallo films and many of the films by Dario Argento.  The music is often kitsch with strange rhythms, electronic sound effects and repeated motifs that build to a cataclysmic climax (but not, contrary to a recent article in Sight & Sound, musique concrete).

The second is what Berberian chiefly concerns itself with; the sounds of murder.  Whereas a British or American film would, at most, show murder through a scream or sound of reaction, Giallo films did more than this which often made them controversial and accused of being overly grisly.  The sound of knives and decapitations were honed to a fine art so that murder was not simply a quick and easy occurrence but something deeply chaotic and barbaric.  Berberian portrays a relatively accurate take on how these sounds were made though is again only using it as a springboard to more interesting questions.

The final audio aspect, which is briefly touched upon within the final section of Berberian, is the role of vocal dubbing, both for English and Italian.  The dubbing in either language is often very loose, allowing a clash between sound and vision to grow even before a film tries to do anything daring.  Whenever a character talks, the image is constantly reminding the viewer that this is a film and not a reality in the same way many avant-garde filmmakers approached the medium.  This idea of subverting a narrative and showcasing its role as a fiction is one of Berberian’s main themes, even if it only overtly references it in the last few minutes of the film.  The line between fantasy and reality is one that appears to be constantly at war with itself in Giallo horror films.  This line is used as the barrier in Gilderoy’s world; a narrative within a narrative that becomes unstable in its fictionalising role.  All of these elements are typical Giallo aesthetics and in Berberian, as we are about to see, they are used in such a way as to not only pay homage to an array of films and directors but to question the very role sound, vision and the reality of film.

Sound In Narrative

The crux of Berberian is that it is a narrative about creating a narrative, explicitly through the use of music and sound.  This isn’t to say that Gilderoy is creating a narrative of his own; the scenarios of The Equestrian Vortex are already set and therefore the parameters of sound are already defined, even if they’re out of the sound engineer’s usual work.  A number of the sounds produced by Gilderoy are there to serve the obvious purpose of Santini’s narrative and it is by showing how this relationship is built up that Berberian later on uses it to its own ends as a metaphysical attack on its own main character and story.

Much has been linked in to the nods towards the Giallo genre, yet there is an odd irony within the film.  Santini’s picture may appear to be made with some of the gusto that no doubt similarly accompanied the films of the Giallo genre but the film in question, The Equestrian Vortex, is not strictly a Giallo film.  If anything, it seems to be a film with more akin to the Folk Horror genre than the Giallo, judging from its scenarios and its opening titles.  Giallo films were set in the modern day and their traits have been previously discussed so really, Berberian itself as a film has far more in common with the genre than Santini’s film.

This subtle but effective questioning of the relationship between homage and recreation adds to the basis of the narrative that seems very naturally grounded in its sound world at first.  From Gilderoy’s first recordings, the viewer is introduced to the idea of cinema sound engineering in a relatively accurate, if nostalgically outdated way.  The film of course had to show this relationship, though its introduction is again a highly questioning one.  When Gilderoy is first introduced to the film, he is given a visual demonstration of the sorts of sound he is being asked to create.  Two lackys appear and begin to violently squash melons onto the floor, creating a gloopy splattering effect to accompany a scene of on screen violence (that the viewer does not see).  This instantly ties the sounds of violence, gore and death to the visuals of fruit which gradually becomes more and more rotten throughout the film.

The sound in narrative elements are presented at their strongest in the references to the fruit as it can only be seen as metaphorical in Gilderoy’s real world and not within the chaos that engulfs him later on.  Strickland continues to focus on the vegetable matter, trying hard to make the viewer connect the strange imagery with the sounds and horrific nature of what they represent in Santini’s vision.  This effect is strictly within the narrative rather than explicitly commenting on it in a metaphysical sense but is still an extremely disarming effect.  Strickland appears to be questioning the relationship between sound and vision by attempting to reverse the effect that Gilderoy is trying to create for Santini.

Rather than having the visuals of the horror film (which the viewer never sees) enhanced by the sounds of normal objects being destroyed, he is constantly trying to make the actual visuals that are present when the horrific sound is created seem horrific as well.  Again the viewer can look back to Singing In The Rain to see a similar effect but one where the original visuals of a sound process creates a fluffy, comedic presence rather than a disturbingly horrific one.

With every shot of the vegetable matter increasingly rotting away, Berberian wants to substitute its lack of any visual horror from The Equestrian Vortex with the strangely flesh like visual of rotting matter.  In a film about the creation of new worlds through sound, the fact that it does this through sound means that it can be seen as almost being a film within a film.  It wouldn’t even seem out of place if it replicated that rather infamous scene from Mario Bava’s  Black Sabbath (1963).  In the scene, Boris Karloff breaks the fourth wall to the camera before riding off into a typical horror film storm.  However, the camera follows and then gradually pans back to reveal that actually Karloff isn’t riding a real horse but is on a film set and everything around him has been fake.

Karloff’s character seems in on the joke but that is the difference with Strickland’s film; Gilderoy is very much at the centre of the joke and the musical gesturing towards the less obvious visuals cues show Strickland’s hint at this typified Bava effect.  This also opens up the second area of Berberian which, instead of using sound as source to comment on the narrative, uses sound as a cause to an effect akin to narrative chaos.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell.

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