Film Noir

Berberian Sound Studio

Beberian Sound Studio

In the early 70s Flaming Star appeared in the Sight and Sound list of 10 best ever Westerns.  This was a surprise because Elvis Presley played the lead role in Flaming Star.   A vehicle for a popular singer had broken free of the limits prescribed by critics.  Berberian Sound Studio is a low budget horror movie directed by Peter Strickland but it made the 10 best films of 2012.  Since then it has had a quiet existence, confined to Film 4 in the main.   Inside the brains of those who have watched the film it is different.  There it is very much alive.

Berberian Sound Studio begins with the titles of a film called The Equestrian Vortex.  The titles serve as a tribute to Italian horror filmmaker, Dario ArgentoThe audience does not see any of this film.  The horror is in what we hear, and this is manufactured in the Italian sound studio that employs Gilderoy, the shy and mother dominated Englishman who works as the Foley operator.  His experience has previously been confined to working on nature films that idealise the English countryside.  Virtually all of Berberian Sound Studio takes place in the studio but it becomes clear that much of what is happening in the film reflects reality.  Francisco, the head of the sound studio, is an exploitative powerful male who avoids paying Gilderoy for his work and Francisco, like Dracula, has power that cannot be challenged.  Actresses are harassed by handsome unscrupulous males, as they would be in any horror movie.  Gilderoy is disturbed by his new work and what he sees in the horror movie but slowly he is drawn into the film.  As the horror becomes part of how he sees the world and himself, his identity begins to crumble.    Perhaps, the film has a flaw.  The conflict between the shy English technician and his confident handsome Italian employers depends on stereotypes but much of what happens is inside the mind of Gilderoy and it makes sense. 

Berberian Sound Studio has a film noir equivalent.  Road To Nowhere by Monte Hellman also explores the uneasy distinction between cinema and reality.  Both films insist that ultimately what we see on the screen will contain something of ourselves and that what we see in the real world will be shaped by what we see on the screen.   We are all out there in films by someone.  None of us will ever know all the films that have our alternative identities.  Horror is guaranteed because we have repetitive longings and fears.   We are compelled to imagine ourselves as those that we find terrifying.  Like us all, Gilderoy is unable to resist the welcoming horror.  Inevitably,  filmmakers will sometimes become lost on their own imaginary roads.  But as the Goths understand well, none of us can claim independence.   In the film noir of Hellman such thoughts lead to nowhere and, in the horror of Berberian Sound Studio, they produce madness.  Well, the stakes of the genres were always different.

Howard Jackson has written 3 books that have been published by Red Rattle Books.  His next book, Nightmares Ahead, will be published in spring 2014.  He has written 3 stories for Zombie BitesIf you want to read more about zombies and vampires click here.


Film Noir Bonus – Batman – The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

If any Hollywood blockbuster makes a film noir list, it will be The Dark Knight. When introduced in 1939, Batman served as a fascist fantasy to resist Franklyn Roosevelt. Those roots are obvious in The Dark Knight. Except the line, ‘Die a hero or live long enough and become the villain’, reduces the distance between noir gloom and super hero paranoia. Fabulous muscles or not, Batman has to battle against a fate that dooms him to alienation and depression.

Gotham in Batman is dystopian. The heroes provide no relief. Ordinary people suffer while the omnipotent and exceptional seek vengeance against each other. The opening shot in The Dark Knight echoes the beginning of Psycho. It zooms into a window in a tall building.   In Psycho, the audience sneaks a look below the venetian blind. In The Dark Knight, the criminal invites the audience inside by smashing the window with his machine gun. Windows are destroyed throughout The Dark Knight; the invitation to see by cinema is persistent. This may be for effect but it echoes how the film is obsessed with facial appearance and identity. Batman and The Joker use masks to pretend they are something they are not. Harvey Dent, whose own name is defeatist, becomes a villain when his face is disfigured. The Joker is desperate to see the face of Batman and know his equal. Perhaps, the vulnerable windows that are smashed hint at the random destruction of external identity and our desire to destroy the delusions of others.

After the first wrecked window, the bank heist begins. We are reminded of the racecourse robbery in the classic film noir, The Killing. As that movie insisted, tragedy requires unfulfilled potential. And the Joker is special. Because the mask is permanent, he always amuses and terrifies. Batman, like Zorro, is dull without the mask yet the mask, when worn, only reduces him to an anonymous avenger.

Many interpret The Dark Knight as a response to 9/11; allege it reveals what is at stake for the community when faced with terrorists wanting chaos and destruction. Michael Caine remembers his army company killing a bandit in the forest. They burned down the forest. This is either a liberal warning or fascist assertion. There are many metaphors in The Dark Knight and, at times, some Hollywood mumbo jumbo like the speech at the end of the film. Too many metaphors exist as loose ends for them to be thematic. We can only have our own ideas. But 9/11 analysis reduces the movie and ignores the huge contribution of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

The death of Ledger is sad but perhaps he realised he could not live beyond immortality. His dazzling plea on behalf of the dangerous creative spirit is his suitable and unforgettable farewell.

‘Some men just want to watch the world burn,’ says Michael Caine.

And why not, one is tempted to think, watching Ledger. Being crazy can lead to terrible harm to others and self-destruction but it definitely massages the creative impulse.

Howard Jackson has had three books published by Red Rattle Books. His collection of horror stories called Nightmares Ahead will be published by Red Rattle Books in spring 2015.   If you want to read more about American culture click here.