Berberian Sound Studio: The Sound of Horror

Berberian Sound Studio

Format: Cinema

Release date: 31 August 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Cast: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Cosimo Fusco

UK 2012

95 mins

The follow-up to the acclaimed, Berlin prize-winning rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a remarkable achievement. The accomplishment is amplified considering that it is a second feature. Among the most audacious European works in recent memory, Strickland’s film draws on his love of experimental film scores, sound effects and analogue recording equipment to create an elliptical, nightmarish tale that pays tribute to the Italian giallo genre and the Gothic horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Peter Tscherkassky are also acknowledged influences.

Set in a beautifully replicated 1976, the film hones in on Berberian Sound Studio, the cheapest, sleaziest post-production studios in Italy. Only the most sordid horror films have their sound processed and sharpened there. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, incredibly game in a discomfiting role), a naïve and introverted sound engineer from England, is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino). Thrown from the innocent world of local documentaries into a foreign environment fuelled by exploitation, Gilderoy soon finds himself caught up in a forbidding world of bitter actresses, capricious technicians and confounding bureaucracy. Obliged to work with the hot-headed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), whose tempestuous relationships with certain members of his female cast threaten to boil over at any time, Gilderoy begins to record the sound for ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, a hammy tale of witchcraft and unholy murder.

Only when he’s testing microphones or poring over tape spooling around his machines does this timid man from Surrey seem at ease. Surrounded by Mediterranean machismo and, for the first time in his life, beautiful women, Gilderoy, very much an Englishman abroad, devotes all his attention to his work. But the longer Gilderoy spends mixing screams and the bloodcurdling sounds of hacked vegetables, the more homesick he becomes for his garden shed studio in his hometown of Dorking. His mother’s letters alternate between banal gossip and an ominous hysteria, which gradually mirrors the black magic of Santini’s Vortex.

The violence on the screen Gilderoy is exposed to, day in, day out, in which he himself is implicated, has a disturbing effect on his psyche. He finds himself corrupted; yet he’s the one carrying out the violence. As both time and realities shift, Gilderoy finds himself lost in an otherworldly spiral of sonic and personal mayhem, and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat in an environment ruled by exploitation both on and off screen.

Named after the yellow (giallo) covers of the trashy crime novels used for storylines, this period of cinema in 1960s and 70s Italy produced numerous thrillers and horror flicks that privileged style over script. As Berberian Sound Studio makes clear, key ingredients of a typical giallo tended to include girls, daggers, blood, witchcraft and chilling screams. At the time, directors such as Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat, Zombie Flesh Eaters) commissioned composers including Ennio Morricone and prog outfit Goblin to score their slasher films. The title of Strickland’s fictional studio, Berberian, refers to Cathy Berberian, the versatile American soprano who was married to the Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio, a giant of 20th-century composition. Peter Strickland himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band.

Sound, and Gilderoy’s umbilical connection to it, is the heart of the film. To that extent the creation of the sound studio was pivotal and the film was always likely to stand or fall on the authenticity of the hermetically sealed bunker and the equipment on which Gilderoy toils. Production designer Jennifer Kernke (who worked with Berberian producer Keith Griffiths on Institute Benjamenta) has worked wonders, constructing a sound studio as it might have appeared in 70s Italy by scouring the UK for original vintage analogue sound equipment. For Strickland, an aficionado of vintage sound recording apparatus, amassing all this out-of-date gear felt wonderfully anachronistic. ‘I had to question myself. I thought, are we riffing off what these films did back in the 70s or are we taking cues from the spirit of those films? It seemed rather perverse to celebrate analogue within the digital medium.’ But it is precisely the fetishistic nature of Gilderoy’s relationship with his beloved machines – perhaps the only objects he truly understands – that Strickland is celebrating. ‘I like the idea of filling the whole frame with these strange machines as we celebrate this period when these things looked so futuristic and alien,’ the director comments.

The film’s general arcane sensibility is also enforced by the tape boxes and papers the film lingers lovingly over, all of which are designed by Julian House. A record designer whose work recently graced CAN’s The Lost Tapes box-set, House also envisioned the fake title sequence, one of the most arresting and genuinely thrilling moments in the film.

Giallo movies frequently had exceptionally advanced accompanying soundtracks that meshed free jazz with the avant-garde and high art with sleazy exploitation. The score for Berberian is courtesy of James Cargill of Broadcast (whose sleeves House has also designed), who conjures an ethereal soundscape in which sound and music cut back and forth from the reality of the studio into the giallo Gilderoy works.

Santini’s ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent. ‘Horror was the starting point but I would never call it a horror,’ says Strickland. ‘I guess the rule was to bounce off that genre – to immediately say, no blood, no murder – but still make it scary. What was exciting about that genre was it has its own history, rules and regulations that you can manipulate and mess around with. There’s something very gratifying in taking a template and turning it into something very personal.’ While avoiding didacticism, Berberian Sound Studio also explores the fascination with violence and the potentially corrupting nature of graphic imagery. Gilderoy’s exposure to the sequences he is forced to endure slowly erodes his levels of tolerance. In the end he is quite literally ingested by the images and psychologically broken.

Despite its willingness to engage with complex and prescient issues, there is also a deep vein of black humour, most clearly during the foley sequences in the auditorium when sound artists hack watermelons and stab cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being split or witches being bludgeoned in Santini’s movie (images that are seen to be projected but which the viewer, crucially, never sees). The disconnection between the effects Santini is trying to generate and what’s causing it is often knowingly comical. As the film is so much about sound and the creation of it, Strickland was careful to bring in characters involved with exhibitions of sound and figures involved with making music. Experimental artists Pal Toth, Josef Czeres and singer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg all appear, another example of reality imaginatively blurring with fiction.

Film4 FrightFest presented a preview screening of Berberian Sound Studio on August 26.

Jason Wood

Shadow Dancer: The Truth of Fiction

Shadow Dancer

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 August 2012

Venues: UK cities

Distributor: Paramount

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Tom Bradby

Based on the novel by: Tom Bradby

Cast: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson

UK/Ireland 2012

101 mins

‘Tell me the truth and you’ll live,’ says IRA investigator Kevin Mulgrew (David Wilmott) at the climax of Shadow Dancer, a fretful thriller set in 1990s Belfast. A simple question, yet in this film there are no simple answers; the truth isn’t depicted as a shining light illuminating the dark, but rather as a series of shifting shadows that shrink or swell with every new emotion and gradually dissolve with time.

Directed by documentary-maker James Marsh, the film prudently suggests that in this kind of conflict, there is no truth, only representations of it. And yet to achieve this complex portrayal, Marsh fought hard to seek out truths, and strove, in everything from his research to his casting choices, against any kind of misrepresentation.

Shadow Dancer, which hits the UK’s screens on August 24, focuses on single mother Collette McVeigh (played by Andrea Riseborough), a Republican living in Belfast with her mother and hardline IRA brothers. She is arrested during an aborted IRA bomb plot in London, and MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a choice: go to prison for 25 years or return to Belfast and spy on her own family. With her son’s future in her hands, Collette chooses to betray all she believes in and return home as a tout.

The characters and story are fictional, but were written by journalist Tom Bradby during his time as a TV correspondent in Northern Ireland. Bradby wanted to dig deeper into the heart of the conflict, and it was fiction, not journalism, that enabled him to do this. ‘Writing this was an opportunity for me to inform people about some aspects of the conflict, like the world of running informers, that you couldn’t put on the TV news at night, so I built the story as a way of telling what was really happening in this war and the real intensity that lay at the heart of it,’ says Bradby, who used his contacts on both sides of the conflict to research his subject thoroughly.

Marsh’s documentary background (he won an Oscar for 2008’s Man on Wire and picked up the Best Director award at Sundance for 2011’s Project Nim) brought an investigative approach to the material. In preparation, Marsh read the history of Ireland, from William the Conqueror to the present day: ‘When the actors had questions I was able to answer them and give them contexts about the politics. Ireland is a place where history really matters and I felt it was my duty to understand that and to offer advice.’

In order to find an authentic cast, Marsh was not nervous about stepping off the beaten track. ‘The first person I cast in fact was Bríd Brennan,’ says Marsh. The fact that Brennan had grown up in West Belfast during the troubles was significant to Marsh: ‘A lot of our actors were Irish and that was important firstly because it felt like they knew this world better than I did and I felt they could help me and guide me.’

When English actress Andrea Riseborough, who plays lead Collette McVeigh, came on board, she moved to Belfast and spent time with some people who were at the centre of the conflict. In this way she was able to really inhabit the part. ‘Once you understand all the things [Collette] might have had to sacrifice, you can start to instinctively feel what characteristics she might need to survive,’ Riseborough says.

This detailed research and dedication to the facts can be felt in the profundity of the performances, but the one thing that doesn’t ring true with this film is the fact that, although it is set in Belfast, it was shot in Dublin – a seemingly major inconsistency, both politically and visually.

However, cinematographer Rob Hardy explains that Shadow Dancer is set in the 1990s, at the end of the troubles and the beginning of the peace process: ‘It was a tired world, a place where people were wanting to start anew. You sense that idea of transition and that longing to move on.’ Shooting in Dublin meant they could avoid the classic red brick estates that are associated with the Falls Road and the Troubles films. Shadow Dancer‘s distinctive grey tones seem to more accurately capture what it felt like for the people still living this worn-out war in the 1990s. ‘We tried to create a Belfast that was a Belfast for our story and so we were quite cavalier with our choices,’ explains Marsh.

But it is the choices such as this, where fiction is allowed to speak more freely than fact, that furnish this film with a reality that is more compulsive and, in a sense, truer than bare facts can depict, and that enables us to really feel what it was like for people living through the conflict. ‘You want to make the details of the world convincing and to pass the test of those who lived through it, but at the same time, I think the bigger imperative here is to make something so we can all understand what it is like and something that is true to itself,’says Marsh.

Claire Oakley


The Radiant (The Otolith Group)


9 June – 16 September 2012, Kassel, Germany

dOCUMENTA (13) website

Don’t touch that meteorite: an attempt to make a beeline for the video art of dOCUMENTA (13), while politics-of-space debates rage from all directions.

As we speak, a tent embassy of sorts has been set up in the main square of Kassel, Germany. The organisers are calling themselves Doccupy, in the spirit of the Occupy movements across the globe. Simultaneously, a very public debate is raging over whether it is right or wrong for two dOCUMENTA artists to transport an ancient, culturally precious meteorite from its home with an indigenous community in Argentina to Kassel (at a huge expense), for the purposes of art.

For dOCUMENTA (13), it seems that this meteorite, along with the activities of Doccupy, is what has been grabbing the headlines across international media. dOCUMENTA(13), showcasing 200 international artists and showing for 100 days until September 16 in Kassel (along with satellite events in Kabul-Bamiyan, Alexandria-Cairo, as well as Banff and Switzerland), has run once every five years since 1955. And this year, these debates, centered on a politics of space, are threatening to steal more attention than the exhibited artworks themselves.

In her essay on dOCUMENTA, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director, states that there are four positions around which dOCUMENTA (13) is articulated: Siege, Hope, Retreat and Stage. These, she intuits, are ‘four possible conditions in which artists and thinkers find themselves acting in the present’. A zeitgeist full of contradictions; a time when contradiction is a welcomed state of mind, perhaps? Christov-Bakargiev also surmises that dOCUMENTA (13) explores ‘terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific fields and in other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary’. In other words, political debate and creative explorations are inseparable: dOCUMENTA is a place of transition, and of being in transit within these explorations. And in the midst of an overwhelming sprawl of artworks across the city of Kassel, the legs of visitors will certainly get a sense of being in transit, if nothing else. The place is huge.

It is not unique to dOCUMENTA, of course, to debate the concept of space in a political sense within the context of art. This very debate is a hot topic right now across the art world. It’s just that the meteorite incident and Doccupy are such strong visualisations of this particular, Western world/ developing world tension, making it easy for the international media to grab a hold of it. In another recent colourful example, this year’s Berlin Biennale experienced a staged subsuming of the festival by another art group called ‘Occupy Museum’, also parroting the Occupy concept. They borrowed the turns of phrase, methodology and even some of the exact slogans used in real-world protests and uprisings – all while maintaining really cool hair…

For dOCUMENTA, however, this dedication to politics is precisely the point of its existence, as it has been since 1955. In a press release, Christov-Bakargiev expressed her welcome of Doccupy, stating that the movement ‘continues the wave of democratic protests that have been spreading across many cities in the world. It enacts the possibility of re-inventing the use of public space and appears to me to be in the spirit of the moment and in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, who marked dOCUMENTA and its history significantly, embodying another idea of collective decision making and political responsibility through direct democracy’. Doccupy’s opponents argue that the movement is an attempt to fulfil personal artistic aims by intellectually piggybacking a form of political action used in bloody situations such as those of Egypt and Syria. For the artistic director, however, Doccupy works towards the ‘germination and flourishing’ of ideas, befitting dOCUMENTA.

It follows, then, that a festival concerned with the germination and flourishing of ideas between art and politics should have such a strong video-art presence. Video possesses the immediacy and accessibility to communicate urgent political messages, and is of course widely respected for its power as a political weapon, as well as a documentary and ethnographic tool. Video art, when traditionally screened, is also far more ephemeral than other art forms in terms of the space it physically occupies. When it’s effective, it occupies the space within us (psychically) far longer than its existence in the gallery space. For dOCUMENTA (13), video pieces occupy the traditional spaces (cinematic projections) along with far more surprising spaces; they are projected on the arched ceiling of a planetarium, on hand-held iPods, within cabins in the woods, and situated as a film-in-progress within the minds of hypnosis subjects in trance. Of course, some occupy their chosen space with far greater effectiveness than others.

Every morning in Kassel, for the 100 days of dOCUMENTA (13), video artist Albert Serra shoots a part of his film, titled The Three Little Pigs. He then edits in the afternoon and shows the new extract in a dOCUMENTA cinema the following morning. The film is an audiovisual portrait of three famous German figures – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Adolf Hitler, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – engaging in conversations taken from historical records. The artist claims that he has used the rule of three as a method to arrive at a solution that will avoid the disaster of the proverbial wolf, as well as using the third cultural approach in order to tell this story successfully – not literature or history, but film. Based on viewing just one of the daily excerpts, however, it could be argued that (similar to the attempts of Doccupy to embody their manifesto) the idea of the film is far more interesting than the results on screen.

In the adjacent cinema, another video work, this time by the Otolith Group, is being shown. It is titled The Radiant and is concerned with the aftermath of the recent nuclear disaster in Japan. The most striking aspect of it is the interview with a Japanese man in his sixties, who is arguing that spaces contaminated by nuclear radiation in Japan should now only be occupied by people of his age group or older. He argues that the young are too vulnerable and have their whole lives ahead of them, whereas he and other elderly people will most likely be at the end of their lives by the time the radiation affects them. His proposal of a self-sacrificial occupation of space in Japan based on age is both alarming and heart-warming in its urgent selflessness.

Downstairs in the Hauptbahnhof (or main train station) is an interactive sound-and-image work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, titled Alterbahnhof Video Walk. At first glance, it appears to be very much in line with Cardiff’s earlier aural and film installations. A few minutes into the experience, however, the work causes an emotionally violent collision between the real space in the present and the real space of the past. The work plays with your experience of your present space through the artists’ re-imagining of it, via sound and images recorded in that same physical space. You play the work through a hired iPod, and are led by Cardiff’s recorded voice around the station, in synch with the movements of her video of the space. It is as if she is leading you in a tango dance between the present and the past, the real space and the recorded space. This could seem just a clever gimmick, with a few personal and uncanny touches thrown in, until it hits you that Cardiff is guiding you to one station platform in particular. It is the very platform from where so many people were transported to concentration camps during World War II – many of whom, as we are all acutely aware, never returned. It’s an inordinately emotional moment when the video forces you into this realisation. You are standing in a place of tragedy. That tragedy is dragged suddenly into the present once more. It’s a re-mapping of time and space that blurs history with a recorded ‘present’ to force you to re-evaluate the real-world present and the space you occupy. This is a feat that is arguably very rarely achieved in film or indeed art of any medium.

Past the Hauptbahnhof, in the desolate train yard, is a four-storey house that is perhaps a century or so old. As you reach the threshold, you are asked to leave even the smallest of bags in the cloakroom. Immediately upon stepping inside the house, it becomes clear why your belongings could be considered hazardous inside. The house is plunged into almost complete darkness, with only tiny pools of light emitted from the video art scattered throughout several rooms. With only this light to guide you, your eyes are forced to pay attention to these works. The stillness and simplicity of the images are mesmerising and comforting as you are forced, fumbling, around the blackness. As you climb the stairs, the house gets lighter, although still the ‘House of Horrors’ sensation pervades. Each storey of the house contains more video work, but also blank, beautifully bound books, as well as letters exhibited on the walls that are the only clue to piecing together the history that has been created for this house. They are letters between two men over several years. The letters’ content is beguilingly simple, hiding an undercurrent of longing, nostalgia, loneliness and desire. Up in the attic are two large metal balls standing solemnly, their only artistic companions being the orchestral string music trickling into earshot. Their mystery is a fitting end to the tour of the house, whose history, created by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer (The End of Summer, 2012), generates more questions than answers. (It later became apparent that the music is part of Turner Prize-winner Susan Phillipsz’ latest sound installation, featured nearby at the Hauptbahnhof. No matter – the synchronicity of music and place only served to further articulate the sense of longing in this house.)

Back outside, towards the station, is an opening that leads to Artaud’s Cave, a film projected within a concrete ‘reconstruction’ of Plato’s cave. Created by Javier Téllez, the film was inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and shot in a psychiatric institution in Mexico using non-actors. Viewers must crunch along a gravel path and clamber over cold stone walls to view the work. Somehow the combination of cave and film are claustrophobic, with the sense that you too are confined in an institution of sorts, with no clear way out.

Nearby is a five-channel video installation by Indian artist Tejal Shah, titled Between the Waves. The work is thematically positioned around an archaeological excavation in India that hopes to find the possible true origins of the unicorn. The work uses live-action video, animation and even an iPhone Morse code app to tell its story, and repositions a traditionally Western mythological creature back within its purportedly accurate Indian heritage. As Shah explains about her work: ‘All clues lie within, decoding them is a matter of our own cognitive or imaginative limits.’

Wooden cabins scattered across Kassel’s beautiful parkland, Karlsaue, contain all manner of installations and video works, including sail boats washed up in trees; a film depicting archived impressions from a Swiss sex commune from the early 20th century; a film and sound installation exploring the existential space of the voice that is at once haunting and frustrating (Manon de Boer, One, Two, Many, 2012); along with a narrative film depicting a privileged white family sitting around a candlelit dinner table, speaking about their son’s racist ‘honour killing’ of a violent man (Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012). At last, unassumingly nestled amongst the fir trees, is a cabin that you must book to visit and is an absolute must for your dOCUMENTA experience: the Hypnotic Show in the Reflection Room (Marcos Lutyens, Raimundas Malašauskas).

Upon your arrival, you must take off your shoes and follow the artist downstairs. There, once alone with the artist, you will find yourself in an almost bare wooden room, which is still somehow cosy. You are told that you are being filmed. You are told to relax and choose a ‘story’ from a book consisting of no words, only colour combinations. And from there on in, the hypnotist and your unconscious mind take over to become the featured artwork. The hypnotist works to project your inner thoughts back to you in the form of verbal descriptions woven into the narrative he speaks. In this sense, each individual session results in a completely new ‘artwork’, which is captured in an ongoing video. This process is accompanied by a series of events when the artist switches roles and places himself under a trance-like state. The artist, while in this state, escapes the cabin to roam the streets of Kassel, filming the results of his interactions with people going about their days and nights. This work is a disquieting example of how art can occupy your utmost personal space: it fixes the exhibition space of the film directly inside the unconscious mind.

The Hypnotic Show in the Reflection Room has the potential to occupy all four positions of thinking as outlined by Christov-Barakiev, depending only on the state of mind of its subjects: Siege, Hope, Retreat and Stage. And the same could be said for the poor meteorite trapped in the midst of all these artistic and political debates. The meteorite is at once besieged from all sides, hopeful for resolution, attempting to retreat and yet spot-lit on the world stage of media attention. One can only wonder what thoughts the meteorite itself would have under the spell of hypnosis. Four thousand years’ worth of tales to tell us. A humbling thought.

‘The riddle of art is that we do not know what it is until it is no longer that which it was.’ Christov-Barakiev

Siouxzi Mernagh

Cannes 2012 – Part 2: All about Love


65th Cannes Film Festival

16-27 May 2011, Cannes, France

Cannes Festival website

The heavy rain that poured on the 65th edition of the Cannes International Film Festival might have put a damper on some of the beach parties and special anniversary celebrations, but the programme was strong, with much love and death at its heart, some welcome oddities and two certifiable masterpieces. One was Michael Haneke’s formidable Love (Amour), which eventually took home the Palme d’Dor while the other, Leos Carax’s original and brilliantly elusive Holy Motors came away empty-handed – a decision that left many critics baffled.

Compared to Haneke’s earlier works, Love stands out for its astounding sensitivity and subtle tenderness, but ultimately, the story, which centres around 80-odd-year-old retired music teachers George and Anne, is no less hard-hitting. As the couple are faced with Anne’s physical and mental deterioration after two successive strokes, the film scrutinizes, in a profoundly intelligent and unsettling way, the consequences of life and death, and the role that long-standing love plays when one half of an ageing couple is facing the end. As one would expect from a filmmaker as precise and skilful as Haneke, Love is finely scripted, superbly composed, and often hauntingly beautiful and desperately sad. The quiet grandeur of the film, however, would be lost without its two main actors: Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose astonishing, disarmingly honest performances breathe life into Haneke’s formal perfection in capturing the realities of terminal illness in meticulous detail. In fact, for the first time in his career, Haneke, the grand puppet master, seems to have dropped his strings: with a troubling and omnipresent sense of inevitability, his method here is not to masterly lead his characters into gloom and hopelessness, but to follow the couple through their spacious Paris apartment with the utmost trust and delicacy, without a trace of pathos or sentimentality. Crafted with passionate conviction and a mastery of film language, Love is that rare work of genius: an acute philosophical inquiry that’s highly emotionally charged, but also dramatically gripping, incredibly discreet and utterly credible in its depiction of human behaviour.

Despite the resemblance in title, and the fact that both directors come from the same country, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) couldn’t be more different. In Seidl’s film, which marks the first instalment of his Paradise triptych (the second part, Hope, is premiering in competition in Venice later this year), Margarethe Tiesel stars as Teresa, a chubby single mother in her fifties, whose desperate search for love and affection turns increasingly wolfish when she steps out of her hotel room at a luxury holiday resort in Kenya, where her friend has assured her that sex is plentiful. At first reluctant to have sex with one of the many underage beach boys on offer, she soon can’t help but give in to temptation. However, not unlike Haneke, Seidl slightly tones down the brutal rigidity of his earlier work as he moves into warmer territory, both climatically and emotionally – for many, a welcome relief that nonetheless doesn’t prevent the film from being yet another of the Austrian provocateur’s apt, poignant and fiercely honest explorations of the incorrigibly odd and debauched side of society.

As the festival, and the rain, continued, more films emerged that concerned themselves with the joys and sorrows of love. In this context, the more accessible approach offered by Miike Takashi’s For Love’s Sake (Ai To Makoto) turned out to be mildly entertaining. Based on Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu’s 1970s cult manga The Legend of Love and Sincerity, Miike’s revitalised screen version blithely mixes exuberant action, daft comedy, narrative-framing animé sequences and tongue-in-cheek high school musical scenes galore, as it follows the boisterous romance between the rebellious Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and innocent student Ai (Takei Emi), their chemistry at moments exploding like pop-art fireworks against a burning sky. For Love’s Sake certainly has style and ambition to spare, but a flawed script and overlong execution leave it somewhat unfulfilling. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Japanese venture Like Someone in Love was equally too flat and overlong. More interested in its Tokyo environment than in anything else, it was too plodding and self-regarding to be charming. The film tells the story of a brief encounter between elderly professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) and young, erratic, part-time call-girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who in turn is the object of desire of clinging, jealous Noriaki (Ryo Kase). Perhaps a more rigorous editor than Kiarostami’s son Bahman could have disposed of the protracted dialogue sequences, and made the few great scenes and ideas cohere into a deeper narrative. But whereas Kiarostami’s best films keep haunting, nagging and daring you to think about them long after watching them, this one is instantly forgettable.

The Directors’ Fortnight offered a first glimpse of the smaller-scale cinematic pleasures on show with Pablo Larraín’s No. Gael García Bernal plays an ambitious, young Chilean advertising man who is asked to help create a persuasive campaign for the anti-Pinochet ‘No’ vote in the 1988 national plebiscite, which ultimately ended the military dictatorship that had ruled the country for 16 years. Not as dark, and much less surreal and distinctive in style than Larraín’s previous work revolving around the repressive Pinochet regime, No is an extremely watchable lesson in historically and politically charged filmmaking.

The other stand-out in the Director’s Fortnight was a documentary exploring the inner meanings of a horror classic that was shot over 20 years ago, namely Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Brimming with clips from the original film and enriched with footage from the shoot, as well as detailed sketches and maps that reveal the architectural layout of the notorious Timberline Lodge, Rodney Ascher’s intriguing and lovingly constructed Room 237 does a brilliant job of staging the mind-boggling and often hilarious interpretations of the film’s subtext, offered by various narrators. Ascher never dismisses any of the outlandish arguments (for example, those concerning Kubrick’s involvement in the ‘faked’ Apollo 11 moon-landing footage) or takes the side of the more plausible ones. It’s a special treat for film fans (not only those of Kubrick’s film or the horror genre as such), and the perfect excuse to re-watch The Shining again for the umpteenth time.

Without doubt, however, the most polarising and excitedly discussed film of the festival – and my personal highlight – was Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s comeback film after over a decade of failed projects and aborted dreams. Some of these might even have found their way into this story of an actor at work and a man challenged by, as Carax put it, ‘the experience of being alive’. Played by Denis Lavant, Monsieur Oscar is chauffeured through the nocturnal streets of Paris in a white stretch limo by his assistant Celine (Edith Scob), rushing from one mini-acting job to the next. Each of them requires him to read a script and change his look entirely using the pre-selected outfits that he finds carefully prepared for him in the fully equipped dressing room that is the back of his car. Some of the episodes – in particular, when Lavant becomes an old man on his deathbed; or as he squeezes into a slick, black Lycra suit to act in an erotic motion-capture scene together with another performer – are brilliant. Others, like the sequence in which he turns into the Monsieur Merde (from Carax’s segment in the 2008 anthology film Tokyo) and kidnaps Eva Mendes at a fashion photo shoot, are just goofy. In all, however, the sundry characters burst with imagination, personality and drama. Carax knows that mixing cinema and reality can be a dangerous game, but in Holy Motors, life seems way too short to waste time with conventions. It is the kind of film Cannes should be celebrating. It’s a delightful oddity, a dazzling and daring labour of love that reawakens faith in – and appreciation for – cinema, and the art of acting. In fact, that alone would have made it worthy of an award.

Holy Motors is released in UK cinemas on 28 September 2012 by Artificial Eye.

Pamela Jahn

M.R. James’s Christmas Ghosts

Whistle and I'll Come to You

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 August 2012

Distributor: BFI

Disc One: Whistle and I’ll Come to You + Whistle and I’ll Come to You

UK 1968/2010

42 mins/52 mins

Disc Two: The Stalls of Barchester + A Warning to the Curious

UK 1971/1972

45 mins/50 mins

The BBC has been broadcasting Ghost Stories for Christmas for more than 50 years, but only now has the BFI seen fit to mine their mouldering archives and make the full collection of 12 stories available to the public on DVD (three of the stories were released by the BFI 10 years ago, but have long since been deleted). The occasion is the 150th birthday of Montague Rhodes James, principal contributor of source material for the BBC adaptations and often called the father of the modern ghost story. That a steadfastly Victorian bachelor academic has remained relevant for so long may seem incredible in our fast-paced information age, but taking such a view would be to underestimate the flexibility, modernity and basic effectiveness of James’s ghostly tales.

In his 1983 biography of M. R. James, Michael Cox writes: ‘Critically, the stories have always been awarded a high place, often the highest, in the English ghost story tradition, and this estimation shows no sign of falling off.’ Thirty years later, Cox’s statement has been proved true, as the latest James adaptation for the BBC was produced in 2010, and one can only assume there will be more to come.

Not all readers were instantly enthralled by James’s stories, however; his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, garnered very little attention upon its initial publication, and the reviews it did attract were decidedly lukewarm appraisals. Despite their old-fashioned settings and Victorian academics, the stories were simply too modern in their construction for Edwardian tastes (or at least the tastes of Edwardian critics – as James and many other authors have proved, critical acclaim and popular sentiment seldom collide). James won the critics over by 1911, however, with More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A highly positive review in the Yorkshire Daily Observer noted that ‘the present mode of quasi-scientific horrid stories has not…been followed by Dr. James; he has rather reverted to the older fashion of genuine ghosts of the departed, not to speak of the black magic that forms the motive of “Casting the Runes”.’ In the space of a mere seven years, critical perception of James’s stories shifted from judging them too modern to be effective to just old-fashioned enough to rank among the best of their genre.

So what exactly did James do differently from his predecessors and contemporaries to distinguish him as a modern supernatural fiction writer despite the Victorian trappings of his stories? Principally, he brought ghosts into modern settings. James placed his stories largely in his home county of East Anglia, and not more than a few decades in the past, lending an immediate presence to his stories, and inspiring in the reader a feeling that the terror does not end once the final page has been turned. As James wrote in his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary: ‘A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I am not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’

Although James used setting to forge a familiarity of place and an air of plausibility with the reader, he also positioned himself as a detached storyteller to create intellectual distance based on the folkloric oral tradition out of which his stories first arose. The stories are never written solely from the protagonists’ perspectives; instead, James sets himself up as a kind of omniscient narrator who simply relates the experiences of others, effectively capturing the atmosphere of oral tradition on the printed page. In approximating the essence of his verbal delivery at the Chitchat Society meetings and Christmas time gatherings at King’s College, Cambridge, James recreates his own charismatic persona on the page, complete with his engaging humour and exceptional powers of mimicry conveyed through his dialectal characters.

That the BBC would link adaptation of James’s stories to the Christmas season is no accident. The concept of connecting oral tradition, Christmas and ghost stories began at least as early as Shakespeare’s time, but it was popularised in the Victorian era with Dickens’s own invented tradition of printing ghost stories in the Christmas issues of his magazines. In accordance with his anachronistic persona, as well as his love of Dickens, James adopted this oral tradition, though it seemed to have died a natural death by the early 20th century. In following a seemingly antiquated tradition, James anticipated the eventual re-emergence of winter ghost-story telling. And in a strange twist of logic, those stories delivered by oral tradition are more believable because of their distance – it is difficult to assume narrative unreliability in the case of a man you have never met, especially when he plays golf (a fact that James exploited to the fullest in possibly his most celebrated story, ‘“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”’).

All of which brings us full circle back to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, transmitted via television, the medium that probably best approximates the oral tradition in contemporary popular culture. The release will consist of five discs in all, with the first two coming out on August 20 to coincide with James’s birthday month.

Disc one includes two adaptations of ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ filmed 40 years apart. Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, is possibly the most famous James adaptation for the BBC; it is certainly the most controversial, and not only for its complete lack of golf. Miller doesn’t so much adapt James’s story as use it to explore the dangers of extreme isolation, academic arrogance and Freudian repression (lead Michael Horden’s oral fixation is just a tad too obvious to be truly thought-provoking). Despite some creepy turns and a nice visual of the supernatural ‘villain’, it would be difficult to recommend this piece to traditional James fans. But it does demonstrate that James’s stories are flexible and modern enough to address updated societal fears and concerns.

On the other hand, Andy de Emmony’s 2010 adaptation, also golf-less and titled Whistle and I’ll Come to You, is just too far divorced from the James original to be effective as a ghost story. It scans more as an adaptation of the Miller version by someone who has never read the original story, so while it’s beautifully shot and lead John Hurt does all he can to evoke some sort of emotion in the viewer, the whole enterprise falls flat on its narratively nonsensical face. As a basic rule, when adapting a story called ‘“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”’, which is about a whistle that summons a supernatural terror, it might help to have a whistle somewhere in the adaptation.

Disc two features two of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations: The Stalls of Barchester (1971), based on ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, and A Warning to the Curious (1972), based on the story of the same name. Barchester, Clark’s first adaptation for the BBC, is one of the most faithful adaptations of James’s material, complete with Jamesian narrator Dr Black played with suitable affability and wit by Clive Swift. Dr Black crops up again in A Warning to the Curious, but the adaptation this time is less straightforward – one could say Clark’s biggest mistake was to replace James’s curious and likeable academic protagonist with a treasure-hunter prone to viciousness. Ghost stories often hinge on the reader’s ability to relate to the victim, and even if we can relate to the greedy lead’s deceptions, for the most part we’d rather not.

Despite the varying quality of the actual adaptations, the bonus materials found on both discs make their purchase worthwhile for any James enthusiast. Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling’s interviews about Whistle and I’ll Come to You are insightful but too short, while Ramsey Campbell’s introduction to the two adaptations, as well as his reading of his own Jamesian short story ‘The Guide’, are essential viewing (if let down slightly by their relatively poor audio quality). As he directed most of the BBC’s James adaptations, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s introductions to his two stories provide valuable insight into an admirer of James who desired to bring the stories he loved as a child to a wider contemporary audience.

Lastly, but certainly not least, disc two includes readings of ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’ by Christopher Lee at his menacing best in a recreation of James’s famous ghost story readings to undergraduates at King’s College. If the adaptations let you down, these will most certainly prop you up again.

Releases to come in the run-up to the Christmas box-set will include adaptations of James’s ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ and ‘The Ash Tree’. These are all worthwhile viewing, but one might delicately suggest the interested viewer read the original stories first for comparison and an almost guaranteed creepy delight.

Jennifer Eiss

Christopher Nolan is a Big Fat Liar


There are SPOILERS for all of Christopher Nolan’s films in this article.

If there is one theme that runs through the filmography of Christopher Nolan, it is the rogue trading in the economies of truth. Although his films inhabit different genres—neo-noir, detective films, Victorian melodrama and of course superhero blockbusters—there is a thematic consistency that mirrors in its narrowness the obsessional personalities of his protagonists. The protagonists are probably a good place to start. All of Nolan’s films feature isolated, lonely, often besieged, unstable and/or crisis-ridden male heroes, who usually are guilty of, or will be guilty of, the death of their wife/lover/object of desire. Lying for these men is sometimes a job, sometimes a strategy, but something that they do, that they all do. In Memento (2000), Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man whose relationship to objective reality is compromised by his inability to retain his memory for more than 20 minutes. The audience is placed in a similar position via the contortions of the narrative, which proceeds backwards, forever wrong-footed and confused. The film consists of a chain of revelations; it is a kind of über-detective story in which almost everything is a discovery of a momentous nature. Of course, the biggest trick of the film is to reveal that Leonard’s condition might in fact be a lie, his whole past a fabrication to justify what would otherwise be an insupportably meaningless existence. He is making it up as he goes along. In effect (and this won’t be the last time in Nolan’s career that we will be able to say this), the film is about films: as the repeated image of a photograph developing and un-developing suggests, a film can be run backwards, even as a life can’t. Like a character from a Pirandello play, Leonard is partly creating his own narrative, has cast himself in a role, written his lines on his body and walks through the universe as if it was a film set, casting the people he meets in the roles that suit his myth. His ultimate decision to betray and kill a man is not because of the man’s sleazy shiftiness but rather because he is threatening to reveal the truth.

The lie begins as a coping mechanism but ends up being the character’s raison d’&#234tre. Narrative is a parcel of lies and as an audience we are implicated. Past story, motivation, these are all things we need as an audience, as much as Leonard needs them as a hero. Even though in Carrie-Ann Moss’s Natalie we have the not-to-be-trusted femme fatale, there is also the weird detail that if Sammy Jankis/Leonard really did kill his wife accidentally then the cover story of murder is not only an egregious lie, but also an unnecessarily embroidered one. Why does his wife have to be raped, and then killed? Why not just murdered? It’s almost as if Leonard has his whole psyche as a kind of MacGuffin. Memento is an empty-box film. Its central conceit, as with Inception (2010), is an empty box. It is an elaborate and beautiful box that we value for its contents, but which, like the Ark of the Covenant, is full of little more than dust and the possibility of destruction.

Whereas Memento reveals the intricate self-deception of narrative to be morally corrupt, Nolan’s next film Insomnia (2002) seeks to find a moral apologia for the Big Lie. Al Pacino’s ageing detective, Will Dormer, ties himself in knots trying to solve a murder while at the same time worrying himself sick over an IA investigation that is prying into an old case and looks set to unravel his reputation and career. When Dormer accidentally kills his partner and the man whose testimony could have brought him down, Dormer is wracked by guilt and self-doubt. Like Leonard, Dormer is in a state of mental crisis, but here due to his insomnia, exacerbated by the Alaskan summer. However, Insomnia is far more conventional as a film and gives a familiar moral argument for lying. We never believe for a second that Dormer intentionally killed his partner, so his self-doubt is evidence of his integrity. His confession that he planted evidence to ensure the conviction of a child killer who was otherwise going to be released is so skewed in his favour as to make him appear more heroic for having been dishonest. Dormer is a man who sacrifices his own personal morality for the larger good. This puts him in line with all those other guardians of justice, from Dirty Harry to Batman, who overstep the line and court infamy in order to protect society.

Batman Begins (2005) worries a little bit about lying, but not much. Its power fantasies are pitched against a conspiracy theory universe in which everything that happens in the world, from the Black Death to economic crises, is caused by the secret agency of the League of Shadows. Despite the concrete tactile realism of the film’s style, the film revels in its own adolescent myth-making. The Dark Knight (2008), however, sees Bruce Wayne hoping that his place can be taken by the new DA, Harvey Dent. Everyone in The Dark Knight lies. Copycat Batmans lie, pretending to be Batman; Bruce Wayne lies about not being Batman; the Joker lies about his scars and the location of Rachel; Rachel lies about loving Harvey; Alfred lies to Bruce about the letter; Gordon lies about being dead (to his own family) and finally Batman and Gordon conspire to lie about how Harvey Dent died and to nobly place the guilt on Batman’s shoulder. As James Zborowski (,7,417) has recently noted in an article for Alternate Takes, the noble lie mirrors that ofThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but whereas Ford’s film sees the lie as breaking the cycle of violence and founding a society, lies are so prevalent in The Dark Knight as to almost represent a pathological need. The explanation for the lie is given to a rousing musical crescendo and topped by the appearance of the title on the screen. Lying for Batman is not about protecting society, it is an act of becoming.

(By the way, the Joker does not represent a more honest anarchic spirit. He dishes out porkies left, right and centre. His self-representation as an anarchic free spirit is contradicted by his intricately plotted and sub-plotted schemes. If anything, the Joker is an intact Leonard Shelby, who no longer gives a damn.)

The two films that are most openly about deception are The Prestige (2006) and Inception. The titles of the films refer to the practices that make their protagonists a living through lying: the magicians of the former have the Prestige as the ultimate revelation and an inception is the dream lie Cobb and his team insert in their victims. The cost the two magicians are willing to pay in order to outdo each other gradually escalates as a form of Russian roulette that takes aim at loved ones as well as one’s self. In both films, the protagonists increasingly become lost in their own narratives until by the end of each, it is unclear to the audience exactly what it is they have witnessed. We are in the empty box, the centre-less maze Nolan uses as the logo for his production company Syncopy. With The Prestige, we do finally see inside the empty box to understand how the trick is done, but in so doing the emptiness of the protagonists themselves is horrifically revealed.

Inception is all about the construction of a series of Chinese box-dream states for the sole purpose of implanting a lie. The lie has to be emotionally positive, we are told in the meeting of the dream engineers who brainstorm like studio executives ruminating over a tired superhero franchise. Nolan has the last laugh on us, because by the time we witness Cillian Murphy’s resolution with his father we might well have forgotten that the whole thing is a lie and the man is being brutally manipulated in order to benefit a business rival. Of course, the dreams are not dreams—they look even less like dreams than Salvador Dalí’s dreams—they are movies. Like Leonard, Batman, and the magicians of The Prestige, Cobb and his team make lies that they then get lost in – happily lost in. The fake ending is an interesting point, not because of its ambiguity but precisely because of its absolute lack of ambiguity. The spinning of the top is a sleight of hand (the totem is revealed in the movie to be useless in its carefully explained function as a totem as it is touched by various characters and anyway isn’t Cobb’s). We know Cobb can’t get back to his flashback children, unless we accept his fictional status. He certainly won’t get back to his real children. We know the top won’t stop spinning because there is no time outside the running time. There is no truth outside of the fiction.

John Bleasdale

Kerry Hudson is Working Girl Tess McGill

Working Girl

Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Growing up in a succession of council estates, kiss-me-quick seaside B&Bs and caravan parks provided her with a sharp eye for idiosyncratic behaviour, and a love of travel. Her raw, funny debut Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float before He Stole My Ma began life as a collection of short stories, based on tales told to her by her mother and grandmother, but was honed into book form over a six-month stint in Vietnam. She lives and writes in East London. Below, she tells us why her cinematic alter ego is Working Girl Tess McGill. EITHNE FARRY

I ask you, which of us hasn’t quoted the immortal lines ‘I’ve a head for business and a bod for sin’ while tanked up on tequila and anti-histamines? Or prepared for the meeting of our lives by repeating ‘do not fuck it up, do not fuck it up, do not fuck it up’ like a mantra? Maybe cradled an ice-cold Coors on the commute home after an awful day? OK, maybe that’s just me but it’s for all these reasons, and so many more, that my cinematic alter ego had to be Tess from Working Girl. That’s right, the ultimate sister doing it for herself, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with a funny accent, big dreams and a night school diploma; Tess McGill I salute you!

As a child of the 80s, also the period my debut novel is set in, I enjoyed Working Girl a few years after release from the comfort of my own living room; there was Tess, trying to get promoted with her giant hair, shoulder pads and frankly sublime hosiery (seriously, re-watch and marvel…) and when following the rules didn’t work, Tess decided to play them at their own game. But she wasn’t faking it. She was faking the accent and the outfits (clearly happier with her mega-teased bouffant and 27 bracelets up each arm than with the Maggie Thatcher blouses) but everything else was her ‘just hittin’ em with the smarts’.

Sadly I don’t possess Miss McGill’s ability with equity markets, backcombing or infiltrating tropically themed society weddings but, like her, I do often feel I’ve entered a world where I don’t entirely belong. So while my book is on the shelves now and sometimes I get invited to a party or two, like Tess I’m really just that blonde cradling a Coors on the 149 bus, hoping my smarts will see me right and I’ll win myself a monogrammed lunchbox too.

Kerry Hudson

Sugar Coating

Searching for Sugar Man

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 July 2012

Venues: UK key cities

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Sweden/UK 2012

86 mins

Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about a long lost American musician who is rediscovered by his fans in South Africa, has been the subject of much praise. But having grown up in South Africa, I could not help being irritated by its conceits, despite enjoying the film. The latter have stayed with me while the entertainment value has waned.

I first encountered Rodriguez when I was 14 in 1978 in South Africa. In terms of Western pop culture we were very isolated. The Beatles had been banned some years ago and we’d only had TV for two years. But there were many chinks in the apartheid regime’s armour and the Rodriguez album Cold Fact somehow slipped through. The cassette I had sounded like Dylan but was more haunting, and there were names of drugs in titles and psychedelic references. There was even a song called ‘The Establishment Blues’. This was heady stuff for a young boy in South Africa. It was strange for me to witness such a small cultural breath of my past blown up to such mythical proportions – as this film does in so many ways.

To keep it simple, there were generally two types of young white boys in South Africa in those days: those who played rugby, drank beer and got into fights; and those who listened to music and smoked dope. The latter crowd all knew the Rodriguez album forensically but we listened to a lot of other stuff and when I moved to Johannesburg in 1979 I discovered punk and everything changed. Us dope-smoking army dodgers thought we were cool and that apartheid was wrong. But our position was an extremely comfortable one – much like looking at the slaughter in Syria now but not doing anything about it, or people from Hampstead on Radio 4 being shocked about teenage pregnancy. We were nothing more than liberals. Those white South Africans who did make an effort to overthrow the regime made real sacrifices. I can’t imagine Joe Slovo or Albie Sachs were smoking joints and listening to ‘The Establishment Blues’ while operating for uMkhonto we Sizwe. Equally you’d be hard pressed to find a single African from those times who owned a Rodriguez album.

If you knew nothing of the tumultuous times in the 70s and 80s in South Africa, this film would have you believe that Rodriguez and his fans played a significant role in bringing down the regime. There’s good reason why they didn’t interview anyone who actually made sacrifices or lived in the township wars. They would never have heard of the guy. The myth perpetuated by the film and its nostalgic characters would have been laid bare and the subject of the film would have been far less relevant than they suggest. I know the film is about a tiny minority of liberal white guys but we’re led to believe that there were millions of them – there weren’t – and that they were somehow influential – they weren’t. What we’re left with is pure nostalgia for what was for most people a very dark time. Except for us Rodriguez fans. Well, it was kind of dark but we still had servants.

Passion Pictures, the people behind this film, are good filmmakers and the narrative is very well crafted. But it is like giving a documentary a Hollywood makeover – not in terms of production gloss but in terms of myth-making to suit the needs of entertainment. The claims of Rodriguez fans somehow being on the frontline of anti-apartheid activism are insulting to everyone who actually did something. The film plays into the nostalgia of middle-class white guys who like to think that they made a difference by simply having a counter-cultural attitude. It’s not true and the truth and joy in the film of finding a long lost musical hero is built on a serious conceit. But you can still enjoy the film. I did, but it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.

Mark Aitken

For more information on Mark Aitken’s latest film, about a Mexican mental asylum run by its patients, please visit