Peat and quiet

silence

I demand silence from a cinema audience. Within reason, of course. But I despise the rustling of sweet wrappers or crisp bags, don’t get me started on popcorn, and I think talking goes without saying: it’s the original sin. Bravo, then, for Silence. A languid, organic hybrid of drama and documentary from Harvest Films, its very title warns off the noisy and the disrespectful. Even the briefest synopsis supports your first impression: it’s about a sound recordist who returns to the northwest coast of Ireland to capture the sound of silence ie. that of nature unmolested by man-made noise. Do not enter the cinema if you think your stomach may rumble, or that you may nod off and snuffle. It’s quiet. Maybe too quiet.

Co-written and directed by Pat Collins (a documentarian by trade), Silence is not action-packed, nor punctuated with pithy quips. Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde seems to play himself, an Irish soundman based in Berlin who gets a job that takes him back to the homeland, there to revisit his own past on the remote fishing island with the unfortunate name of Tory. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a hymn to the natural beauty of Ireland, in particular County Donegal, although it begins in County Galway, which happens to be the county I’m most familiar with, and which, to be childish, is my favourite. (I fell in love with Ireland the moment I stepped foot in it, and have returned there most years over the last 20 to sup from its fountain of weatherbeaten zen. This film called me back. I have never even been to Donegal, even though I have displaced relatives by marriage who hail from there and was speaking to one of them only two weeks ago.)

Silence2

Silence stands in awe of the landscape, fumbling towards capturing and bottling it, and often places the quietly-spoken, unassuming Eoghan – a dead spit for John Lynch – tiny in the frame. Pat Collins, a native of Cork, understands the relative relationship between man and earth. It’s God’s country; we just live in it. Eoghan’s occasional conversations with locals – who I’m assuming are real people, perhaps nudged into covering certain topics by Eoghan, who co-wrote the film – reveal not just the protagonist’s poetic soul, along with his almost pained sense of longing, but also poetry in the most casual of observer. This may be a comment on the literary soul of Ireland, where everyone’s a taproom poet; even a pub landlord talks about the folk memory of starlings, and a beardy man who gives Eoghan a room for the night comments, “Whenever you sing a song, the first note comes out of silence.”

A bear-like local who approaches our man while he sets up his big furry mic somewhere in the wilds of Connemara, asks what he’s doing. Eoghan explains his brief: to escape man-made sound. “But you’re here?” he comments, not unreasonably. “I keep very quiet,” replies Eoghan, softly. It’s a lovely exchange that gets a quiet laugh (or it did when I saw Silence in a hushed matinee with nine other noiseless people yesterday), but also highlights the self-defeating nature of the quest. How does a man make anything without the man-made?

As he nears his heart of darkness – or at least, the house on Tory that he abandoned to the elements (“grass and nettles and briars”) 15 years ago – the conversations are no longer in English, but Gaelic, with subtitles. It’s easy on the ear, the Irish language, but you don’t hear it enough, and the subtitling has been artfully done with a real instinct for the way the Irish phrase things. A lovely chat between Eoghan and an old feller on Tory about the sound of the corncrakes is especially sympathetic: the birds are described as “being here in strength”, which I can hear the man saying.

With Irish folk songs cropping up regularly (an old reel-to-reel recording begins the film), there is a musicality to the natural soundtrack too, with much birdsong, and rustling of reeds against the Atlantic wind. Dialogue comes at far apart intervals, and the story, as much as it is, unfolds at its own pace, with no conventional “reveals” or resolution. Black and white archive footage adds depth – including a disturbing sequence in which men and women on a boat seem to deliberately drown a dog (this is old footage, so we can be sure no animals were harmed in the actual making of Silence) – and a longer scene in what must be a real museum on the island of Inishbofin is literally wallpapered with local history.

I could watch this film again, right now. It’s restful and evocative and lyrical and gives you room to think. I wondered if my mind might wander, but it only strayed as far as Ireland itself, and made me want to go there – although it’ll be too esoteric and slow and lacking in footage of pub bands playing for Americans in green felt top hats for Tourism Ireland. In many ways it’s a “keep out” sign.

Here’s something I don’t normally do, but John Brennan and Éamon Little clearly deserve a credit for their delicate and intelligent work on the sound of Silence. Fans of recording equipment will get something extra from the film, as we often see devices being set up, and, as with The Conversation, a touchstone for all films about sound, it wouldn’t work if the sound wasn’t conveyed properly. I enjoyed the moment, early on, when Eoghan opens and closes a window repeatedly, muffling then unmuffling the sound of the street below. It is a sort of meta-sonic joke: now you hear it, now you don’t.

It won’t be showing at your local Odeon, I suspect, but if you’re lucky enough to catch it at a smaller cinema, do so. Just eat beforehand.

“… And the last note, when you finish a song, falls back into silence again.”

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Is this thing on?

Thunk. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Sorry, that was the sound of feedback. And this is the look of feedback: I saw the tremendous new movie Berberian Sound Studio yesterday and it’s all about the audio. Not since The Conversation do I remember seeing so much sound on the screen. Writer-director Peter Strickland has, with his second film, created a hymn to magnetic tape, but shaped it as a period thriller that weaves psychological shocks into an everyday story of recording folk.

Strickland wowed the festival circuit in 2009 with his first film, horse-and-cart revenge thriller Katalin Varga, which I watched on DVD during the Olympics. He funded it with inheritance money, having struggled to get his short films seen previously. Though British, I think he lived and taught in Hungary and Katalin Varga is set and shot in Hungarian-speaking Romania. A labour of love, it’s anything but indulgent: spare, slow-moving, modern-yet-ancient and genuinely gripping.

But Berberian Sound Studio is something else entirely.

It’s the 1970s; all browns and more browns. Toby Jones is intuitively cast as Gilderoy, a polite, suburban, mummy’s-boy sound engineer out of water at an Italian dubbing, foley and effects studio. Having seemingly made his reputation recording the sound for travelogues about his native Dorking, he has been hired by an Argento-like Italian horror director and his severe producer to weave his radiophonic magic on their latest witchcraft slasher, The Equestrian Vortex. If all this sounds a little spoofy, it is, with some spot-on blood-red credits for the movie-within-a-movie. It’s a movie about the movies, seeped in nostalgia for a more hands-on, analogue era, when tape spooled and great big, clunky switches were thrown and, in the world of grisly foley, watermelons were hacked up. In the first act, Strickland has plenty of fun with the in-jokes. More seasoned students of Italian giallo cinema will no doubt find even more to enjoy than I did, as, for all the hints of darkness, anxiety and intrigue, it’s OK to snigger along as a marrow is adjudged “too watery” to sound like a witch’s body falling from a tower and splatting on the ground below, and a seasoned thespian stands in the booth making disgusting noises to convey a goblin who is “dangerously aroused.”

It is a dark, ridiculous, eccentric, hermetic world, but an utterly convincing one. Strickland ensures that every footstep on the lino of a sanitised corridor feels real; this film takes tactile to new levels – when a spider gently crawls over Gilderoy’s hand, gently blown free, you half-expect to be able to hear its footsteps too. By turning up the mics, just as Gilderoy does, Strickland accentuates every seemingly insignificant click and crunch and hiss. Close-ups of needles and gauges and call sheets infuse this psychological horror movie about horror movies with love for the world it inhabits. Those around Gilderoy often speak in Italian, so that we know what they’re saying, via subtitles, but he is an alien landscape, his paranoia building.

I won’t go into any story details – even though the trailer, which has been on heavy location at the Curzon for months, gives a lot away – other than to say it’s a claustrophobic experience that very rarely ventures outside of the studio. If you hear footsteps on dried leaves, they are as likely to be footsteps on dried leaves in a pit in the studio as, well, dried leaves on the ground. Gilderoy’s mother’s letters, which Strickland blows up, full-screen, and allows us time to read, offer a glimpse of simple, bucolic Surrey life, and of the shed he usually works in (“room for two people at a time”, he says), and the effect is quite profound, even moving.

If you’re a cinephile, or someone who, like me, loves the 70s, Berberian Sound Studio has been made for you. But it is so much more than a magic carpet ride for valve-freaks. It is frequently terrifying, without ever showing the depraved Italian film that’s being so inventively and mundanely dubbed – it’s a case of what you don’t see.

This is a film that should be seen and heard. It’s not totally conventional, and plays the occasional temporal and narrative trick, but these flourishes are always underpinned by a truly thrilling sense of place. By the end of the film, you’ll feel as if you could find your way around Berberian Sound Studios, from the reception desk where Gilderoy’s plane ticket waits vainly to be reimbursed, to the mixing room where a taciturn, overall-wearing engineer grimly blanks Gilderoy because he interfered with his faders.

For the record, I really think we should give a ripple of applause to the Sound Department, which numbers around 20 people, from ADR recordist Ruben Aguirre Barba and sound consultant Emanuele Carcone to sound re-recording mixer Doug Cooper and Robert Karlsson, who, according to imdb, is the uncredited Dolby sound consultant (what a mysterious man).

Although it’s eerie and sad to see the name of Broadcast singer Trish Keenan, who died last year aged just 42, in the credits, she and James Cargill have supplied a suitably esoteric and period-appropriate soundtrack which stands as a fitting memorial to her. In a film about sound, this is not background music. Broadcast are signed to Warp Records, whose impressive film arm Warp X produced Berberian Sound Studio, with funding from Screen Yorkshire and the old Film Council. One imagines that Peter Strickland will not have to rely on an uncle’s inheritance to make feature films any more. This puts him on the map. And not just a map of Dorking and Box Hill.

Ooh, and if you’re not lucky enough to live near an arthouse cinema – and I appreciate that not everybody is – you can stream Berberian Sound Studio via Curzon On Demand right now, if you can afford £10 a pop. It’s here. (It’s a rich archive, too; Katalin Varga is also there.)