Berberian Sound Studio (2012), and Duke of Burgundy (2014)

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Director/Writer: Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland both writes and directs these handsome, but frustratingly top-heavy, chamber pieces.

To date, I have seen two of Peter Strickland’s films.  I was lucky enough to catch The Duke of Burgundy in the cinema (where it had only a limited run), and later watched Berberian Sound Studio on television, when it aired on Film4.

The two films share a lot of the same pros — both are beguiling, atmospheric, period-set character studies.  They also share the same core problem — namely, the absence of a satisfying conclusion.  This is probably a little overstated, and I’m aware that complaining about a lack of closure in art cinema is wholly redundant, but I was irked all the same.

In both films, Strickland creates a microcosmic world, out-of-joint with reality, and ornamented with stylised filmic horror.  In Berberian, it is the world of gory Giallo, and in Burgundy, it is the world of softcore sexploitation (think Black Emmanuelle meets Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy).  Both aim for a sumptuous 70’s style-set befitting of their analogues.

Burgundy’s premise is fascinating, and the conceit of Berberian is no less so.  The former is about two lesbian lovers, both lepidopterists, whose relationship is gradually consumed by one party’s escalating fetishism.  The latter concerns a quaint English foley artist, tasked with designing the sound for a splattery Italian horror film.

When I first heard these loglines I was sold.  They were so singularly evocative that I determined to see both films as soon as I possibly could.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Strickland had that same eagerness when he conceived of them.  I imagine both ideas were expedited to the page slightly too soon.  I suppose the trap is: ‘this idea is so good, I needn’t plan it.’, when in reality, the opposite rule applies.  Of course, I am just speculating here.  These ideas might have been gestating in Strickland for decades.

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As I have stated already, my biggest gripe with these films is their endings.  Both tumble into paranoia just slightly before their last reel, and it is at this point (with story tensions coming to a head) that Strickland falls back on his visual language — for the last ten minutes, there’s precious little dialogue, and instead, a montage of images takes over.

In both cases I was reminded of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a film which I admire greatly.  It is after this fashion that Strickland crafts his climaxes — however, whereas the climax of Don’t Look Now threads images and music together coherently (and movingly), Strickland throws coherence out of the window.  There is no longer any semblance of story, and every bit of intrigue, every question (‘Are these lovers going to kill each other?’, ‘Is the technician going to fall victim to a malevolent force, or insanity?’) is lost in the confusion, as the subtly built-up tautness unspools.

Imagine a child crafting, in laborious and painstaking detail, a highly ornate sandcastle… and then trampling it.

This ‘tease and denial’ of a resolution is more apropos in The Duke of Burgundy, given its context (it is a film about sadomasochism), but Berberian Sound Studio (the weaker of the two films, in my opinion) has even less of an excuse.

I hate to kvetch, especially when there’s so much artistry and intelligence in these films — barely any of which I’ve talked about — but frustratingly, it’s the disappointment I remember best.  After all, even the most fruitful relationships can be tainted by a messy breakup.

In my search for closure, I may just have to watch his 2009 debut Katalin Varga.  Wish me luck.

S.S.

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

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Director/Writer: Martyn Burke

From the book by: Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine.

Martyn Burke writes and directs this made for TV adaptation of Paul Freiberger and Michael Swain’s book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer.

As a votary of the recent Steve Jobs biopic, and a long-term fan of the trophy laden Social Network, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that I enjoyed this flick.  But I really, really, did.  I was already half-asleep when it started, but within the first five minutes (maybe four), my fatigue was gone.  I was riveted.

Firstly, I like the script.  It’s full of effective little setups and payoffs, and Burke’s commitment to a tight structure makes the film an engrossing and effortless watch, even if some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose (When Jobs visits his wife after months of estrangement she broaches by saying “It’s been what.  A year?”).  Continuous threads of voiceover buoy all of the action; in the Microsoft chapters, future CEO Steve Balmer (exuberantly handled by John DiMaggio) gives frequent asides, sometimes walking right out of the frame, and directly addressing the audience (the kind of shtick you imagine Balmer doing on stage, at an exposition or a tech launch).  In the Apple chapters, voice-over duty falls to character actor Joey Sotnick, in an honest and affable turn as Steve Wozniak.  Like their real-life counterparts,  DiMaggio and Slotnick are engaging for their sheer charisma.  Both characters are essentially lackeys; subjugated, undervalued, and in the case of Wozniak, frequently  maltreated.  We warm to them almost at once, and their flair for narration is perfectly apt, given that both Balmer and Wozniak are, in reality, great raconteurs.

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In the foreground we have Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall; both commendably nuanced as the two warring moguls, though perhaps moreso Wyle.  Jobs is captured as a manic perfectionist — benevolent at turns, violent and coercive at others.  His performance falls somewhere between a barker at an upscale carnival, and a demented cult leader — with shades of a Manhattan apothecary thrown in.

Gates, on the other hand, comes off as equally driven, but a lot less alienating.  Hall makes the character gauche and clumsy, but also shows us why: his priorities are elsewhere.  Gates simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to spare for fashion or social graces, and is disdainful of Jobs’ fanatical new-age spieling.  Instead, he divides his time between two things: making computers, and goofing off with friends.  Unlike his rival, Gates is made to appear as essentially good-humoured, with a  sense of fun that, at times, borders on the reckless.  Perhaps the biggest disconnect between the two figureheads lies in Gates’ ability to tolerate a ribbing — usually from the outrageous Balmer — whereas Jobs is simply too postured to stoop.

It was undeniably refreshing to see Hall as a lanky, inelegant nerd once again — after the Brat Pack disbanded, he eschewed a decade of typecasting in order to play a string of bullying jocks (Tales from the Crypt, Edward Scissorhands etc.).  This is understandable, given that he filled out a rather big frame, but all the same, it’s fun to have him back, and wearing the role so comfortably.

If I have one complaint, it’s that the 1:33:1 version of the DVD has not yet been made available.  Instead, home audiences will have to contend with the original broadcast version in 4:3.  At least it’s not a panned-and-scanned conversion, being that this project was always — for better or worse — intended for the small screen.  In any case, don’t be put off by its origins (I appreciate that even in the age of Netflix and VOD, the words ‘TV MOVIE’ still carry a fair stigma), this is deft and intelligent filmmaking, with none of the Hallmark trappings.

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Spirited performances and economical pacing make sure that every scene — whether characters are tinkering in garages, or conferencing with suits — is hugely compelling.  And as the sense of achievement (or ‘revolution’, as Jobs repeatedly states) mounts steadily to a pitch, its hard not to be swept up in the fervour.  Like its contemporaries Steve Jobs and The Social Network, Pirates of Silicon Valley delivers more thrills, and more invention, than most blockbuster fare, and does so on a fraction of the budget.  I can’t praise the cast enough.  This is an impressively successful film in every department, and certainly one deserving of a revival.  Did I mention that it has a kicking soundtrack?

S.S.