In dispatch number three, an Englishman finds work in Italy, an American looks around in Austria, and Armenians shoot rockets in Lebanon.
Berberian Sound Studio
A movie that I like to imagine as spun out from the chance glimpse of an Anglo name in an Argento end credit roll, Peter Strickland’s involuted sketch of cine-madness Berberian Sound Studio concerns a British sound engineer who takes a gig on an Italian horror film called, pricelessly, “The Equestrian Complex.” With a name custom-built for bullying, Gilderoy (Toby Jones) meekly goes about his business with watermelon-powered foley effects and sound-level jiggering, leading to easy Italian culture-clash bits with the manipulative mustachioed producer and his bonehead brothers. The claustrophobic, studio-bound film’s affectionate send-up of over-the-top Italian genre filmmaking in an analogue era is often quite funny, especially the voice talent responsible for dubbing the witches and “aroused goblin” featured in the film-within-the-film. Gradually, Gilderoy’s travails and isolation among co-workers lead into an enveloping, textured fugue of sonic violence and mental attrition, in a tight build-up of a sort recognizable from Strickland’s excellent Katalin Varga, though psychological and sensual rather than dramatic.
Jem Cohen’s gentle feature Museum Hours follows its own sort of perceptual drift as Anne, a lost American visiting a sick relative in Vienna, befriends museum security guard Johann. Their casual, chance bond of caring friendship—both seem to be observers now after living through earlier spikier artistic periods—is portrayed through naturalistic, guileless performances by mellifluous nonprofessional Bobby Sommer and the diffident singer Mary Margaret O’Hara. Cohen’s film is also an essay on reading art and the world, his characteristically perceptive camera taking in the Vienna museum, its patrons, and the city with a democratic, philosophical wisdom. Again, rather than following a narrative of grief, loss, and succor, it’s a film that works through an unshowy sense of empathy in practice and through the accumulation of small visual discoveries and often unexpected incisive insights.
Lebanese Rocket Society
Lebanon’s secret history as aspiring space-bound nation is revealed in Lebanese Rocket Society by the inveterate team of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Or at least getting something into the air: an Armenian-Lebanese university in Beirut was ground zero for fledgling attempts at rocketry in the nostalgically viewed 1960s. The somehow forgotten (or repressed?) saga of their idealistic efforts and later military involvement draws on Hadjithomas and Joreige’s foregrounded research attempts and interviews with surviving participants, one of whom appeared after the screening to deliver an encomium to good science. Though marred by insipid rock crescendoes and an ill-advised use of eye-searing animation to depict a utopian future, the probing film achieves a triumph in praxis with the signed, sealed, and delivered realization of a replica rocket—an inspiring past made physically real once more.
The fourth dispatch from Toronto can be found here.