One way of thinking about Peter Strickland’s works is as baubles of obsession. They are little spheres of influence, spheres of logic that marry fecund dialogue and audiovisual atmosphere with field recordings and realistic performances as if moiré of pearl congealed around a nasty bit of grit. Coming to critical notice with Katalin Varga (2009) and wide acclaim with Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – variously a pastoral rape-revenge and psyche-study of a sound engineer working on the audio of a particularly despicable giallo – Strickland was quickly defined by his interest in sound,1 gialli and Europhilitic influences.
Strickland was born in 1973 in Reading, just past Slough, in the outer-commuter belt of London. At the age of twenty, Strickland begins regularly visiting New York, thanks to the hospitality of an extended Greek family. Here he comes in contact with the newly old guard of New York’s art, experimental and transgressive trash film scenes, with Holly Woodlawn and Nick Zedd starring in Strickland’s debut Bubblegum, released in 1996.2 This was the same year he began his food collage group The Sonic Catering Band, and adjacent label Peripheral Conserve. In 2002, a modest inheritance lets Strickland self-fund Katalin Varga.
Two observations can be made about Strickland and his relationship to influences.
First, that they are more diverse than typically cited. To limn the shape of influences that Strickland has aptly invoked we could trace the respective tableaux and tactility of Sergei Parajanov and Zoltán Huszárik’s films; the frisson of ASMR youtubes; the respective antiquarian and manipulations of the Quay Brothers and Peter Tscherkassky; the ufficio of late ‘real England’ workplace sitcom humour; and the respective homo and het pornography of Wakefield Poole and Shaun Costello.
Despite this array of influences, there is a continuity of both logic and form across his work that constructs a distinctly ‘Stricklandian’ film, united specifically by a certain kind of intensity. Rather than the artifice and enigmas of an early Quay work or the analogue enemas of a Costello roughie, with Strickland there is the distinct sense you are getting inside someone’s mind. What is therefore taken from these influences are elements of worldviews – not just signs, though some are totems of other worlds – but also scraps of form, tactics, rules, that can be reassembled, transformed, to demarcate zones with their own (albeit suggested or mystifying) systems of logic.
A useful parallel with Strickland is Bertrand Bonello, who identifies films that take place in a single location as “brain films”; the location analogous to our brain, like a cinema theatre sealed off from the outside as concepts circulate, promulgate and play out.3 Bonello’s House of Tolerance (2011)4 rhymes with Berberian Sound Studio both autumnal orange films of interiority marked by a brief rupture of natural light. A lakeside picnic trip in Tolerance and amateur footage of Box Hill, Surrey in Berberian, ventilate the films as if light penetrating a camera obscura, with all the adjacent Enlightenment analogies of the mind body divide that this implies. To sharpen Bonello’s observation, an interior needs an exterior to be sealed off from, and once this flash of light exists you have the mediation of a relationship.
Berberian Sound Studio cleanly maps onto the obscura model of relationship, yet across his other films we find more phenomenologically embodied ways of structuring the relationships of worlds. Katalin Varga contain two worlds: her pastoral domestic sphere of houses and farmlands, and the psychic terrain of the forest where she was raped. The reverse of Varga, The Duke of Burgundy is a hermetically sealed world that is fascinated by nature. In observing the life cycle of a BDSM relationship, Strickland points to what is missing from this world. The film establishes what is excluded through a range of deliberately subverted and maimed binaries (masculine/feminine, amateur/professional, purity/danger) thus constructing the ‘hard’ boundary of the world. In Fabric is the most explicit on this front, positioning two equally important worlds against one another: the antiquarian Strickland world of a demonic department store and the everyday working-class world of his protagonists, threaded together by the movement of a haunted dress.
This collection is grounded in the films of Peter Strickland and the potential worlds or minds they evoke. Henri Di Corinth, David Toop, Drew Daniel and David Evan Richard each explore one of Strickland’s features. Di Corinth traverses the depiction of landscape in Katalin Varga, revealing how Strickland confounds orthodox pastoral imagery through the construction of this ‘antiworld’, a world “based in mimesis but without and immediate mimetic register.” Toop meticulously dissects the sounds that haunt Berberian Sound Studio, both giallo film scores including Bruno Maderna’s Death Laid An Egg (Giulio Questi, 1967) and Ennio Morricone’s A Quiet Place in the Country (Elio Petri 1968) as well as, equally importantly, the amateur tape composers, recorders and writers that guide Gilderoy (Toby Jones). This leads to Toop reflecting on the film’s soundtrack by Broadcast, and Strickland’s key radioplay The Stone Tape (2015). Daniel and Richard’s respective pieces on The Duke of Burgundy and In Fabric both dive deeply into the haptic qualities of the movie and its impact on the sensorium. For Daniel, his initial consideration of Burgundy’s cinematic roots begs, “what are these citations in service of?” identifying both their role in the film’s tactile sensibility and ultimately submissive relationship to its world. Richard investigates the ‘hardness’ of In Fabric – the plastic of the mannequins, the glass of the department store – and how they function as a sensual allegory for how to penetrate the film and its clash of everyday and demonic world.
The second part of the collection takes a more horizontal approach to Strickland’s work, with Alison Taylor, Samm Deighan, Anton Bitel, Julian House, Cerise Howard and Lawrence English cutting across Strickland’s body of work to explore planes of thematic, artistic, formal and other unifying concepts. Taylor and Deighan reflect on the environment of Strickland’s worlds. Taylor argues that uncontrolled nature “signals a liminal space between worlds, threatening to swallow characters whole and turn cinema in on itself”. Meanwhile Deighan explores the aesthetic and semiotic function of forests in Strickland’s films, emphasising their relationship to folklore. Bitel focuses on how gender plays a crucial role in sealing the worlds of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, proposing them as variations of a similar theme where gender ‘games’ dominate the films’ cores. Howard moves backward from In Fabric through Strickland’s filmography to underscore the various ways they manifest the spirit of surrealism, particularly as inflected by the tactility of the great Czech animator Jan Švankmajer. English speaks to the power of hearing, and sound’s ability to escape the flat plane of the screen, specifically in how Strickland through form, and focalisation, foreground the act of hearing and need to listen and the multidimensional richness that ensues. Finally, graphic designer Julian House speaks to his ongoing work with Strickland, and his “collage as an overall approach rather than an illustration style” with its unconscious dream-like fusing of disparate time of space into new worlds.
This collection concludes with an interview with Peter Strickland conducted by co-editor John Edmond. In it, Strickland addresses his relationship to work, describing his routine work practice, future work, and the place of work as a particular domain within his films. For in addition to being an obscura film invested in the relationship between interiority and exteriority we can also see Berberian Sound Studio anew, with two spaces – domestic and work, amateur and professional – collapsing into one.
- Not just due to Berberian Sound Studio’s plot, but also Katalin Varga winning the 2009 Berlinale for outstanding artistic contribution (sound design). ↩
- Strickland’s first properly conceived film, he made a number of trial works on Super8 in 1993 and 1994, starting with Rising Within the Realms of Sleep. ↩
- Dennis Lim, “What Do Courtesans Do by Day?“, The New York Times, 18 November 2011. ↩
- The first of this triptych is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998), like House of Tolerance it presents a brothel lit only by the orange hue of oil lamps, and is marked by rupture. ↩