Poison Nostalgia + Panos Cosmatos
A few years back I wrote this about a weird film I’d seen by chance in Qatar via a friend with fingers in all the festival pies. Beyond the Black Rainbow blew my tiny mind. Still does. The director, Panos Cosmatos had wanted the essay to be included with the DVD on release but alas, a pamphlet extra was out of the budget. And so, to the blog she goes. Out of date and off my drive.
If you haven’t, DO get the BluRay and find a player to watch it on – it’s worth it.
“Beyond the Black Rainbow is the best example of whatever the hell it is.” – Cole Abaius – Film School Rejects
Panos Cosmatos ate the whole box of crayons.
And like the nose-picking weird kids in the corner with a mouth full of wax, no one seems to know quite what to make of his first feature Beyond the Black Rainbow. Yet.
The film is an immersion tank of late ‘70s/early ‘80s sci-fi horror and manages to deliver a sensory assault that is both fresh and deeply buried in that very different time – the foreign country that is pre-digital North America.
Remember the crunch of pressing play on a tape deck? The tiny burn of a cigarette in an airtight room? The thundery clap of turning a thick page in a big book? Were these the sounds of 1983? It certainly feels that way. It also looks that way, the texture of skin before mini-facials were available at every mall, the streaky wood of elevator panelling, the transparent yellowing of plastic spectacle frames. It is absolutely sonorous with colours for chromophiles – there may as well have been a Super Wurlitzer pumping in the wings. The actors are all mic’d in extreme close-up. You can practically taste the dialogue in your own mouth. And underneath all this is a control room filled with a crushing dread as invisible as the mortal dangers of The Zone.
At the centre of this set is the Masonic pyramidal node that appears to be the engine of the institute. For a moment, while the sound pulses, you fear your skull might explode. It happens a lot. The crypto-plot is only ever inferred – you emerge from Beyond the Black Rainbow feeling as though you have just slaked your pineal eye.
And yet despite the unique hypnogogic power of this film, the majority of Beyond the Black Rainbow commentary is prefaced by cult hounds picking out all the films it has borrowed from. Comment threads and Q&As turn into scratch-posts for alpha geeks to namecheck the influences, references and lineage of Cosmatos’ vision. To them it is a patchwork of their favourites – Dark Star! THX 1138! Phase IV! Scanners! Blue Sunshine!
Still, for all the ways this film signifies an entire canon of cult cinema to Fantastic Fest-ers. Beyond the Black Rainbow is not born from the same masturbatory world of the fan boys who have been its early champions.
Yes, Cosmatos gives the heroes of weird film due recognition. But he says that the movie is “looking at the past through more of an an acerbic lens.” And that it was a project that began nostalgic and ended up becoming infused with an ambivalence, he called in one interview a “darkness” towards his past.
Far from wallowing in the post 2001: A Space Odyssey wake of bright white-lit spaceships and noodly Moog symphonica, Beyond the Black Rainbow evolves from its source material. It is categorically not an homage, nor is it just a cleverly spliced compound of Ta(rkovsky), Ku(brick) and Ar(gento). Like many before him Cosmatos has committed the auteur periodic table to memory. And then, instead of turning it into an OCD rapid run-down of all the elements, he has achieved a seriously stunning feat of invention, a sort of cine-alchemy.
According to his director’s statement, Cosmatos’ early experiences with cult cinema were of its contraband nature. This was back when you had to wait for your parents to leave the house to watch anything mildly inappropriate. The days when renting Faces of Death required an age waiver and, for those so inclined, you couldn’t find photos of real corpses on rotten.com. Although Cosmatos wasn’t allowed to watch these films, they affected him as if he had. “Mesmerised by the lurid box covers and the vivid descriptions” on VHS horror films, Cosmatos would “imagine, in great detail, my own versions of these movies without ever having seen them.”
This kind of longing and imaginative projection of verboten films is all but over now when even the most shocking is available with a few torrent flourishes. If anything, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a testament to parental restriction – conceptualised as one of young Cosmatos’ “imagined movies” – beginning with a VHS slipcase (see arboria.org) and ending with a full-blown narrative more evocative of a time and imaginary place than all the Saturn 5s and Videodromes combined.
Now for some spoilers!
The inferred plot is this: In the 1960s, Doctor Mercurio Arboria founded a techno cult of “benign pharmacology” and “energy sculpting” promising inductees “eternity through technology.” This chunk of exposition is imparted in an introductory video, all dewy leaves and prismatic lens flares reminiscent of the language, ie “realising human potentialities” of Millbrook-style rogue-experimentation. The story begins in 1983. Doctor Arboria’s protégé, Barry Nyle, now captains the institute. It is essentially a ghost ship populated only by an unnamed orderly who resembles Nurse Ratched in sweatpants and his star patient, a Ringu-styled girl with stringy black hair and a nightie. She is called Elena. Doctor Barry Nyle is familiar, like an “evil Carl Sagan,” as film critic Oscar Moralde pointed out perfectly of the standard-issue turtleneck and sports jacket ensemble Nyle wears throughout. He is all sinewy malice, skin barely covering the twitching muscles of his face. Elena who has been born into and imprisoned inside the airtight world of the institute is a sort of feral child. All she knows of the outside world is from the TV – car explosions and cartoons. When she requests the chance to see her father, Dr Arboria, Nyle denies her, insisting “these times are of great uncertainty,” and that she isn’t well enough.
“The mood of the film is my memory of how the late ‘70s and early ‘80s felt to me,” says Cosmatos. “Both the reality and the fantasy world of the pop culture I would immerse myself in. In making it, I was trying to grasp something intangible. It’s a nostalgic movie, but it’s a poisoned nostalgia.”
If the Rodriguez compulsion is to re-enact the feeling of grind house films with track-marked celluloid or recycle video nasties with VHS scramble, then Cosmatos is at the opposite end of the cult-film spectrum, swallowing the films not just as an aesthetic. And although there is no doubt people will continue to draw comparisons with Jodorowsky, et al, Cosmatos has come out with something that is totally unlike the films he consumed.
Doctor Arboria is reminiscent of pathfinders like Huxley and Buckminster Fuller – all grand hallucinations of the future. Doctor Nyle is the boomer, adopting psychedelics and then promptly destroying them for everyone else. Then finally, there is Elena, born into an entirely constructed environment, weaned on TV and airborne drugs, inheriting a fucked-up world in its twilight. She is the progeny of Arboria, imprisoned by Nyle and even if she were to escape the institutional matrix of the Arboria institute, as a representative of generation X she would be unable to cope outside.
Some have posited that the film is in some way a tract against the “me generation” and their destruction of a utopian possibility through selfishness and consumerism. Indeed Cosmatos has spoken of his cynical attitude towards baby boomers who have “gotten away with murder.” Perhaps this is verging too far into Adam Curtis territory (turning vague hints into broad historical strokes) but this idea is hinted at by the nods to specific dates in the film such as 1966, the year all scientific experimentation with LSD was made illegal by the US government. In this sequence we have an acid trip and loss of innocence which brings us to the mournful centrepiece of the film – the death-by-overdose of Doctor Arboria, cult-leader turned junky, under the administration of his once protégé Doctor Nyle. This mad scientist is drawn half in, half out of life on a painless heroin holiday. He reclines alone in a dark room, accompanied only by syringes and the cooing female voice on a Hawaiian travel ad, like the, “warm, richly coloured, infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday” in Huxley’s Brave New World. In this projection, the Haleakala crater plays backdrop to the gentle death of Doctor Arboria and sharp awakening of Elena. And in one of the most stunning scenes of the film, Doctor Arboria’s blue-lit face is mashed with the red-tinted Elena’s while his tropical sunset gives way to her explosive sunrise. With the old guard dead, the youthful Elena, the only character in the film undusted by layers of age-inducing make-up, awakens from a haze. Now is the time for escape. She timidly makes her ascent into the outside world of trees and swamp and insects, pawing at the uneven dirt before stepping on to it like a lab beagle experiencing grass for the first time. She ends up at the border of suburbia, unsure of what to do. Whatever happens to Elena is left open. It is a conclusion that has left viewers both confounded and annoyed.
First viewing of Beyond the Black Rainbow is like coveting a chance to watch one of those previously mentioned R-rated films, like, say, Heavy Metal. You stare long and deep into the cover, all embossed lettering, fantastic beasts and greased-up breasts
Then you get the chance to watch it at a friend’s house and you find that actually, the rotoscoped He-men and teradactyles kindof suck. Now the shiny slipcase is discarded, disappointment descends followed by immediate nostalgia for your imagined version of the film, the one you had come up with before you went and ruined it for yourself. Despite the packaging, this is where Beyond the Black Rainbow is nothing like the film you were never allowed to watch – far from disappointing, it is everything you ever dreamed of.