Wednesday 5 December 2012

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Director: Panos Cosmatos
Stars: Michael Rogers, Scott Hylands and Eva Allen
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Surely the most uncompromising vision of recent years, this debut feature from second generation filmmaker Panos Cosmatos was immediately loved and hated; I was rather surprised to find myself somewhere in the middle. Aiming to create a film that could believably have been shot in 1983, the year Beyond the Black Rainbow is set, he surprisingly didn't dip into his father's output, which with pictures like Leviathan, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II, is quintessentially eighties. The key influence was a concept. He remembers visiting a rental store called Video Addict as a child, but being too young to actually watch many of the horror/sci-fi movies available, imagined his own vesion of those films from their covers and the synopses on the backs of the boxes. If this film has a direct provenance, it's to all those imaginary versions of real movies that he conjured up when he was young, albeit combined with some of the real versions he saw years later.

There is a story, though it's a very simple one and it's drawn out through the power of art to much longer than would normally be the case. There's a deliberate absence of detail, right down to the exquisitely clinical architecture of the Arboria Institute in which we spend the majority of the film, so that everything here can be read in more than one way. Put simply, a young lady named Elena who has mysterious powers has been trapped in a near catatonic state within this institute, which is ironically dedicated to the goal of happiness, 'serenity through technology' as the motto has it. She's kept captive by Dr Barry Nyle, its sinister head of research, her powers dampened down by a mysterious pyramid at the heart of the institute. She may or may not be Nyle's own daughter and she may or may not have been at Arboria since she was born. Given that Nyle observes that she looks more and more like her mother, she may or may not also be a sexual obsession for him.

All this is kept ambiguous, but it becomes clearer on repeat viewings. It's far more likely that Elena is really the daughter of Dr Mercurio Arboria, the founder of the institute, and his wife, Anna. It's a sure bet that she doesn't believe Nyle to be her father, as her only dialogue is a telepathic plea to him to let her see him. However it's still possible, as Nyle certainly pursued Anna and eventually murdered her, under the influence of pharmacological experimentation gone horribly wrong, back in 1966, when Elena was born. At that point, she's depicted as some sort of star child, supposedly the beginning of a new age of enlightment, which of course fails to materialise. It may not be too much of a stretch to see Elena as the real experiment, created by Nyle through his obsession with Anna and using her as the means. However, it's Dr Arboria's death and the subsequent transfer of knowledge that allows Elena the means to overcome Nyle and the pyramid and make her escape.

In most films, delving that deeply into the storyline would mean providing spoilers, especially for a film released only two years ago. Here though, everything is kept so deliberately ambiguous and open to personal interpretation that I could tell you frankly what happens in any scene you like and it still wouldn't constitute a spoiler. While the story is there and perhaps enough repeat viewings can fully nail it down, it's hardly the most important part of the film. It's the feel of that story and the means by which it's told that Cosmatos was obviously aiming for most. You could call it style over substance, unashamedly so, but there is, at least, substance beneath the style. What makes this film so discussable is that as many arguments could be waged over the influences of the look and feel of the piece as to what it all actually means. The last film to truly fit that category may be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was hilariously 42 years old when this was released.
Stanley Kubrick was clearly a major influence. The precise visual style, the deliberate pace and the careful use of sound are very reminiscent of Kubrick. The colour is too, with Elena a white symbol of purity throughout and Nyle frequently red, the Devil's colour. The fades to red are surely a nod to A Clockwork Orange. Most obviously, the set and furniture design is so clearly channelled from Kubrick that many scenes could easily have been alternative sets from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They're deceptively functional too, but in a subversive way. Rather than provide function, as would be the norm, they restrict it. There are no clocks so we're kept outside the flow of time, just in the year of 1983. Beyond not knowing where the Arboria Institute is, we have no idea of its internal geography either, even after an hour and a half, as the consistently sparse and sterile design frees us from spacial recognition too. We're as lost in time and space as Nyle within his acid trip.

David Cronenberg is another clear influence, with ideas borrowed from many of the films he made as the seventies became the eighties. When the pyramid's influence is dialled down, Elena has the psychic power to explode heads, a concept borrowed from Scanners. Most of the characters here only connect to the outside world through television, something inspired by Videodrome, and the ending is an overt nod to that film too. The idea of hacking the human body as a way to enhance our control of it is a frequent Cronenberg theme, here explored in a number of ways, most overtly through the Arboria Institute's dream of using 'benign pharmacology, sensory therapy and energy sculpting to create 'a different way to think, a new way to live, a perfect way to believe'. The fear of physical transformation is another, manifested here in the changes we see within Dr Nyle later in the film. Of course, Cronenberg often merges the psychological with the physical, as this does.

While I don't have a list, I'd be astounded if the titles that Cosmatos imagined into his versions at Video Addict included Cronenberg pictures, not least because they share a nationality, Cronenberg being from Toronto, while Cosmatos grew up on Vancouver Island. For all the connections, this isn't a Cronenberg picture though. The first half is mostly seventies science fiction, both American films like Silent Running and THX 1138 and Russian ones like Solaris and Stalker, the locations of all of these films being reminiscent in the isolation and sparse population of Arboria Institute and many of their settings and themes being touched upon also. Then, the second half turns into an eighties slasher movie, but with the style of the first half allowed to bleed through into it. The Cronenberg angles both overlay and underpin all that, as befits the filmmaker who originated the sci-fi/horror hybrids of the era that Cosmatos aimed at most.
No discussion of Beyond the Black Rainbow can fail to acknowledge the huge impact on the film of its score. Unlike any other picture I can name, it's intrinsically part of the piece. Given the visual style and the sparse dialogue, it might be an interesting experiment to watch the film on mute to see how much is lost. I'm sure it would be a notably lesser film but conversely, listening to the film without visuals is enjoyable. I don't mean a soundtrack album, I mean all 110 minutes stripped off the movie and played in entirety. It's ironic that we can then imagine our own movie from it, just as Cosmatos did from his videotapes. It's all generated on analogue synthesizers, but runs the gamut from ambient to krautrock via drone, Italian prog and John Carpenter themes. It merges seamlessly with Eric Paul's sound design to mimic the power of the pyramid and incorporate all the analogue clicks, beeps and tones of the props, even Nyle's voice.

In the end, the film's biggest success is in how all these elements work together as an immersive experience. While the stubbornly sedate pace makes it tough to pay attention and, on its own, will alienate most of its audience, I found myself rivetted. The music ties so closely to the sound and, by extension, to the delightfully analogue interfaces that are the antithesis of most technology in modern films that I found myself engrossed with the little details as much as the big picture. The actors do magnificent work, especially given that only Michael Rogers has much dialogue as Nyle and even then far less than the average. They have to compensate with body language, especially Eva Allen as Elena, who gets a large amount of screen time but hardly gets to speak. That makes them almost moving props for Cosmatos to manipulate along with everything else we see.

It really is an accomplished piece, uncompromising and not remotely commercial, but Cosmatos self-financed it and frankly doesn't care. He knew what he wanted to put on film and he achieved that. There's nothing here at all that tells us that this isn't a lost film from 1983, just knowledge that it isn't, it's 'a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist', as Cosmatos would have it. He shot the film on two thirds 35mm using a period Panavision camera, with exposure techniques used to raise the grain. Michael Rogers certainly looks like he stepped right out of the eighties; I surely can't be the only one to notice the resemblance between the controlling Dr Barry Nyle and the controlling Steve Jobs. Perhaps the key is in some of his words. 'I know who I am,' he explains to Elena. 'It's what gives me my confidence and my power.' While we may not understand exactly what Cosmatos tells us here, he certainly does and he tells it with confidence and power.

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