Exploring the beauty of a new age nightmare
At the end of Beyond the Black Rainbow, directed by Panos Cosmatos (son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, and Leviathan), a period of quiet contemplation is required to begin unpacking everything one has seen during the preceding 110 minutes. The surreal swirl of stark futurism, psychedelia, and neon indulgence is…pleasantly overwhelming? Comfortably disturbing? Certainly it’s something that demands one’s attention even as it lulls you into a fugue state. It’s a difficult film for one to get one’s head around without setting aside a period to ponder its content and meaning; an oblique, stylish blend of giallo and science fiction somewhere between the riotous visual excess of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the fashion sense of Logan’s Run, and the clinical frigidity of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, within in which is a plot that plays — as best as it can be deciphered — like an unseen side plot from Akira or an early David Cronenberg film. One could believe quite easily that Beyond the Black Rainbow takes place in the same universe as Scanners or Videodrome, one where odd corporate cults perform nefarious experiments on people with nebulous goals and seemingly no risk of having to answer to any authority beyond their own.
The film is purposefully vague about its world. Viewers learn in the beginning that the film is set in 1983, and that there is a cult called the Arboria Institute, which is like one of those new age cults or those folks who went up to ride around the universe inside the Hale-Bopp comet. Their goals for the world are expressed in typically vague platitudes about the future, but they seem to have something to do with consciousness, utopia, and saving humanity; or rather, shedding our humanity and advancing to the next stage of existence. It’s like they watched Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and tried to turn it into a cohesive manifesto. But almost none of that matters really, because we see very little of the outside world. Beyond the Black Rainbow operates as a sensory deprivation tank in its way; odd for a film that so often threatens to overwhelm the senses. It allows the viewer only the briefest glimpses of the larger world, and then often without context that would help us better formulate an idea of what’s happening. Instead, we are alienated and isolated, and the bulk of the film takes place in two locations: inside the Institute, which is a mad blend of futurist decor and psychedelic illumination, and in the apartment of one of the film’s two principal players, the lackadaisically threatening Barry Nyle (hard-working genre actor Michael Rogers, who appeared in television shows such as Fringe, Continuum, Stargate SG-1, and Painkiller Jane).
Nyle is presumably some manner of doctor of psychology or psycho-chemistry, but his primary qualification for the job seems to be derived from his collection of turtleneck-and-sports jacket ensembles in tastefully muted earth tones. His apartment is like something out of a 1970s Playboy guide to decorating one’s swinging bachelor pad, but he doesn’t seem to spend very much time at home. Most of the hours in his day are consumed at the perplexing institute. His primary task, possibly his entire life’s purpose, is to interrogate/psychoanalyse a semi-comatose young woman named Elana (Eva Bourne, from the television shows Caprica and Once Upon a Time), kept in her dreamy state by a steady stream of sedatives. Who she is, where she came from, what her relationship is with Nyle beyond doctor-patient/prisoner is unclear. What does become clear is that she possesses extraordinary psychokinetic abilities, and that her bleary-eyed state of sedation keeps the powers, which she might or might not know how to control, in check to some degree. Nyle’s sessions with her range from soothing to abusive, casting him as something of a father figure (albeit a rather dubious father). His goal seems to be to provoke emotional responses in Elana, perhaps to study what it is that triggers her powers, while also plumbing her mind in an effort to, as best one can guess, ascertain what of her memory exists and what of her identity remains after all that has been done to her.
Whatever is going on at the institute hints at greater, more profound, perhaps very dangerous things. Certainly unethical and criminal things. Probably utterly insane things devised by people who long ago lost their minds. It’s an undefined world of which we only get the tiniest glimpse and which, when we do get to see a little more of it, makes even less sense than when we were confined to Elana’s interrogation sessions. We long for egress from our solitary confinement, but when it comes we discover that we are not equipped to deal with or interpret the world into which we emerge. We learn in fits and starts that there is a staff at the clinic, though it’s a small contingent consisting of a single nurse, an insane old man in a basement lair, and a menacing android or genetically modified being of some sort called a sentionaut, and serving as the facility’s security detail and clad in a uniform somewhere between Daft Punk and the cops from THX-1138. The old man is Dr. Mercurio Arboria himself, founder of the cult and currently a broken-down, mad old drug addict subjecting himself to endless broadcast loops in search of enlightenment or escape perhaps, in lieu of the grand vision he had for humanity that seems not to be playing out to his earlier, idealistic expectations. He is a man with a lofty goal that has become distorted, a dream impossible to attain but never the less possessed of the power to cause ruin.
The personification of Arboria’s failure is Nyle, a man who seems to have all of Dr. Arboria’s focus and obsession but none of his humanity or vision. It’s unclear exactly what Nyle hopes to accomplish with Elana, but it’s entirely likely that it’s equally unclear to Nyle himself, that he is simply going through a series of motions without understanding why or what started him down this path. In a harrowing, surreal flashback we see the event that transformed Nyle into the stoic monster he has become. It turns out that he’s basically an acid casualty, the shatter remnant of one of Arboria’s early attempts to expand consciousness through the application of chemicals and psychotropics. While Arboria professes — earnestly, one gets the impression, if naively — the benefits of his drugs (“benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting”) in helping the subject attain a state of bliss, it turns out that, as is the case with LSD, if you’ve got some evil lurking in you, you bring that with you into your trip. And then everything can go real bad regardless of how much smiling and excitement is going on around you. Nyle definitely has a bad trip, seeing himself melted alive before what remains of his psyche emerges from an ink-black tar pit. His consciousness has been expanded, but not in the direction Arboria expected. The fractured Nyle’s first act upon coming down from his transformative high is to go berserk and kill Arboria’s wife.
In the failure of Arboria’s radical new age treatment, we see the failure of a number of ambitious, optimistic counter-cultures. Specifically, the failure of psycho-chemical prophets like Timothy Leary who preached and doubtless genuinely hoped that certain drugs would assist mankind in ascending to the next level of being. And while plenty of people had some pretty good trips (and more than a few bad ones), in the end, humanity did not transcend this material world to enter a new era of bliss and hyper-intelligence. Mostly, the hippies just burned out, lost their momentum, got sent to Vietnam, and turned into suburban moms and dads in a minivan driving their kids to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. A bad life? That depends entirely on the individual; but certainly not the life the counter-culture promised. Similar promises have been peddled to the hopeful and the gullible since the dawn of man. The Spiritualism of the late Victorian era, the whole of organized religions, the Kitaro-music-driven New Age movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the magic Kabbalah water and wrist bands that were all the rage in the early 21st century — all of these pitches proscribe some system by which you can transcend this mortal coil, shrug off the shackles of this mundane material plane, and become something more, attain something beyond. Most of them do little more than string you along for however much attention span you have. Occasionally, they create monsters.
Nyle is such a monster, one that can only be contained through a steady administration of pills and the constant preoccupation of his mind on the esoteric medical functions of the Institute. Arboria himself as a wreck of a human, a true 1960s burn-out sitting in his basement, watching television, and wondering how his grand vision came to be so disappointing. If there is any hope for his broken dreams it is Elana, who we can tease out from the opaque narrative is probably his daughter. His relationship to Nyle is more ambiguous but hovers somewhere between father-son and mentor-pupil, though it is a relationship in which both parties have severely disappointed one another. Nyle and Arboria were part of the real world that attempted to make the transition into whatever meta-future Arboria dreamed up. Flawed from the beginning, corrupted by outside influence. But Elana, we can assume, had been raised her entire life within the confines of Arboria’s vision, subjected since birth to the regimen of drugs and technology meant to awaken her higher self. Unfortunately, Dr. Arboria is too far gone into his own failures to administer to Elana himself, leaving Nyle in charge. And Nyle is not a man to be trusted. He regards Elana with a jealous malice he becomes increasingly unable to contain behind his studiously composed stoicism.
It’s likely that Arboria’s jumble of drugs and flashing lights is no more effective at creating ultra-humans than is smoking weed and listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz. It’s also likely that Nyle has altered what is administered to Elana to make it actually harmful. She is forced to carry the contempt of two generations on her shoulders: her father’s for his failure and Nyle, sort of an older brother in a way, who resents her for not being the demon he is. As for her powers, well, who knows? Perhaps there was something to Arboria’s lunatic scheme after all, and the psychic power she demonstrates is a result of his stuffing her full of weird drugs (I would love to see Arboria sit on a panel with Oliver Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan, creator of “psychoplasmics” from Cronenberg’s The Brood). Or perhaps the manifestation of these powers is entirely in her head (or in the head of Nyle). Whatever the case, she is able to use them while Nyle is off duty to escape the confines of her stark prison cell and begin an increasingly strange odyssey through the labyrinthine Arboria complex. Guided by intuition through the maze of corridors and rooms and pursued by the sentionaut, she catches glimpses of the larger, much more horrifying picture of what’s occurring in the facility, though what she sees makes no more sense to her than it does to us.
As Elana is making her escape, so too is Nyle emerging from the confines of his own prison. After attempting to explain himself to a woman we assume is his wife, he decides that his mask of civility has failed him, or that it has failed to deliver him the peace and tranquility civility and normalcy promise yet so rarely deliver. Distraught, Nyle literally strips away his disguise, removing a toupee, the contact lenses that gave him normal eyes, and his clothes in exchange for a bald pate and a fetishistic leather jumpsuit better suited than polyester and suede for wearing whilst in the act of gutting people. He also arms himself with what he describes as a ceremonial dagger, lending all of the mad science we’ve seen up to this point an air of Dr. Strange-like mysticism. Leaving a gory trail of bodies behind him, he returns to the institute to kill Elana, the person who represents all that he envies and hates, desires and loathes. Upon finding she has herself made a lifestyle change and flown the coop, he sets out to track her down. Which is when the real world intrudes on the Arborian world, and we realize just how twisted and isolated the lives of Nyle and Elana have been. Because the world into which she escapes and he pursues her is, quite frankly, boring. In fact, it looks just like ours, right down to suburban neighborhoods and a couple of metal head losers sitting around in a field drinking beer.
Limited perception creates a strange and fantastical world within the prison of the Arboria Institute, yet exit from that world reveals that its horror and wonder play out against a backdrop of the mundane. Stoners sitting in a field juxtaposed with the homicidal offspring of strange hallucinogenic experiments. The world at large, we discover, is not horrifying or dystopic or science fiction-y. It was just that self-contained patch inside Arboria that was so weird. Nyle, in the finale, seems to be assembling emotions without understanding what they are, like a child mimicking the joy or sorrow or anger of a parent without understanding the underlying mental and emotional motivation of the outward displays. He is casting around wildly for an emotion that fits the situation, but in the end all he has are confusion and a rage he seems ill-equipped to interpret. Despite having lived most of his life with one foot in the real world and the other in the insular fiction of Arboria, he is as unfit for the outside world — more so, in fact — than the previously sequestered Elana. Even though Nyle can leave the Arboria compound at will, he has no place beyond it.
Just as the disappointingly average outside world greets us as we come down off the stylistic high of the scenes inside Arboria, so too does the surreal meditative science fiction film give way to the intrusion of what is basically a common slasher film. The tonal and visual shift is jarring, all the pulsating pastels and monotone speech affections and languid pacing being abruptly traded in for a scrubby field, a knife-wielding maniac, and a “final girl” running through the woods at night. Our trip has ended, and it turns out one of our fellow acid heads didn’t come out of it unscathed. It seems at first a clumsy transformation of the film, but it’s reflective of everything we’ve experienced up to this point; the real world as a stand in for Arboria’s inability to ever really transcend to real world, to only achieve the illusion of success by sealing himself (and Elana) away like a hermit seeking enlightenment by hiding in a cave. or like a man suffering from arrested development trying to extend his adolescence into adulthood by never leaving his basement bedroom.
The ultimate fate of Nyle and Elana is almost comically unremarkable. What happens to Nyle reminds me, oddly, of the ultimate fate of Wilbur Whateley, the half-man half spawn of the elder gods in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. Whateley, like Nyle, spent almost his entire life preparing to deal with, to summon, to control the fantastic, to commune with lifeforms beyond human comprehension and wield powers beyond the limits of our universe. His lifetime of mastering the fantastic leaves him utterly unequipped to deal with the everyday, and the cause of his eventual death is as absurdly ordinary as what awaits Nyle in the world outside Arboria. Meanwhile Elana, the product of her father’s glorious but ludicrous vision and her brother/doctor/jailer’s madness, has left behind the maniac, pop-art futurism that has been all she’s known and finds herself walking down a very normal street toward a very average looking suburb where people are no doubt eating TV dinners and discussing Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. I’m sure a few of the mothers and fathers have a beat-up old copy of Dr. Mercurio Arboria’s Be Yourself that they bought during a more open-minded and idealistic phase while they were in college. The sum total of Elana’s existence is probably now shoved onto a closet shelf alongside Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Dr. Ruth’s Book of Good Sex, the Bhagavad Gita as translated and annotated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and Edgar Cayce on Atlantis. The detritus of expanded horizons pursued and lives never changed.
Beyond the Black Rainbow relies primarily on its visual aspect to communicate meaning, but no less important in the overall composition of the film is the audio; though in this case, it’s not dialogue but music and sound design. Jeremy Schmidt, a member of the Canadian group Black Mountain, composed the soundtrack for Beyond the Black Rainbow under the name Sinoia Caves. Schmidt was already well-versed in the sort neo-retro synth sound that would be appropriate for a film of this nature, having released a Sinoia Caves album called The Enchanter Persuaded in 2002 that delved heavily into the world of past-future space-age synth and electronic music. His work here sounds like it was assembled in much the same way as the film itself: by basing it on memories and things once heard, though I’m sure a lot more actual research went into than that.
Some of the influences are obvious. This being a variation on a synth-heavy score from ’70s or ’80s film, you can here the influence of Goblin, Fabio Frizzi, John Carpenter, and Tangerine Dream. But below that lurks other influences: Brian Eno’s Ambient works; the weirder end of Carmine Coppola’s Apocalypse Now score; Popol Vuh’s soundtracks for Werner Herzog; synth-pop acts like SSQ (who themselves make an appearance on the soundtrack in the form of the song “Anonymous,” the only piece in the movie not composed by Sinoia Caves). As well as newer electronic acts, though there’s nothing here that would really betray that this wasn’t composed in 1983. Far from being just a random assemblage of past influences, Sinoia Caves pays close attention to the movie, weaving the compositions into the images on the screen, making them a part of what is happening, rather than just accompaniment. In this sense, it’s a true film soundtrack, blending haunting synth music with ambient noise that seems, in many scenes to be coming from the futuristic equipment of the Arboria Institute.
Beyond the Black Rainbow‘s deceptively complex story relies less on expository dialogue and logical narrative and cohesive plotting to tell its story than it does on imagery and visual language. It could almost play out with the sophistication of a silent film, albeit a very colorful one. Films like this often get greeted with a wave of the hand and an utterance of the meaningless dismissal “style over substance,” which is a tragically narrow reading of where substance can come from and how it can be communicated. We needn’t lock ourselves into thinking that meaning must come from clever or profound dialogue and plotting. Film is a medium that can take advantage of many other mediums, and any one of them or combination of them can be the source of a film’s substance.
Panos Cosmatos is not shy about the influences on this film, from Kubrick to Cronenberg, science fiction to giallo. But to call Beyond the Black Rainbow a “love letter to” this or that genre is needlessly and pointlessly reductive. It robs the film of its accomplishments, among which is synthesizing decades of somewhat obscure influence into something new, a film that resembles but does not slavishly mimic the art that came before it. You can find bits and pieces of other, older films in Cosmatos’ film, but no one scene is lifted verbatim a la a lot of recent “homages to,” and no element has been copied so much as it has been adapted. As Cosmatos himself has said in an interview, the film can trace its roots back to when he was a kid, marveling at garish and enticing VHS box covers which, not being allowed to rent them, he had to make up stories for on his own based on what he gleaned from the cover art. The end result of is something familiar but unique, something more than the sum of its parts. It’s not an imitation or a recreation; more like the result of a sometimes vague remembrance.
Cosmatos delivers all these things using a color palate that is as soothing as it is unnerving, realized not through digital color correction but via the application of practical effects, gels, lighting — the old-fashioned way. Stark whites are juxtaposed with splashed of pastel. the film eschews the more aggressive teal and orange color palate that has come to characterize so many movies and softens everything to peach, pink, salmon, sea foam green, aquamarine. Colors are allowed to go muddy, to flow into one another. Lighting is allowed to flare, to diffuse, to obscure or illuminate. We see everything through a dreamy haze the likes of which is usually reserved for romanticized scenes taking place in sun-dappled fields and involving little Edwardian girls in white dresses. Well, we do have a girl, and she is wearing a white dress. But there’s little in the way of sun-dappled romance, and Elana resembles less a playful Edwardian era girl and more, I don’t know, the revenant Sadako from The Ring, but with more cared for fingernails. On the other hand, there is something similar between the mood of Beyond the Black Rainbow and the ethereal supernatural menace of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was full of young Edwardian era girls in white dresses.
The overall effect is one that is alluring as it is menacing. You think when first you see these gorgeous colors, this modernist furniture, that it would be lovely to live there. Joe Colombo’s Wohnmodell 1969 made good. But the more time we spend inside the Arboria Institute, the more upsetting the decor becomes. It feels so…disconnected from the natural world. So alien. So unlikely to inspire messy, organic human things like empathy or passion. Remote. It is undeniably gorgeous. I’d go so far as to call Beyond the Black Rainbow as one of the most visually stunning and inspired films ever made. But the longer we spend in its candy-colored world so free of natural lighting and living things, the more ominous it becomes. This sumptuous art direction is layered on the deceive us regarding the nature of Arboria. When we exit the compound and find ourselves in a crummy municipal park enduring the jarring intrusion of a base slasher film, we immediately recognize the ugliness of the situation. The astounding horror Elana witnesses inside Arboria is far stranger, but the lyrical beauty applied to it tricks us.
It’s not just cinematic design and visual cues he does this with. There is a mishmash of late 1970s-early 1980s pop cultural and psychological elements in the mix as well, from Reagan’s Star Wars plan to the popularity of New Age gurus and self-help books. It was an era that saw the rise of trans-humanist thought, the idea that through a combination of drugs and technology we could become more than what we were. The twilight of Omni magazine, the dawn of Mondo 2000. The intersection of mysticism and modernism that so fascinated director Fritz Lang. This nascent thing called the Internet and this fascination with somehow digitizing, storing, and reloading consciousness. Less technological, there were Moonies and Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh promising enlightenment from the window of one of his fleet of luxury cars that had been purchased with the donations of his hopeful devotees. There was still the hope of space exploration, but also the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the muddled hack philosophy of Dr. Arboria, we can find all of these cultural artifacts, and in Beyond the Black Rainbow we can see how all of them let us down. Yet still we keep believing.
Ultimately, What one makes of it in the end depends largely on what one is willing to put into it. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a stunning achievement on every level, a visual masterpiece that offers multiple layers of interpretation should one want to delve beyond the glossy, mesmerizing sheen of its outward appearance. It encourages contemplation, not just about the composition of the film itself and its myriad inspirations, but about any number of other things. For example, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that I live in a city that has basically an entire secret city going on within it: unmarked doorways, unknown clubs, research facilities, labs, lives and societies and indulgences you’re simply not meant to see as an outsider. On occasion you might luck into a tantalizing (or terrifying) glimpse (talk to my friend about the pit full of flesh-eating beetles into which a technician was lazily tossing carcasses). But by and large, such things operate with people coming and going right on and off the busy city streets, yet you never know. How many Arboria Institutes are tucked away in New York City? Beyond the Black Rainbow, like a good trip I suppose, is a springboard for increasingly tangential and esoteric avenues of thought. It remains, to date, Panos Cosmatos’s only feature film. I would enjoy seeing more from him, but then, I also wouldn’t want to see him repeat himself. And I’m not sure what you do to top a film like this.