Thursday, February 7, 2013

Beyond the Black Rainbow

2010, Panos Cosmatos

'80's fetishists take note, here's the ultimate in retro-styled boutique filmmaking, a film so in tune with a very specific type of genre storytelling it actually feels authentic.  Director Panos Cosmatos has said of his film that he wanted to recreate what horror films were like in his mind as a child after only seeing the box covers at the video store.  I know exactly what he's talking about.  I remember seeing the cover to the laserdisc of Iceman and still have a vivid impression of what that film was based on that one glimpse of a picture, and yet I've never seen it or even read up on it since.  The mind of the young will roam wildly to places adults would never think to go outside of a fever dream or hallucinogenic trip.

Beyond the Black Rainbow begins in 1983 with a videocassette, a square-boxed introduction to a fictional research institute that completely nails the ethereal sensibilities of the time, droning synthetics, pixelated sterile video effects, random images of nature, metered and low-speaking talking heads.  The intent on the part of the in-context maker is to seem progressive (nonsense terminology emblazened across the screen in primitive digital scrawl), but the filmmaker's goal is obvious.  That stuff is creepy as hell.  Though 8mm and vintage reel-to-reel handheld filmmaking has long been adopted by the modern mainstream as providing a sense of familiar warmth, the VHS or Beta age has now become a staple of science fiction and horror, because of tracking issues and fidelity loss associated with magnetic tape.  The glitches and the textural aspects to tape, both in visual and audio aesthetic seem to be the perfect starting point for establishing "creepy" or "ominous" and have been used to expert effect by shows such as Fringe and Lost.

Beyond the tape, Cosmatos presents a sterile, 80's "futuristic" environment, a concrete and plexiglass facility that's sparsely decorated, highlighted with only flat colors painted with hi-gloss finishes.  It's seemingly inhabited by only a handful beings:  A teenaged "patient", Elena;  her doctor, Barry Nyle; the nurse, Margot; the institute's barely lucid, aged founder Dr. Mercurio Aboria, and the curious non-human entities, the Sentionauts (their exact purpose I'm not entirely clear).  The film labors over Dr. Nyle's meetings with Elena.  He's after something from her, but what it is we're not too sure.  Margot, meanwhile has stumbled across a note book that looks like a disturbed and deviant field guide of sorts.  Dr. Aboria is either senile or purposefully kept in a state of dementia by Dr. Nile, while at home, Dr. Nile and his wife are utterly disconnected.

It's apparent that Elena has some sort of psychic ability, but it is kept tempered by a geometric crystal kept deep in the facility.  Dr. Nile will adjust the "volume" on the crystal to control Elena, but her powers seem to be evolving beyond the crystal's complete control.  Of course, all of this makes it sound like it's a delicious set-up to some sort of Carrie-like freak-out or Hanna-like action set-piece, but it's not.  Cosmatos' film moves at an extremely deliberate pace from the onset, reliant as much on the sound design and the atmospheric, plodding synth score from Black Mountain's Jeremy Schmidt as it does any sense of story or character.

I was constantly peeling off influences on this film as I watched it.  Early Michael Mann like Thief and Manhunter (as resonant as they were in Nicolas Winding-Refn's Drive), and Cronenberg's Videodrome, moreover his 70's Montreal horror (this is a Vancouver-based one), somehow innately Canadian yet transcending any stereotypes.  Mann's The Keep's smoky, monochromatic aesthetic and its Tangerine Dream score stick out the most, but perhaps that's because The Keep feels like a smoky, monochromatic dream I had back in the late 90's the one and only time I saw it.  Additionally the film recalls the soundtracks of John Carpenter, the grotty feel to his 70's and 80's work, as well as the cold cleanliness of Kubrick's genre work, like 2001, The Shining and the dementia of A Clockwork Orange or Roger Avery's Killing Zoe (or the far less known Frankenstein riff, Mr. Stitch).  I couldn't help but feel the same unerring sense of equally heightened intensity and detachment as Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void, which in many ways feels like a sister film.  They're both mood-based head trips that require you to succumb or freak out.

Cosmatos' film is so purposeful, fulfilling so closely his intent.  It's a challenge to view for sure, since it's not a logical film.  There's no story or clearly defined reason for it, and it's overlong by at least 15 minutes (a paring back of long establishing shots could accomplish this without sacrificing much or any of the story, though it may hasten the mood), so it's definitely not going to appeal to everyone, or most.  But I was awed by Cosmatos' conviction to style and his attention to the filmmaking details.  Whenever I felt my attention waning, something visually would draw me back.  It's an incredibly strong debut picture, with a very clear vision and sense of self. 

"I think sometimes a film can’t even be seen for what it really is during the era that it’s made. So, a lot of these films have become an interesting works of art just by aging."
[Panos Cosmatos quote link]