Screening Log #65: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Written and Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Starring Eva Allen and Michael Rogers

 

 

 

 

One of the most interesting elements that comprises science fiction work, for me, is the element of extension that runs through it. The science fiction works that I have found most compelling are uniformly works that regard the present and logically extend one or many elements that constitute contemporary living into the future. Through this gesture, thoughtful SF offers a means by which current society may be critiqued from a radically different angle, it is able to become a mirror held up to social issues.

This element of extension is somewhat complicated by Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow. The film is not set in the future, but rather in an idealized version of 1983 that looks as though it was the future conceived of by either someone who had just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey while on psilocybin mushrooms or who would later go on to design the Apple store layout. The aesthetic of the film, and its integral Arboria Institute, is all clean and reflective surfaces, clean white and sharp reds, glass and plastic, a futuristic analog world that demonstrates the timelessness of clean geometric design. Here we are given a sort of retrospective extension, of society, based less on what actually was then by what could have potentially been. There is an implicit decision of perspective, moral or otherwise, enacted by this sort of aesthetic positioning; the filmmaker has chosen to excise elements that detract from their idealized version of history and the narrative efficacy of their film. Cosmatos is able to situate the aesthetic of his film by isolating elements of a stylistic whole, whether it is the film’s analog synth score, or the vehicle driven by the characters or the retro-trendy eye-wear sported by a nurse at the institute.

The film’s plot is similarly streamlined, offering itself as a clean surface off which Cosmatos may launch his extended, strange, and striking visual sequences. Elena, Eva Allen, is a patient, it seems, at the Arboria institute, who has never met her mother and is being treated by Dr. Barry Nyle, Michael Rogers, who has a disconcertingly intense fixation on Elena. Elena seems to be possessed of some sort of psychic power that is inhibited by a machine in the facility and the film languidly moves through a depiction of her daily routine within the Institute’s sparse and glossy walls. Nyle is seen outside the Institute long enough to sketch a coolly dysfunctional relationship with a woman at home named Rosemary, Marilyn Norry. Despite being framed by a promotional video that advertised the Institute, and its opulently glossy and advanced internal workings, no other patient of the Institute is seen and only three staff members, Nyle, a nurse, and a narcotically decrepit Dr. Mercurio Arboria, are glimpsed. The sparseness of the Institute’s population works in tandem with its minimalist design to create an antiseptic and alienating space, striking in its distinct hollowness.

Arboria Institute’s empty superficiality is echoed, visually, in Cosmatos’ insistence on depicting character’s faces and their reflections in the mirrors and walls and doors of the place. The mental and emotional abstraction perpetuated on Elena under the guise of a cure is given visual expression through this gesture, as well as the artifice involved – literally and otherwise – in Nyle’s own person. Cosmatos contrasts the aesthetic of the institute with many slow dissolves between scenes and faces that creates an uneasy juxtaposition of the soft transitions between hard surfaces. This uneasiness underscores the wealth of slow, hazy, and often outright psychedelic, visuals that Cosmatos laces through the film. This includes an extended flashback sequence rendered in black and white where Nyle undergoes a strange drug-influenced ritual that plays a large part in determining Elena’s current predicament.

While the Institute exists to ostensibly promote self-actualization and happiness, the methodology employed by Nyle heavily leans on psychological manipulation aided by pharmacological supplements. Elena is docile, eyes downcast, for much of the film, and her decision to escape Arboria comes as a perhaps unexpected embracing of this line of treatment. Nyle, likewise, sheds elements of his personage to reveal a truer underself, embracing his true nature to reveal the potential for conflicting subjective ideas of what constitutes happiness. It is through Elena’s escape that the film’s ethical dialectic comes fully into view. The world outside Arboria is lush and natural as Elena leaves behind the glass-domed Institute and the subterranean current of the conflict between nature and nurture is made explicit. That Elena’s only moment of seeming joy comes in this setting – following a confrontation with Nyle that functions as a kind of punchline, rendering the preceding film something of a joke on the futility of self-determinism – further asserts the oddly naturalistic undertone of the film.

Beyond the Black Rainbow concludes with an image that is admirably vague: Cosmatos utilizes a visual callback to Elena’s time in “treatment”, refusing to disclose whether the situation before Elena is something positive or a broader reframing of the confinement of the Arboria Institute. The film deploys a visual vernacular that hearkens back to the 1970s to create something of a natural fable of a future past. Unabashedly placing style and aesthetic before narrative concerns, sketching a shaky and loose framework sturdy enough only to lay his heady visuals over, Cosmatos has crafted a film that seeks to replicate the disassociated state of living under the influence while simultaneously working to subvert that very aesthetic.

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Comments
One Response to “Screening Log #65: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)”
  1. My interpretation: The whole goal of Arboria was to realize some sort of transcendence using hallucinogens and new age religious rituals (pretty boilerplate 1960’s stuff). When that didn’t work, Mercurio kept the drugs and hocus pocus but also threw human experimentation into the mix.
    Basically Murcurio is equal parts Dr. Mengele, Timothy Leary and L. Ron Hubbard.
    Everything we see in the film is shown to us through the filter of Barry Nyle’s LSD soaked brain. All of the bizarro nonsensical imagery is nonsensical because it is being created by Barry’s imagination. It is left up to the viewer to speculate on what is real and what is a hallucination.
    The clue you are given is the creepy baby-faced android is revealed in the final shot of the film to be just a plastic action figure.
    In Summary: Arboria was a real* place and Barry, Mercurio and Elena were real* people, but it is very likely that the entire sci-fi component of the film is just a bad trip.

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