The Time in this Trailer is Out of Joint
I’m a sucker for the science fiction mise en scenes of the 1970s (with the late 60s and early 80s thrown in for good measure). Sadly, the future these days looks like Minority Report or I, Robot or both (see Len Wiseman’s Total Recall), while tomorrow’s future is shaping up to look like Halo + The Book of Eli — Will Smith. And so even if it meant we’d be stuck in the past, I would turn back the film making clock if today’s directors would stage films that looked Kubrickian, Tarkovsky-ish, or Carpenter-y.
Because of my predilection for the look of the past, I was very excited when I saw the trailer for Panos Cosmatos’s 2010 film, Beyond the Black Rainbow. As an aural/visual experience which is more of a series of echoes than it is a movie trailer, it seems to be a forerunner of a film unstuck in time. Perhaps Beyond the Black Rainbow slipped into a crack in space-time in 1983 and emerged in 2010.
Go ahead and watch the trailer. I’ll wait.
Those three lights in the darkness at the beginning of the trailer? They remind me of an important sequence of lights in Idaho Transfer, a little-seen Peter Fonda-directed time travel film. From there, the trailer recalls for me the Dharma Initiative orientation films, the trailer for Saul Bass’s Phase IV, and the Vortex pyramid that eats Sean Connery in Zardoz. To this embarrassment of riches, the trailer adds echoes of THX-1138, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Altered States, Dark Star, and The Brood. And in some ways, it contains the DNA of Phantasm and Demon Seed.
The Black Rainbow is Made of Magnetic Tape
Panos Cosmatos has said in multiple interviews for Beyond the Black Rainbow that it is a film born from the VHS covers of the films his parents wouldn’t let him watch as a boy. Appropriately, the splash screen of the Beyond the Black Rainbow website is a mockup of a VHS cover for the film. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a future VHS release from Mondo Video.
I used to spend a lot of time in Suncoast Video when it was still a going concern, so I know from VHS covers. My mom dragged the family in there most weekends on her endless search for old Batman serials and Hopalong Cassidy features. I hated these trips to Suncoast because I would invariably see a VHS cover which afflicted me with sleeplessness for a week or two. The cover of Playroom (1990) frightened me so badly that every trip to the video store for a year or so was an exercise in not seeing it. (I just looked up the cover of Playroom on Google Image Search, and I think that it may be the source of my well-documented fear of eyes.)
Were I to make a movie from the video cassette covers of my childhood, it would be about a portal to another dimension opening in the bedroom of a young boy, a portal through which would stream leprechauns and gremlins and Salacious B. Crumb. Come to think of it, a mashup of The Flight of the Navigator and Phantasm probably would be the closest analogue to the film I would make. In order to be true to the feelings I had at the time, there probably wouldn’t be much of a story, just a vague feeling of uncanny menace.
Where the Rainbow Meets the Road
I’m afraid that the film Cosmatos made trades more on vague and uncanny than it does on substance. Mirrored obsidian surfaces, helmet hair, and synthesizers project the 1983-ness of the film. Long takes of off-center close-ups against indistinct backgrounds invite the viewer to share the catatonia of the protagonist. Film grain filters and other postproduction tricks approximate analog production. And all of it left me wishing for a surfactant to spray on the screen that would break up and wash away the style, revealing the narrative underneath.
What we have to go on for narrative is shots of Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) visiting Elena (Eva Allan) in the research wing of the Arboria Institute, a self-enlightenment commune. For most of the film, Elena is sedated and confined to a white-walled room. Dr. Nyle comes to ask her questions. It seems that he does this everyday. His questions do not provide clues to what is going on.
For the first part of the film, we see Nyle visiting Elena, Nyle going home (which, due to the cinematography, is hard to place in relation to the research facility), Nyle getting phone calls, Nyle taking drugs, etc. We also see Elena waking up in the middle of the night, Elena exploring the facility, Elena discovering a notebook hidden in a hidden drawer in the wall of a glossy hallway (the notebook does not tell us much about what is going on), and so on and so forth.
We see three other people in the commune: Nyle’s wife, who I mistook for his mother at first; a bespectacled and catatonic technician, and Dr. Mercurio Arboria, whose voice we hear at the beginning of the trailer. We know that Nyle took some drugs during the Sixties (we learn this from a psychedelic flashback) and that those drugs transformed him into something. What that something is, I have no idea. Dr. Nyle visits Arboria in a room reminiscent of the euthanasia room in Soylent Green, and they have a conversation in which we learn next to nothing about what is going on at the Institute and so on and so forth.
I’d describe the Sentionauts, but there’s no point. Elena escapes because the glowing pyramid shuts down (don’t get excited, we don’t learn anything about the pyramid). Nyle follows with a curved knife (it has to be ceremonial) after removing his wig and contacts (which had given him the appearance of having normal human eyes).
Oh, and Elena gets away after using her telekinetic powers.
All of this dismissive description may have piqued your interest. If it has, by all means, go see the film. Panos Cosmatos is to be congratulated for following his muse so well, then getting distribution. I look forward to his next film. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a film for those who like to come up with answers for unanswered questions at the end of a film. I like unanswered questions as much, if not more, than the next guy, but I have my limits. If I have to answer all of the questions by making up answers out of whole cloth, I get cranky.
If Beyond the Black Rainbow was supposed to be an art film, I could have forgiven its flaws. But the trailer promised an arty genre film. I think Beyond the Black Rainbow has helped me understand what LOST‘s loyal detractors feel like.
In the end, reverse-engineering a film from nostalgia doesn’t seem the best way to produce a good story. (Whoever winds up directing Star Wars 7, take note!) A good narrative will only betray the feeling of possibility a good home video case or movie poster or trailer can provide.