Monday 18 September 2017

The Question in Bodies #4: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

How do you discover movies?

When I was a teenager, in the days of VHS, it was generally through the TV listings, and for a while through the Friday film reviews in The Guardian, which my dad didn't buy (he bought The Daily Mail, for the racing form, although he read it long after he'd given up the horses). But I had a paper round, see, and I used to read the papers I delivered, and anyway that's a digression. In the last few years that's all changed precipitously fast.

So, for example, I found 2010 Canadian fantasy Beyond the Black Rainbow through a single unattributed image on Tumblr in that brief period when I was, anonymously, Big on Tumblr (and even Tumblr has had its day; about nine months ago maybe, a 16 year old said to me, "Tumblr? Isn't that for old people?")

What in the name of anything is that, I thought. I started to dig. That image led me to a soundtrack album and that finally led me to a single copy available on eBay, a second hand Region 1 import.

The highlight of my day.
There's something about the expenditure of a tiny bit of effort in the finding, not a lot, enough, that is in keeping with the conception of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Director Panos Cosmatos (son of George Cosmatos, director of such quintessentially 80s movies as Rambo: First Blood Part 2) apparently wanted to make something that harked back to the images that were on the covers of schlocky movies in the rental shop, films he was too young to see. It's supposed to be the film these images created in his head, which is a rationale I can wholly get behind, since that's pretty much from where all my best writing has come.

Course, the danger with that is the gap between your imagination and your work of art, and I'll be lying if I said Cosmatos's film is really amazing, but it's genuinely well put together, a loving recreation of a film that looks like it could have been made in 1983, as opposed to a homage; it doesn't quote other movies, really (apart from a quote from, of all things, Buckaroo Banzai at the end of the credits), or make a big deal of its period detail (I'm thinking of something like GLOW here, where there's an episode with an 80s pregnancy tester kit, that's framed to make you go, oh look, an 80s pregnancy tester, how primitive). You can see elements of films like Dark Star, and the work of Cronenberg, and others, but it's vital that the film doesn't directly reference them. Rather than the nostalgia tourism of a Stranger Things, Beyond the Black Rainbow aims to be part of that period, and in so doing is a more effective comment on it. 
Your mother was a very... desirable woman...
The film messes with time, even then; it begins with the screen telling us it's 1983, but a palsied hand puts a VHS tape into a machine, and we see an infomercial from a few years earlier. Dr Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) gives us a spiel about his Institute, which in the video we nonetheless do not see. It's a grab-bag of New Age buzzwords, practically meaningless in and of itself.
Dr Mercurio: Through our unique blend of benign pharmacology, sensory therapy and energy sculpting, we can guide you gently along the path to a new, better, happier you, all in the comfortable surroundings of our state-of-the-art facility and our award-winning gardens.
But in the Institute we see hardly anyone. The gardens are full of dying plants, unswept leaves. Heavily sedated Elena (Eva Bourne, credited here as Eva Allan) is imprisoned here. Her therapist, the Head of Research Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), seems to be torturing her. Nyle himself is a lesson in barely contained rage. His lip curls with a constant disgust at the world, at himself, at his heavily medicated wife, Rosemary (Marilyn Norry), and at Doctor Arborio, withered and dying at the centre of the Institute.
He calls his visits to Elena the highlight of his day, and indeed for much of the film the only pleasure he takes is in tormenting her at the other side of the glass. He takes a reptilian pleasure in causing her distress. His interest in her is horribly sexual, obvious from the way he looks at her, but underlined by his therapy journal, which the sadistic nurse Margo (Rondel Reynoldston) finds and flips through with increasing horror (another nod to the video era: only by going through the journal's contents frame by frame can we see its contents clearly – it's full of increasingly bizarre things: sexually explicit drawings, arcane diagrams, and simple porn).

Whatever pharmacology they're using at Arboria isn't benign; the energy sculpting (what even is "energy sculpting" anyway?) seems to be confined to the use of a shining pyramid that, when activated, seems to dampen Elena's psychic powers. Elena is telepathic; she can change TV channels by touching the screen; she makes Margo's nose bleed just by walking behind her. She can make heads explode.

Something happened at the Institute years ago. In a flashback, we see Nyle engaging on some psychonautic, psychedelic experiment. It damaged him psychologically and physically. A breaking point is reached; Nyle, realising Margot has been going through his stuff, uses Elena to engineer the nurse's death by head-explosion. Elena, although still under sedation, gains control of her powers and makes a tentative bid for freedom. Nyle snaps and gives in to his darker impulses. Elena tries to escape again, more meaningfully this time.
The awakening of agency.
The Arboria Institute seems to be party to terrible abuses; whatever Nyle brought back from his trip beyond the Black Rainbow, it seems to have infected the place. We don't see many other inmates. The Sentionauts are masked, computer-controlled giants who seem to act as guards. We see one unmasked towards the end of the movie, and it has the face of a child; a patient in a straightjacket slavers and writhes like some sort of zombie. Both of these pale, hairless creatures with their milky blue eyes hark back to Nyle's own secret, what he really is without his wig and his contacts. 

The one sign we see of the outside world is when Nyle watches Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" broadcast, which seems to frame the film. It's a brutal world, paranoid, run on fear, and it sticks close to the trope that the 80s was the decaying corpse of the long 1960s, the result of naive dreams and ideals, turned into something glossy on the surface, paranoid and nasty underneath (The main thing I remember of the 80s was the way it stank of stale cigarettes, how that smell got everywhere, how I even now associate the smell of cigarette smoke with poverty and depression).

This is what the Sixties wrought. This is what you get when you travel through the Black Rainbow.

The Sixties enlightenment – framed as the sort of enlightenment routinely peddled by privileged men in polonecks rather than the one with the hippies and the face paint – is a dark enlightenment. Nyle travelled into the depths of himself and brought back something abominable. The "New You" that Mercurio Arboria promises is a cyborg child-slave, or a slavering beast, or a knife-wielding reptilian psychopath (all of them have no hair, as if bad hair and then no hair is the outward signifier of corruption) . Elena alone frames a rejection of this, although confined, sedated and abused, she finds the only You she has, the only self, and it exists beyond these bounds, even while her therapist has imprisoned himself and can only find release in monstrosity.

Nyle was ready for this all along; his New You has an ornate dagger in a box, a nice leather jacket that flies in the face of his and Rosemary's vegan lifestyle, in a suit carrier in his wardrobe. He's already bought these things for when he flips, and was just waiting for the trigger to go forever back beyond that Black Rainbow into a world of terror. It's the worst of all possible trip flashbacks, a return to madness, but it's only when he goes mad that Nyle is comfortable in his skin, that the rage is allowed to come out and kill, rather than boil behind features that struggle not to maintain an eternal expression of disgust.
I love how the film uses sets, practical effects and mattes.
Better living through chemistry! Everything tends to control. Of course it does, this is all about wealth and wealth is the watchword of the eighties.

But of course this has a further layer, because no matter how loving the recreation, Beyond the Black Rainbow is an artefact of 2010, and so you have 2010 critiquing 1983 critiquing 1966; the dark enlightenment is a crock, and needs to be escaped, because losing your self to it unlocks something terrible.

Mercurio Arborio's book is called Be Your Self with the emphasis carefully placed on the split. The implication is that the Arborio Institute was intended to be a vehicle for self actualisation. It didn't work out that way, because some selves are less benevolent than others. But the hypocrisy and paranoia of the 80s, its fake warmth (so exemplified by Reagan) isn't a solution either, being the mask for psychopathy. The only solution is escape.
It was like a black rainbow.
Given that Elena has only one line, and that delivered telepathically (does it count as passing the Bechdel Test if one of the named women characters is mute?) the fact that Beyond the Black Rainbow is so effective in eliciting your sympathy for Elena is quite impressive, and Eva Bourne/Allan travels from catatonia to confusion to real agency by the end of the film. She is the architect of her own escape. In her final scene, Elena stands across the road from an estate of houses. A TV gleams through the window of one of them. No people are to be found.

The ending, ambiguous as it is, suggests choice. What awaits? The turn of the century. Another thirty or so years of history.

The main problem with Beyond the Black Rainbow is that the first hour and a half of its 110 minute running time unfolds at a graceful, steady pace, with a ten-minute abstract flashback in the middle and everything, and then in the last fifteen minutes everythinghappensreallyfast, moving us outside of the setting of the rest of the film, introducing and killing off two characters (who have nothing to do with the rest of the film) in the space of a few minutes, and then ending really abruptly, and it's not that any of these things break the rules of the film's world, or are even that surprising, it's just that the film changes its pace wildly at the end. If you've only had five actual characters in the whole of the film up to that point, bringing in two more (who only exist to be dispatched horribly anyway) doesn't work.
Seriously, I was like, what the actual hell is that.
But I still really like this movie. The soundtrack and visuals are excellent and it has, in the first three quarters anyway, a wonderful economy in the way it tells its story. It's slow and sort of dreamy and you can go ten or fifteen minutes at a time without any dialogue but it doesn't drag; as beautiful as The Last Wave is, for example, there were periods where I was looking at my watch and feeling a slight dismay that I had another hour to go. With Beyond the Black Rainbow, the opposite happened: I checked the time and was surprised that an hour had passed, because it had only felt like twenty minutes. A close second watch helped, too; what seemed a bit out of nowhere was, this time round, in fact set up, and the storytelling was actually really sound, so for example while at no point do we get an explanation of what Elena's powers are, the film structures itself shot to shot clearly enough in the early sections so that Elena's agency is not in doubt later on, having established a visual shorthand that the viewer can follow.

The sound design, and the soundtrack is amazing; and the whole thing looks so quintessentially 80s, without, at least until the end of the credits, loading you with references, which allows it to critique the period without nostalgia. Beyond the Black Rainbow presents a sort of identity horror that is tied to history, that, even though it spends most of its running time in a sealed facility, exists in a larger context, and presents an unsolved question of the self, suggesting that the solutions of two previous generations have been inadequate.