Beyond the Black Rainbow feels like someone is pouring melted celluloid onto your retinas. It evokes a strange, surreal sense of paranoid hallucination and dependence, psychosis, insanity, obsession, and withdrawal—a two-hour, painful crawl down an antiseptic corridor as the last bleary blur of a bad high washes over you. Everything gleams, everything reflects; if Hal prevailed at the end of 2001, he may have created a world not very different from this.
Filmed in 2010 but released in the good ol’ US of A this year, Panos Cosmatos’ debut film drew harsh responses from critics; some said you’d have to be high to enjoy it (do NOT try that—you’ll probably slip into a coma, or at the very least suffer some sort of mental degradation), while others decried Cosmatos’ obvious devotion to Kubrick. Comparing Cosmatos to Kubrick is unfair, of course—no one measures up to Kubrick. No one but Kubrick could create a film as vivid, lucid, nightmarish, gorgeous, enlightening, epiphanic, and terrifying as 2001. No one could have crafted a two-and-a-half-hour jaunt into the oblivion of humanity’s darkest, furthest-reaching depravity and brilliance with as much precision as Kubrick; purged of compassion, emotion, feeling (Kubrick allegedly picked the actors because they weren’t very good, and he wanted the visuals to tell the story, not the performers), 2001 is arguably the greatest film any American has contributed to the Pantheon of Cinema.
Of course Cosmatos’ indie, cult-ready debut is going to falter in comparison. Do you compare a freshmen writing major’s first workshop story to James Joyce’s “The Dead”? No.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is awesome in the Kantian sense. Cosmatos seems intent on focusing each shot on a specific moment, stretching every minute into an eternity. Shots linger far longer than is comfortable, like Lynch’s 13-second elevator pause in Eraserhead. Everything is perfect, precise, cold. Seconds slip by on tip-toes. Everything is spectacle, magnanimous, with little exposition or narrative coherence to impede the celluloid hypnosis.
Cosmatos shot his passion project on 35mm, in widescreen, so the film looks unbelievably gorgeous (except on my computer, which lacks a video card and turns slow tracking shots into clipped, sputtering, stroboscopic headaches). Paranoiac perversion saturates every shimmering surface. The indiscernible emotions of characters couldn’t matter less: everyone is stoic, frigid, mean. You don’t trust anyone or care for anyone.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Beyond the Black Rainbow is how it bothers to slip in barely-discernible, corporeal slivers of coherence. Cosmatos displays such passive-fervid insolence towards narrative conformity that his avant-garde film more resembles a normal narrative, horribly mutated from so many military-issued LSD experiments. Cosmatos slowly erects the shaky scaffolding of a plot, and then quickly abandons it: A young girl (Eva Allan) is being held captive by a mean son-of-a-bitch scientist, Dr. Barry Nyle. Dr. Nyle is crazy, and you may be, too, by the time the end credits roll.
His therapy involves drugs (duh), possibly telepathy, and a glowing, pulsating pyramid that does… something. The girl doesn’t seem to enjoy her stay with Dr. Nyle—maybe it’s that awful hair cut—so she tries to escape.
With paranoia and anxiety as consorts, Cosmatos forgoes the cerebral and delves right into the sublime. There’s not much worth analyzing here, as his composition, mise en scene, and transitions don’t represent or symbolize anything. Lights flash and images race by dizzyingly, like the frames on the projector are spaced too far apart. The film requires minimal thinking and an iron stomach. From the slow, slow, excruciatingly slow scenes and repetitive, slow-motion staccato shot (the opening credits appear over the extreme close-up of a piercing blue eye dilating, over and over, to the thrumming of a sinister synth) to the score’s refusal to change or advance, everything about Beyond the Black Rainbow exists simply to make you uncomfortable, like a mix of peroxide and LSD being pumped into your skull.
Cosmatos hypnotizes and pushes, captivating your senses but keeps you at a distance. Things move fluidly, shots dissipate and bleed into each other, colors flash violently. Then it all happens again. And again. Over and over.
Jeremy Schmidt’s score is sometimes spectacular, sometimes maddening. Usually it just does both at the same time. Pretty much essential headphone listening, the synth-exclusive music, like the collected night terrors of the ’80s, hums and thrums and swells and radiates— an omnipotent ringing buzz in your brain, like you’ve just returned from a loud concert. A single note, unflinching and invariable, pings every so often. (I’m convinced that they only wrote ten minutes of music and just put ten-second snippets on repeat for every scene.) The visuals and the music work in tandem, caustic clockwork, to nudge your mind slowly into the darkest realm of monotony as mania.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is so hyperbolically austere, it almost feels gaudy. It’s a film of contradictions and indulgences. Cosmatos and Schmidt don’t evoke any deeper meaning with their moaning, droning, sensory assault; in Stalker, Tarkovsky moves his camera so slowly, you don’t realize you’ve been creeping up on the characters until you’re a few feet away; Sergio Leone lets the phone ring for far too long in the heart-piercing epic Once Upon a Time in America because his characters are stuck in a vicious cycle—they always know who’s on the other line before they pick up; Kubrick pours a kaleidoscope of vibrancy and neon vomit at the screen in 2001 so the viewer knows what Dave is going through—we become participants, no voyeurs.
Cosmatos and Schmidt have no such ambitions. Theirs is a strictly emotional agenda: make you squirm.