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by Eric Kohn
April 26, 2011 1:56 AM
10 Comments
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TRIBECA REVIEW | "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is a Reagan-Era Mindtrip

Underground art rebels against a standard; "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is an incoherent audiovisual extravaganza for its own sake. The feature-length debut of director Panos Cosmatos, it's a wacky, carefully designed, totally inscrutable science fiction puzzle. With a minimum of plot and consistently extraordinary visuals, Cosmatos delivers an intoxicating mindtrip that defies logic in favor of a hypnotic rhythm.

The story takes place in some modified, futuristic version of 1983, in a mysteriously barren factory bathed in red lights presided over by the enigmatic Dr. Barry Nyle. An eerie advertisement in the opening minutes erratically displays explosive imagers on par with the most abstract Stan Brakhage concoction. In the commercial, the doctor promotes the services of the "Arboria" lab in hushed monotone, fleshing out how its "sensory therapy" can "guide you along the path to a new, better, happier you." It's not hard to detect the nefariousness at work here and Cosmatos wastes no time setting it up: In Nyle's creepy lair, he keeps psychically endowed teenager Elena (Eva Allan) as prisoner, hoping to absorb her powers for his own gain.

Actually, if you're impatient, Cosmatos wastes plenty of time. "Black Rainbow" is filled with slow, artfully crafted tracking shots and spacey music cues. There's a lengthy sequence where (I think) Nyle travels to another world with his mind. He arrives at a hellacious place filled with ominous clouds and grotesque fluids that defy gravity by apparently falling upwards. It's an extraordinary sight, whatever it means. According to press notes, Cosmatos was inspired by "hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons," although it has more in common with the former than the latter.

But what's equally beguiling and fun about a movie this unselfconsciously out there is it inhabits nostalgia rather than simply paying homage to it. In mood, the fantastical sets and dazzling cinematography recall "2001: A Space Odyssey," while the minimalistic, weirdly philosophical narrative has a lot in common with George Lucas' "THX 1138." The dark psychedelic dimension suggests a splashier version of "Eraserhead." It doesn't wink and nod to these movies; the echoes are there, but they result in an entirely fresh brand of strangeness.

Still, it should be noted that "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is so in love with its mad visual design that it can become numbingly incoherent, which may lead some viewers to deem the whole endeavor overly pretentious. Elena is essentially the hero of the story and becomes increasingly intent on escaping the compound, but the movie emphasizes Nyle's mounting insanity; it's hard to view her as much more than a figure of sympathy to counteract his rage.

Few movies put this sort of chaos onscreen; it's a fascinating display of light and color that Cosmatos beefs up with a hypnotic mechanical soundtrack by Jeremy Schmidt. A fleeting glimpse of Ronald Reagan discussing the Soviet threat on TV deepens the capacity for "Black Rainbow" to work as a paean to 1980s' media, maybe even as a tribute to an era in which reaction to the Cold War led to the proliferation of rampant paranoia. That time has passed, but "Black Rainbow" makes it clear that the spell lingers.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too experimental for wide release, "Beyond the Black Rainbow" could play well at genre festivals and gain enough of a cult following to propel interest in whatever Cosmatos does next.

criticWIRE grade: B+

TAGS: Reviews

10 Comments

  • Sam | May 24, 2012 6:17 PMReply

    " In Nyle's creepy lair, he keeps psychically endowed teenager Elena (Eva Allan) as prisoner, hoping to absorb her powers for his own gain".

    I actually thought Nyle wanted Elena to be his because he couldn't have her mother in the past.

  • Chris | May 12, 2012 3:28 PMReply

    Good review! There's a great analysis on the role of hypnotism in the film, you can check it out here: http://tinyurl.com/7449bmd

  • Alexandria | November 20, 2011 1:03 AMReply

    I believe Cosmatos film to be genius. The time Beyond the Black Rainbow takes place is quintessential to the design and theory of its sets and is hugely convincing. Cosmatos captures that feel of being on a trip that others are definitely not on and you see it clearly, but cannot believe it, but you can. I was flattered to step in the world of a film and I am not a Sci Fi fan I watch a few here and there. A lot of films made these days are only about who is in them especially in American Film they are not always about the story or the world of the characters and that is what movie making is about. Making a film is an artists expression or interpretation of a certain world or environment or circumstance and that is what Cosmatos did well. You may or may not have liked the film its your right. Cosmatos was @ my viewing of the film for Q& A great sarcastic guy just expressing himself. gotta love the art.

  • John Marrone - Bloody-Disgusting | May 3, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    Loving this debate. This is a polarizing film. You either are on its wavelength or far from it. Lets all be honest. The people who disliked it are probably pretty straight-edged and not grabbing its intended effect. I saw someone somewhere complaining about the added special effect of grainyness, never understanding that THATS what things look like on drugs. This movie was about drugs, and mind expansion. Thats the polarizing line here I think. Lets be honest.

  • SI BOB | April 29, 2011 3:51 AMReply

    I had such a headache from the idotic score that permeated the entire film. While I love avant garde - this movie was pure crap and beyond pretentious. Another film choice like this and I am out of Tribeca for good!

  • Joe | April 28, 2011 9:45 AMReply

    Great review, I think you summed up the spirit of this movie nicely. I saw it at Tribeca and enjoyed it a lot, although I seemed to be in the minority given the number of the walkouts and the giggling of some of the yahoos in the audience. In fact I would call it straight-up *brilliant* until the black and white flashback sequence you described. At that point it seemed like the film gave up any hope of pulling all of the interesting ideas at work to something coherent and just digressed into a series of self-contained weird scenes. Which, don't get me wrong, was still really, really cool given how much of an audiovisual experience the film is and just how uniquely OUT THERE it is. However it can really pull you out of the movie at a certain point, and the seemingly deliberate obtuseness started to leave me (an audience member who was really into the aesthetics and early ideas of the film) wondering why anything was happening at all (with the Blade Runner-inspired death late in the film seeming especially pointless). There definitely is a cult audience out there for this film and it would make for quite the fun midnight movie. I hope it finds the audience it deserves. Also, the analog synth soundtrack is mind-blowingly good, the highlight of the film. Michael Rogers did a really nice job as Barry Nyle too. He got the tone of the movie down so well. Between him and the score I thought frequently of the original Phantasm, which in my book is a very good thing.

  • Edward Richardson | April 27, 2011 2:44 AMReply

    Incidentally Eric, your review is very good minor points aside.Yours is probably the best review I've read so far. And my Reagan years jibe aside, the director did remark on feeling the same as you about the era. No doubt I'm sure. Anyway, I've read what...ten plus reviews for this thing? I can tell it's going to be everything the reviewers say: slow, incomprehensible, arthouse, tipping its hat everywhere from "The Brood" to Kubrick (so obvious in the trailer) to things like "Time Walker," that it jumps the genre rails in the last quarter of the film leaving the realm of pure visuals and zero narrative, and so forth.

    Having said all that I would pay $20 bucks just for the trailer and that synth score. I'm strange though, I enjoy things like "Zardoz" and those OMNI covers Panos mentions in an interview.

    I think we can all agree this is one rare retro bird with kaleidoscopic plumage. You expect things like "Enter the Void" but this bizarreness?! You summed it up perfectly - cult hit that will give his second outing momentum.

  • Edward Richardson | April 26, 2011 8:10 AMReply

    "a tribute to an era in which reaction to the Cold War led to the proliferation of rampant paranoia"

    Ho boy, there had to be a liberal injection of nonsense in this, I was waiting for it. Yes, growing up back in the 80's my friends and our parents were absolutely paranoid - MTV, A-Team, Miami Vice, Rubick's Cubes, Atari...

    Really folks. Reagan took the Soviet seriously because what...7000 thermonuclear warheads pointed at American men, women, and little children was unacceptable, thus Star War.

    But "rampant paranoia?" Nonsense.

    Anyway, can't wait to see this film, I would buy the DVD right now. I know it's going to be slow, but it's going to be a trip only we, the 40 year old men, can understand. It's Mego dolls and early Cronenberg and crystals and all those whacky VHS movies with cool covers.

  • Eric Kohn | April 26, 2011 7:44 AMReply

    @come on - Come on. Yes, the scene is clearly identified as "1966," but the details of what takes place in that scene are entirely non-specific. You don't seem too clear on what happens, either. It certainly looked to me like Nyle travels to a new destination--from a stark white background to somewhere vivid and spooky. Whether that journey is physical or psychological (or both) remains entirely open-ended.

    As for the mistake regarding the year in the opening credits, that was the result of a simple key stroke and has now been corrected. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • come on | April 26, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    "There’s a lengthy sequence where (I think) Nyle travels to another world with his mind. He arrives at a hellacious place filled with ominous clouds and grotesque fluids that defy gravity by apparently falling upwards. It’s an extraordinary sight, whatever it means."

    Serious?

    THE OPENING OF THAT SCENE SAYS "1966"!

    "Travels to another world?"

    It's called a flashback. What does it mean? It's his metamorphosis from whoever he was to the Barry Nyle we see in 1983 (not 1984, btw).

    This is basic stuff, man. You watching these or warming a seat for a couple hours?