Beyond the Black Rainbow is a divisive film. A friend of mine who caught the movie a while back said he couldn’t make it past the 20-minute mark and just gave up. At the screening I caught not too long ago, there were a handful of people enthusiastically proclaiming the movie a beautiful work of genius destined to be a cult classic; but even they acknowledged that there had been walkouts when the film screened at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.
Mulling it over, Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of those movies that I didn’t like but that I’m glad to have watched. With all the references to THX-1138, Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Phase IV, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, and Kenneth Anger, it seemed like something right up my alley, and yet it wasn’t. That may be the redeeming value of movies like this: sometimes what you don’t like reveals something essential about the things you like.
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Release Date: May 18, 2012
There’s a certain amount of virtuosity in Beyond the Black Rainbow. It looks great and has this air of artistic cool about it. It has a strong retro vibe, taking place in the not-too-distant future of 1983, the sort of world found only on VHS box art. It’s so steeped in pastiche that it’s essentially built out of other films. (There’s that chic middlebrow blend of high art and low culture, because modern intellectual cool is all about how well you can pass with a bit of knowledge in both; it’s also about how many not-too-veiled references you can make for others to find.) The film is all close-ups and pregnant pauses, and in those spaces it’s possible to read extra significance. Absence makes the senses grow stronger, or at least that’s part of the theory.
The film isn’t too explicit with its story — a heavily medicated girl/test subject is held captive by a deranged psychiatrist, mad science ensues — so the viewer participates in trying to reconstruct the story from what’s given. It’s a bit like building a skeleton out of a few ribs, fingers, and teeth. I don’t really have a problem with that since veiled plots or plotlessness doesn’t bother me so long as there are other elements to latch onto. The same goes for non-characters and characterless movies or stories. Sometimes plot and character aren’t necessary, especially if a work is primarily concerned with evoking thoughts or feelings rather than doing a straight narrative.
I found myself latching onto Panos Cosmatos’s visual virtuosity, with those vibrant colors pouring out of the film grain, or that psychedelic flashback in starkly overexposed black and white. I also wound up playing “name that movie” or “name that filmmaker” whenever a moment reminded me something I’d seen before — everything in the film seems a little too reminiscent of something else. There’s one full-color set piece that’s especially impressive. It’s an undeniably cool explosion of sound and vision, like the finale of 2001 scored by Goblin.
But moments like that are few, and they’re bookended by the long stretches of non-activity devoid of a sense of impending or importance. It’s all voids and sudden interruptions of virtuosity, and virtuosity is rarely enough on its own. Virtuosity is only about the surface — sounding good, looking good, feeling good, but not necessarily good. I think it was the late experimental writer Raymond Federman who said that in great works of literature, you could feel that it actually hurt the author to write it. That holds true for creative works of all mediums whether they’re experimental or conventional since there’s lots of personal investment (both emotional and intellectual) in works that matter to someone.
That’s the difference between works of virtuosity and works of genius. You can hear the difference in fast guitar solos that lack soul or see it in technically proficient paintings without heart or sense it in well-written books without passion. So it sort of surprised me that some people at my screening proclaimed Beyond the Black Rainbow genius. Maybe I missed something (and I eagerly await accusations of philistinism), or maybe we’re eager for genius and in its absence virtuosity will suffice. Maybe when presented with relatively blank canvases, some see significance while others see a lack of significance.
In particular, I couldn’t differentiate purpose from posturing. So many formal choices seem like they were made only to appear cool. Why does the film take place in 1983, for example? Is it because retro futures are timeless futures and the dreamlike ideas of the film needed to be explored in a state of timelessness, or is it because retro futures look cool, full stop? Why is 95% of the movie shot in close-ups? Is it because close-ups make us focus more on composition and activity (or stillness) within a frame, or is it just a mannered choice on Cosmatos’s part? And why the slowness and the pregnant pauses when few of them amount to much and convey very little, or is the film plagued by recurrent meaning loss? In one scene, the mad psychiatrist (played by Michael Rogers) lets his phone ring for a while without answering. All I could think was “Why isn’t he answering the phone?” and “Answer the phone already.”
What’s funny was that I liked the scenes that reminded of other films and filmmakers, but I liked those scenes more because they reminded me of movies I liked rather than because I liked the scene I was watching. That surreal black and white flashback I mentioned earlier reminded me a little of the E. Elias Merhige movie Begotten. Whether or not this was an intentional visual cue, it made me appreciate the weight and weirdness behind every shot and every moment of Begotten. It’s a film without dialogue about a woman and a manchild worshiped and then tortured by hooded figures. (It’s been described as a metaphysical splatter movie.) All of it has this sense of symbolic significance and personal force, that every choice has meaning and substance behind it; it operates on the level of the collective unconscious rather than through self-conscious cultural references with film geek cachet. That sense of substance is palpable in the movies that Beyond the Black Rainbow references but not in Beyond the Black Rainbow itself.
I’ve seen a few people make comparisons between Beyond the Black Rainbow and the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and those comparisons seem misguided to me because there is so much heft to every odd moment in a Jodorowsky movie. It’s alchemical, in a way, with the raw material of weirdness transformed into this meaningful image. There’s a strange something lingering in every symbol, and whether I can discern a meaning from it or not, a Jodorowsky movie is always unlike anything I’ve seen before. Sure, there’s the flavor of Fellini and Buñuel, but it’s filtered into something that’s fresh and distinctly Jodorowsky. That’s another thing about Beyond the Black Rainbow: its images don’t ring of newness and rarely spring to life because they’re so affected and referential.
I want more out things than vapid stylishness and rampant pastiche. One of the reasons I like the art I like is that it exposes me to something I’ve never seen, heard, or thought about before. If all I’m watching is style-over-substance and reference-over-novelty, it usually falls flat because it doesn’t add something that’s entirely itself. That said, even certain remixes and mash-ups and spoofs and pastiches work, but only when they bring about something new by combining the familiar — a collection of disparate ideas accelerated, collided, and then, boom, a new universe is born. And maybe that, in the end, is why Beyond the Black Rainbow felt so inert. It wasn’t just the slowness or the silence or the posturing or lack of weight, but just a sense of being weird in a way that seemed too familiar (as odd as that sounds), a weird that was okay because other people had sort of done it before.
The idea of a black rainbow got me thinking of the “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in Moby-Dick. There, Ishmael ponders what it is about the whiteness of things that makes them seem so much more regal and holy in some circumstances and, conversely, so much more appalling and terrifying in others. There are great lines toward the end of the chapter that state that while whiteness seems like the visible absence of color, it’s really the concrete combination of all colors. Maybe it’s the concentration of all colors that allows such frightening immensities to be conveyed in the whiteness of the whale.
So what is it about the blackness of the Rainbow that makes it genius to some and merely virtuosic to others (and just plain awful to others still)? I don’t know if it’s all just taste since that would be an unsatisfying answer. All I know is that black is the absence of all color, and that once you crack its colorful surface, Beyond the Black Rainbow is very dark and hollow inside.