Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Beyond The Black Rainbow: Journey To The Center Of The Mind

I think, sometimes, that modern horror film tends to give short shrift to aesthetics. Or, at least, it tends to find one or two that work and beat them into the ground, treating it not as something artistic, used to evoke mood, but as a component, like masked killers or little girls with lank black hair or ghosts whose features distort as a placeholder, as something that says “here, you should be scared now.” I like films that show me the world in ways I’ve never seen it before, and you’d think that’d be something embraced by an ostensibly transgressive genre of film, but like I pointed out recently, horror (or at least some strains of it) are actually deeply conservative. That’s not just something that applies to morality, but also to aesthetics. So when a film goes balls-out to show me something I’ve never seen before, or commits so strongly to an established aesthetic that it becomes something else, I will be right fucking there.

As in the case of Beyond The Black Rainbow, which is an absolutely striking evocation of a particular time, place, and aesthetic. This is less a film you watch than a film in which you immerse yourself.

We open on a title card that says simply “1983.” And then we’re treated to what appears to be a circa-1970s advertisement for the Arboria Institute, a research institute devoted to helping people fully self-actualize through a combination of “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting.” The narrator, Dr. Mercurio Arboria, seems kindly, sort of Timothy Leary by way of Carl Rogers. He’s interested in helping you become your best self, and the Arboria Institute - with its state of the art facility and “award-winning gardens,” is here for just that.

And then we’re introduced to Dr. Barry Nyle, the Institute’s head of research, as he visits with a young woman named Elena. She lives in a featureless white room, and she’s escorted by a stern-looking nurse, and Nyle meets with her through a wall of thick glass. The “award-winning gardens” and warm, reassuring tones of Dr. Arboria are nowhere to be found. It’s just him, and her, and the blank, cold, unfeeling walls.

Elena is apparently very special, and Dr. Nyle has plans for her.

Truth be told, there is very little story to this film, just a series of scenes and images and impressions that we put together to infer a series of events, and not everything is explained. Takes are long and deliberate (or strobelight quick - this is not a good film for people who are vulnerable to seizures), the dialogue (what little there is) is highly elliptical. It’s hard to get more “show, don’t tell” than this. 

And “show” is the key here, because the setting, the music, the colors, the camera work, These are what tell the story. The Arboria Institute is futuristic, for a particular vision of the future common to the 70s and 80s, and the way the sleek, glossy 80s starship interiors of the Arboria Institute clash with the 70s-era hippie-futurist optimism of the introductory video suggest that Nyle has taken the Institute in a very different direction from its original intent. In fact, the Institute seems almost deserted - you get the sense that it really is just the people we see, continuing work long since abandoned. There’s Nyle, Elena, and the nurse, for the most part. This is not a busy place. What actually happens is pretty minimal - Elena appears to have some sort of extrasensory ability, and Nyle has an agenda with regards to that ability. Elena wants to escape the Institute, and Nyle wants to keep here there.

That’s...pretty much the whole plot, but it’s how we learn the specifics of each of these that make up the experience of the film. There’s something not quite right with Nyle, this is apparent almost right after we meet him, but what exactly is wrong with him is only gradually revealed through his interactions with others and a stark, nightmarish flashback that unpacks a lot in just a few minutes. Elena does appear to be gifted somehow, but we don’t realize exactly how powerful she is until something really bloody happens impressionistically out of focus behind her. Nyle’s agenda is revealed in a rapid-fire series of images that don’t stay on the screen long enough to really register, but leave us with an awful, unsettling feeling afterward, like getting a glimpse into an alien mind. Basically, the filmmakers decided to use Stanley Kubrick’s art direction from 2001 to create a tone poem about the dangers of journeying into the center of the mind and prying open the third eye, or perhaps a cinematic artifact, a long-lost 80s science fiction film that straddles the lines between glossy futurism, psychedelia, and body horror.

The whole thing is strikingly shot, with bold uses of color - vivid reds and whites and reflective blacks mark what we see of the Institute initially, and so this palette becomes sort of our visual baseline, and departures from it - to Nyle’s home, to the parts of the Institute outside of where Elena lives, to the world outside - create sort of a journey, reinforcing the idea that Elena is escaping something insular and artificial, as well as telling the story of what the Institute must once have been like. You get the sense that this is something at its end, a dying thing kept barely alive for one purpose, and what that purpose is and what it has taken to achieve it are only hinted at, as are the fates of the story’s major players - what has happened to Arboria, what Nyle has become, what the future holds for Elena. This is not a movie that overexplains, or fills in backstory. This is a film that asks you to behold it, to feel it, and let its strange trip wash over you.

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