No turnaround this time, one of the best examples of cinematographic altered state eeriness and paranormal retro-avantgarde. Definite cult psychotronic favorite, and probably no wonder it’s Canadian. It’s a fantastic directorial debut by director Panos Cosmatos. With this movie I had the impression that I completely missed a prismatic cinema gem, but hey the idea behind it was that of a sort or latent-future VHS artefact, a dormant forbidden movie that was somehow unreachable even in the halcyon days of scifi/horror 70s/80s. A movie that never got made, or a movie that we weren’t allowed to see at the time. Its stylistic multiplicities are a historical and aesthetic ode to almost everything we love & cherish: early Cronenberg Stereo/Crimes of the Future, early Lucas THX 1138, spaceage Kubrick, Ken Russel’s Altered States, Carpenter’s Darkstar, even some David Lynch, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond, Suspiria by Dario Argento, E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten as well as recent classics such as Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2010) or Daft Punk’s Electroma. This treasure trove is supplemented by unknown (to me at least) cult movies as Phantasm 1979 making it an index of incredible indie horrors and thrillers exploring weird alternate realities and possible futures.
Actually the movie that moved me in the direction of Beyond the Black Rainbow was a stylish and hyper designed PHASE IV (Saul Bass 1974) – a truly incredible movie (that I hope to cover in detail soon) about the rise of intelligent social insects (ants) and the new experimental humanity that emerges out of the nonhuman assimilation. The final ending scene of PHASE IV (that got cut out initially) could also be a missing part from Beyond the Black Rainbow. It features a long sequence in which the heroes emerge out of the anthill to unveil themselves as chosen Adam&Eve of the new hive symbiosis. It contains a lot of new age elements but somehow pushes them into a somber and utterly resplendent transhumanist territory – like a promotional video for a new (and yet unacceptable) human-insect utopia. There is a lot of direct tribute outside the confines of cinema – to such French comic book giants as Jean “Moebius” Giraud and the prolific scifi universe of the US/French Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine. I think there might be even some direct manga/anime connection between Elena the psy prisoner of Arboria and the government special op- “Esper” experiments from AKIRA (1982-1990) or the devastating psychic battles of DOMU: A Child’s Dream (1980-81).
Music-wise and sound-design wise it is also a treat, forget the ost 80s synth renaissance driven by Drive (one year later than Beyond the Dark Rainbow by the way) and check Jeremy Schmidt (aka Sinoia Caves, aka space-rocking Black Mountain) using a lot of vintage analog kosmische synth gear – extensive use of Mellotron, Korg Cx-3 organ, Moog Taurus bass pedals etc in one of the best scores I’ve encountered (will get back on that).
As an avid stalker at Mind, Body & Spirit festivals in Bucharest, a small collector of hypnosis& mind electronics tapes, a DIY psychotronic weapons forger, I was surprised to finally find a movie that not only boldly reflects on subjects relating to the Century of the Self (Adam Curtis’s convoluted co-evolution of psychoanalysis/propaganda/public relations/human potential movement/self motivation/marketing focus groups) but attunes them to Lovecraftian brand of forbidden knowledge & cosmic dread. It starts with an opening sequence of a promotional film made somewhere in 1960s by the Arboria Institute founder – Dr. Mercurio Arboria (also author of the “BE YOUR SELF” textbook featured at some point). In this video cassette clone of the suicidal post-Heaven Gate Earth Evacuation plan, everything is presented in bright galactic colours and mesmerizing sounds, with a calm and relaxing voice bathed in a typical gritty pre-digital style kind of video hypnosis tape full of rustling forest trees, talking guru head, cosmic transcendental (corporate?!) memes and a grand crystallographic finale with the good but sinister Dr. Arboria fusing with a glowing pyramid. Apparently movie director Panos Cosmatos really based this movie on a unrealized installation, a sort of fake- mockup Institute/ intervention in the street window of an abandoned shop in Vancouver where he could actually put out pamphlets written by friends.
Institutional critique is always such a bore, but Institute burnout is something entirely different. I think that Institutes live in another dimension completely. They inhabit this twilight zone of radical experimentation bordering with criminal/illicit as well a propensity for disaster-prone research & development. As open and unaccountable think tanks or welcoming research institutes, there has been an entire shadowy development which I also consider myself a tiny part of, at least in my doppelganger persona and benign prankster capacity. It is as if these experimental new institutes have been using their notoriety to pulverize institutional and disciplinary boundaries not only in matters of research or bioethics but also by enlarging and reshaping grey areas where wellness, sponsoring, military-entertainment complex interests, private foundations and predatory financial techniques prosper.
The ultra-modernist and cosmist Arboria Institute is really the overlord of the movie, setting its visual characteristics, pace, mood and conceptual magnetism by being a sort of architectural and physical extension of the barely human Dr Barry Nyle head or research, and a protege of Dr Aboria. Dr Barry Nyle is the main hellraiser of the story and the institute brightly lit, pulsating, transparent, hermetic rooms and labyrinthine structure reflect the doctors mind. So what was the Institute promoting or offering in its own word? Just remember this is a kind of Shining hotel not so much pregnant with a haunted past, but fat with a grandiose dystropian future. However at some point we get a hint that behind the transparent, shimmering interiors there is a backdoor where the actual maintenance and carework is happening, as Elena finally manages to escape the Arboria trap – she enter a normal kitchen where loud Mexican music & radio is playing.
To me Dr Barry Nyle looks like a demented Professor X gone completely wacko in the search of X-Men recruits. I also love the fact that he is somehow faking his ‘normality’ or his ‘humanity’ under some evident props (or ‘appliances’ as his wife calls them) – such as wigs or contact lenses.
Initially (or on demo tape at least) it seems to be a perfect example of retro-futuristic self management, success maximization, relaxation, harmony-seeking, yoga-centric, ego-boosting bouquet of therapeutic mindfulness wonder techniques that, as we know, are tailor-made for today’s self-exploitation and value-extraction(or extortion). “Happiness, content and inner peace” are on the lips of the founding figure. The Arboria Institute is in his words: “… worldwide… at the forefront of neuro-psychology and new therapeutic technologies…”. “…[B]enign pharmacology, sensory therapy and energy sculpting” – all these new tools are there to guide the needful clientèle. The state of the art facility and the geodesic Biosphere gardens seem to distillate cognition and sensory experience into a better and brighter future. Here I would say Beyond the Black Rainbow meets another favourite of mine (which wasn’t mentioned as an influence in any of the reviews and/or interviews with the director or crew that I read); the 1993 Ozzie splatterstick BODY MELT directed by Philip Brophy (a true predecessor to the Crank movies). BODY MELT is also framed by a sort of pornoutopic wellness farm, an experimental institute offering free samples of various pharmaceutical supplements to local, white, middle class residents and dedicated clients. The Vimuville facility is maybe a more grotesque counterpart(all the helpers and handyman employed are actually testosterone-enhanced bodybuilders with high pitched helium voices) but it is its fabulous introductory promotional videos + branded Big Pharma products promising revitalization&natural good health trough state-of-the art health&leisure that are getting fairly close to Arboria’s mission statement. Needless to say, insiders at the institute as well as the (ignorant) human test subjects are all falling prey to the mutagen and hallucinatory capabilities of the new all-powerful-experimental pharmaceuticals with various destructive results such as: tentacled meat-flowers pregnancies and sentient placentas, exploding penises, elongated serpentine tongues, living moving snot and many other exquisite body horrors. Body Melt reaches the video stalls at the moment when Zoloft, Prozac and a bunch of other mood enhancers hit the market, the very first time when a plethora of new syndromes seem to reclassify each and every one of us as future patients.
In contrast with BODY MELT, Beyond the Black Rainbow somehow chooses to mostly keep out of sight (but not out of mind) the brutal and horrific mindbody effects of its pharmaco- neuro- enlightenment technologies. Both JG Ballard and early Cronenberg come to my mind as investigators of the dark and radical potential of institutes and experimental life research facilities. Psychoterapist Hal Raglan (The Brood 1979) who runs the Somafree Institute and wrote the Psychoplasmatics textbook “The Face of Rage” promoting a sort of primal scream, confrontational, -letting go of your suppressed emotions technique manages to induce freaky physiological changes, uncontrollable mutations and a new breed. Again, the experimental clinic of Dr Dan Keloid from the Keloid Clinic specializing in plastic surgery (Rabid 1977) as well the aphordisiast Dr Luther Stringfellow’s and his human-socio-cybernetic experiments at the sanatorium of the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry (Stereo 1969) become dangerous para-scientific incubators, unleashing a plethora of revolutionary, beyond-human infestations, induced telepathic energies & out-of-control tests.
The Black Rainbow’s trajectory jumps from this start-up Esalen-like beginning to a well-established (and prosperous) present situated in 1983 with ALIEN-like opening titles where red magmatic date numbers lit up slowly and eerily out of a pitch black background. The title sequence is played on top an impressive cosmic drone reminding me of Robert Rich’s “Hayagriva”(Trances album), one of my favourite sound pieces ever (really played it in a loop for hundreds of times), incidentally also made in 1983.
What is common to both BODY MELT and Beyond the Black Rainbow is what medical ethnographer Stefan Ecks called a “globalized anxiety about drugs” (p 187) in his book Eating Drugs: psychopharmaceutical pluralism in India(great review by Erica Rockhold on somatosphere). The potentially destructive interplay and reinforcement of traditional and non-traditional methods is rarely explored to my knowledge. The drugs offered wholesale on both Vimuville & Arboria blur the lines btw “things” and “authentic self” being sold as one single commodity(again Erica Rockhold), prefiguring a preferential (psychopharmaceutical) way of access towards a better and more ‘genuine’ SELF, however shallow this promise might be. They sell mental/body control as an enviable commodity. What they do is blur the already viscous borders of wellness, alternative, naturopathic, purity lifestyles and prepare a new world of mood enhancers. There is a crucial observation by Stefan Ecks that I would also apply here – reconsidering how an unintended naturalization of prescriptive psycho pharma was somehow taking place within alternative, non- Allopathic traditions(also Western) such as the enlightened pharmacopeia & herbalist knowledge of the new age communes, inadvertently preparing the way for a new therapeutic psychopharma era. Psychopharmaceutical assimilation of mind drugs as mind food in contemporary India is also marginally present in Beyond the Black Rainbow plot. The destructive potential of chemical enhancement and self-building in this movie coincided for me with a lack of ‘normal’ food intake, meaning food as necessary digestive material. The characters never eat or never have food around them (apart from some vicious raw meat display in one scene). Food intake is being substituted by syringe and repeated pill swallowing throughout the movie. Please prove me wrong, but I think it’s an important clue that Dr Barry Nyle refuses any food when he gets ‘home’ (home and Institute seem to be contiguous spaces) and automatically moves towards his pill eating ritual.
Needless to say, for the Romanian context, there is the garish MISA/Bivolaru episode of the early 90s, a very strange historical episode including arrests, secret service involvement, accusations of a porn tape ring, sensationalism around “spiral hugging rituals” on the beach, group sex, urinotherapy etc. It all ended up with guru Bivolaru seeking political asylum in Sweden in 2005, and his exile strangely prefigures another (very different) episode – the Ecuadorian/Swedish exile of Julian Assange. While it’s very easy to demonize and maybe ridicule the cultish aspects of the Bivolaru affair, what is been overlooked is how such a fairly banal ‘sect’ or pop transcendental hybrid (like the Falun in China) is being harshly repressed by the state/police because it’s considered not only an internal menace&perfect scapegoat, but more important – a contender and direct competitor in the control of volkish energies, identity politics, the self-image of its citizens and the monopoly of social engineering techniques.
The cosmic synth sound of Sinoia Caves/Jeremy Schmidt (on par with excellent sound design by Eric Paul) that I’ve been mentioning is very close to the early scores of Carpenter(finally!) as well as German old school electronica greats such as Tangerine Dream, Amon Duul II, Klaus Schulze or Ashra Temple. Curiously enough it’s not only the classics again – but other hard to pinpoint influences such as 80s Manhunter ost or Risky Business (remember the Tom Cruise debut) scores that get blended in with the rest.
Sound matches perfectly the 35mm Panavision 2/40 ratio camera work courtesy of Norm Li. I think this is what doesn’t let this movie experience slump into pure visual lassitude and slow pace stupor (yeaaah, I also tend to consider the festival favourite slow cinema a reactionary backlash against more rapid/anarchic trends of today) as long as their is some ominous humming, chiming, droning brooding pulses of sound. Please just listen with your headphones on to the elevator door closing and opening! The futuristic bleeps, button preset sounds – a whole aural environment makes interactions palpable and touchable – showing a pre-touchscreen ability (Videodromesque?! aliveness), a sentient ability to respond, an ability embedded in artificial (and psychedelic) intelligence that lets the space-cocktail-bar-like surfaces shimmer, open and flicker when caressed.
One of such favourite moments of audio-video mutual support is the moment when Dr Nigel Barry comes home to his prairie style Biosphere II-like habitat, full with natural wood, metallic edges and a near seamless integration with the garden surroundings – a perfect example of organic materials recombined & enhanced into modernist surfaces. His wife is somehow in a sort of perpetual daze/pseudo-meditation and he has this completely boring dialogue of “I think I’m gonna go earlier to bed tonight”. Nothing abnormal right? Well, Dr Nigel face gets modulated into strange spasms and barely composed expressions, containing some deep neurosis, while his wife face is lying on the edge of the frame (the movie has mostly one face/one frame, never two faces meeting in the same rectangle). This quiet and hovering dialogue is punctuated by the distant wailing of a humpback whale (I think) singing their calls from the bottom of some uncharted ocean, an eerie reminder of the deep waters we and the characters are wading through.
Another major emblem is The Sentionaut – a Tron/Electroma kind fully costumed being, a sort of Golem clone, an androgynous higher being that is somehow monitoring(?!) all the vital data inside the maze-like architecture of the Arboria Institute. I distinctly loved the brief phone-call communication between a visibly annoyed Dr Nigel and an indecipherable machine-like chatter(almost like a dial-up sound) connection with some nether entity (the Sentionaut?). Unsurprisingly, his answers sound also calm and automatic, like some NSA agent or top manager talking about “comprehensive lists”, “great” and “we have a system in place”. Psychotropic reality can also be psychotropic trivia, as our ordinary, everyday life becomes more drenched with injectable sensations, perceptions and thoughts. We have been living and growing up in a Videodromesque symbiosis with the TV/tape technologies, and this shows in this movie too – the TV experience or the lights of the televisual is almost mystical, a way to rebuilt reality and even organize your own demise/departure. There are moment when the Arboria Institute comes near to the Soylent Green’s euthanasia clinic and body recycling ideals. One more word about the father of the director Panos Cosmatos – George A. Cosmatos, known as the director of Rambo First Blood Part II and Tombstone, but also of COBRA from 1986!! You may laugh but Cobra was one of my early childhood top ten movies, as it was one of those movies who made it into Romania’s 80s underground video cassette scene. I remember very distinctively the scary ring leader of the evil guys – a serial killer called “The Night Slasher” played by an incredible Brian Thomson. He wasn’t your usual loner, but the brutal leader of the “New Order” group of social darwinist psychopaths and he used a very peculiar killer weapon – a scary sort of spiked slasher/cleaver, that I was fascinated with at the time. The Night Slasher’s cleaver bears a strange resemblance in my head with Dr Barry’s “Devil’s Teardrop”(Wow what a perfect name) – however this metallurgic harbinger of death is something really unique, maybe only matched by a set of gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant woman from Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.
I will leave out the important (Carrie-like?) figure of – Elena, who seems to be another Sadako figure with vast extra-sensorial capacities but actually doesn’t quite manage to completely fulfil her caged and very dangerous telekinetic& telepathic role, being a bit too sedated or fragile for my taste.
I also leave out the surprise of the sensory deprivation tank flashback – a key temporal reference point in the unfolding of the movie and curriculum vitae of the characters, a sort of original transcendental ascent/descent into another dimension, which manages to enhance but at the same time physically and psychically mutilate the protagonist (say goodby to the Cartesian dualism!). The new enlightenment afterglow proceeds at its own pace and telekinetic/psychotronic abilities achieved are coterminous with a new existence that requires more and more stabilizers and inhibitors. I will only add that the extra-sensory knowledge that the Dr brought back is akin to the one gained during the Event Horizon spaceship experience, as experience becomes embodied it is also sculpting the body, leaving living brain and eye tissue permenently scarred. This collision btw a Lovecraftian crushing chaosmos and the blissed space-out new ageism is what attracts me to this movie and where I think it hits a very deep chord. Beyond the Black Rainbow goes beyond promises, beyond life changing techniques, mind electronics, theta-wave and delta pulse CDs resulting into cataleptic states and unavoidable interstellar voids.
It’s a movie that goes ahead and tracks back the dire consequences of self-exploration and self-mastery as applied/implied ways to exploit ourselves and others. I also appreciate that this is done without some high moralizing principle behind. The Black Rainbow is drowning all flower power rainbow colours, bleaching them and making explicit the heavy teratogenic residue left after the return back to the extra-mundane, and the paranormal inroads into the cavernous self. It is a bleak fable and remains one, because it somehow turns the Reichian theories on their head, as every orgasm and energetic overflow is being carefully harvested, uploaded and put to work in a similarly vein to what Shaviro had to say in a post about Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. There is also a hint that the absent political or cultural-economic environment might be conspiring with this unleashed paranormality (again on TV and through the voice of Reagan) – the fact that we are in the darkest point of the Reagan era Cold War control-crazy paranoia, propaganda wars, the Iran-Contra affair or that during the final larval stage of Dr Nigel Barry he gets dressed up in a scaled, customized and futuristic looking (Manuel) Noriega-labeled jacket. Remember Noriega? He’s the CIA-employed drug lord, ex-psyops trainee at the infamous School of the Americas(short for Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and military dictator of Panama that ruled the country before he got deposed by his former supporters in 1989(20 December is the date of the US invasion of Panama). Dr Nigel Barry now looks like THX 1138 because he is a sinister harbinger of future days, a non-cyborg but definitely enhanced human terminator shedding off the last of his atrophied Homo sapiens appliances.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is actually not a coarse sceptical response to the new age healing scam, but quite the opposite, taking it at its face value and materializing its enhancement-driven dreams and nightmares. The ‘re-absorption into the Cycle of Life’, ‘Be Your Self’ and ‘enlightenment’ are to be read as utter and unavoidable posthuman traps. After Dr Nigel Barry sheds his skin and dresses up in a new leather, he quotes from Nietzsche but with a significant twist, the “abyss” from “When you look into the Abyss the Abyss looks back into you” becomes “face of God”, and this way theophany is revealed as an all-absorptive event horizon that pulls everything into its depth.
There is always this latent dark promised land at hand – even if we take thread of the mill psychic research and mind-programmers such as Dick Suthpen, organizer of Sedona Psychic Seminars and researcher into “mind electronics”. I found a “mind electronics” tape on the excellent (Arboria- flavored) crystalvibrations.blogspot.com music blog called “Hypnagogic Sound / Vibration Tape” from 1982 (ha! one year before the Black Rainbow showdown) published by Suthpen’s Valley of the Sun publishing, which I warmly recommend during insomniac stressed out nights or re-programmable bureau naps. It has a distant lo fi deep warp engine hum, a de-magnetized, really weird pulsing repetitive sound to it. This is a disturbing if hypnotic tape that comes right from the new age cassette black market – by one of the foremost researchers into brain erasers, zappers, alpha/theta waves, binaural beats and mind electronics!
It is hard, while listening to this tape, not to imagine a pulsing vibratory sound emitted during stand-by/hiberation by the mind-control geometric object/device in the movie, probably awakening and enlarging your pineal gland while you drink ur coke…