Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tales from the Benway Pharmacy: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE MACHINE

If I ventured into the 'flix stream, between the viaducts of Dr. Benway prescribed drug-enhanced science fiction hallucination dream, would you find me?  Or would there no longer be a 'me' to find, and no difference between you, these words, the future, the past and all constructs of self I may adopt and discard over lifetimes? Yeah, it's the second option, because good films dissolve all difference - self/screen is just the first in an endless banana peel of self.

I dissolved once or twice into that void this week, with the following two films, thanks in large part to modulating, droning and pulsing synth scores linking them to classic 1970s-80s science fiction and horror (rather than the usual orchestras hovering over the action). That makes a big difference, especially this time of year, the autumnal Samhain, Halloween death season. These two films seem to occur in a realm of permanent ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) midnight where dangerously liberated prisoners/patients/experimental subjects break out of bizarro world environments, in the process etching out as fine a metaphor for the dangerous liberation offered by psychedelic drugs, pros and cons, as anything I've seen since PSYCH-OUT (1968).

So, when you're on an all-night weird movie binge, save these two for the late late show slot, i.e. the high strangeness Interzone gateway stretch between 3-7 AM, when the straight and sober are fast asleep so their bland consensual reality can't interfere with your psionic reception, because thanks to Netflix, the future is then!

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW 
2010 - written and directed by Panos Cosmatos
***1/2

A lot of typical science fiction buffs are nerds, man, and they stay that way for one reason: they're scared of psychedelics, scared to lift the throbbing rock of the known and scoop the writhing worms and scorpions from the muddy void and devour them for their sweet psychoactive venom. For most such nerds, this cautious avoidance is a wise decision. Unless you feel the psychedelic zone tug you towards it like a magnet, you're probably not invited, and you would probably not be treated well. As Bill Lee says in Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH, "the 'zone takes care of its own." But others beware. Not everyone is ready to have their ego ripped like a bad tooth from their screaming psyche, to feel the anguish of trying to break up with a clingy, insecure, manipulative lover, to find your self-centered fears lodged like a giant tick in the crown of your skull.  Psychedelics are like calling an exterminator into your brain to flush that ego out like a roach infestation. But you need to know where to spray, and some nerds do not. Their egos aren't solid enough to be killed.

Lick the 2001-legged Monolith
But if the sci fi coterie do make it past their initial fear and enter the void, they tend to run in packs, and when running is done, retreat to the movies (as we all have), geeking it up at 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), because it's the familiar made unfamiliar, as Kubrick's movie is never entirely familiar no matter how many hundreds of times you see it. From there, an adept breadcrumb trail follower will wind up leaving England along Commonwealth solar trade winds and winding up at two Canadian horror films: SCANNERS (1981) and BLUE SUNSHINE (1978), each exploring the long term psychic side effects of prolonged exposure to the wizard behind the wizard behind the curtain. the tentacles of a Lovecraftian elder god coming to get you for exposing its hideous volcanic genitalia, and from there to the MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.

In BLUE a particular strand of LSD makes people lose their hair and go on rampages with knives as soon as their wigs fall off, after exactly ten years elapse. In SCANNERS, it's a briefly marketed pill prescribed to pregnant moms, the side effect of which is that their offspring are born with the power to blow other people's heads apart through conscious projection. I mention all this for a reason, this acidhead tab of Canadian druggie sci fi history is imperative for a deep lysergic appreciation of the 2010 Canadian homage to that golden era of tripping man's Kubrickian-Cronenbergian-Blue Sunshine maker crossroad science fiction, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

The first feature by Panos Cosmatos, RAINBOW stars Michael Rogers as a batshit crazy psychiatrist named Barry Nyle, who keeps a scanner-style mutant girl Elena (Eva Bourne) under sedation in a futuristic white room, then tries to analyze her through a thick protective glass while jotting down 'notes' and slow-as-molasses-style going even more insane. He also has special guards called sentinauts and a weird white triangle device that can deliver sound vibrational (presumed) shockwaves to knock Elena to the ground and (presumably) jam her brainwaves. This is all needed since she's got the power to transmit her thoughts and explode the heads of anyone in the same room; as the crazy score by Sinoia Caves heats and throbs and pitch modulates the doctor and patient engage in a long drug-addled silent treatments and staring contests.


This Institute is housed in a bizarre retrofuturist geodesic dome, which includes the office/drug den of a terminally ill junky, the Buckminster Fuller-ish founder. In a flashback to 1966 we see this guy taking Barry on his deep dish drug trip (LSD was legal then and being used by forward-thinking psychiatrists the provinces over). Barry's trip resembles the 'Beyond the Infinite' section of 2001 and judging by the third eye drawn on his forehead and his patience with letting his face melt and dissolve, we figure he must be ready to transform. But then he's reborn in an oil slick, crawling out of a black circle like a reptile from its egg, and latching onto the woman, some woman... I don't know...his wife? Elena's mother? Does he kill her by ripping her throat out with his teeth, or is that an ejaculation? Is she coasting on an orgasm, or is the light going out of her eyes?


 Meanwhile there's lots of delicious red walls and filters and the sense that time is melting (Barry pops pills from the Benway pharmacy--another nod to Burroughs) and though he's off-putting at first, Rogers gonzo performance grows on me over repeat viewings; he's committed to his work, he should be committed to a rubber room, though, and more than anything he makes being a shrink seem like a pretty awesome occupation for a druggy maniac: you get to prescribe whatever mind-expanding things you want for yourself and go so deep into the void that reality ceases to exist and you finally get a peak 'beyond the black rainbow' all while running riot. Eventually Barry starts running too riotous even for the clinic. He takes off his wig and contact lenses to reveal he's got a bald head and shiny blue eyes like the one BLUE SUNSHINE taker that got away.

If you get confused, just presume this is all meant as an analogy to the mysteries of consciousness itself: Elena is the unconscious anima, Barry is the amok ego trying to keep the unconscious locked up tight; the old man is the repressed superego, dissolving from years of drug use (nothing nullifies a moral compass like addiction) and watching his high watermark 60s utopian vision for the future gradually erode. So remember, nerds: baldness = homicidal madness, and if you can't escape quickly just move so slowly no one can see you except Jim Jarmusch, otherwise... otherwise you're just a hesher.

THE MACHINE
2014 - written and directed by Caradog W. James
***

Far less weird and more linear than RAINBOW, the low-budget but highly intelligent (if unimaginatively titled) British sci fi film THE MACHINE has great gloomy electronic momentum (no daytime shots ever, which is great), a beautifully retro Carpenter-meets-Vangelis synth score from Tom Raybould and an overall aesthetic that splices the labs of the Tyrell Corporation to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's Lee Van Cleef sub basement; and a script that mixes some TERMINATOR touches with CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962) post-humanist philosophy. The captivating Caity Lotz is great in a double role (evoking Elsa Lanchester in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and thanks to thrifty use of one giant empty soundstage , lots of Val Lewton darkness, and great artistic (and ingeniously simple) touches like the way the bodies of the artificial beings light up in strange patterns when excited (though the lights are clearly just projected onto their skin, it works superbly), old Caradog's etched out a mini-masterclass of B-movie economy, of those great gems that can sometimes be unearthed digging through the Netflix Streaming, ranking it alongside DIY sleepers like BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, THE ORGEGONIAN, IRON SKY, BOUNTY KILLER, and JOHN DIES AT THE END. And it's short, yet operatic. There's no filler, no corners are cut. Everything fits and it doesn't need trauma or didactic postures to feel justified in existing, though of course there is some of each. Even the bit with the dying daughter sidesteps all the usual cliche'd sentimental pitfalls.


The story begins with bigwig AI engineer Vincent (Toby Stevens --the Richard Branson-ish villain in DIE ANOTHER DAY) interviewing various freelancer-designed artificial intelligence programs via a series of surrealist questions to see which can answer far enough outside the box of logocentric thinking that genuine personality is possible. Ava's (Caity Lotz) program comes closest, and she's cute, sparks fly, so she's hired, and brought down into a deeply buried network of basement level research programs, all funded by the British military intelligence operatives for assassination work in China. Vincent's not a fan of the assassin aspect, but he loves the unlimited funding. It's enabled him to develop software that can scan and duplicate whole personalities via sensitive headsets worn during Voight-Kampf-style questions. Meanwhile, military vets suffering from brain injuries and missing limbs are turned into half-machine monsters, the trouble being they're liable to kill everyone in the room during the slightest existential tantrum. Meanwhile one of them steers Ava towards a possible cover-up conspiracy in the works - these soldiers are being cut off from their loved ones, treated essentially like slaves. She knows too much!

Ava is assassinated by Chinese assassins before Vincent can even work up the nerve to ask her out, not before doing all the tests of course. How convenient! Dennis (DR. WHO) Lawson is the ruthless installation director who wants to make sure this new Eva isn't so independent she'd refuse a direct order, especially since Vincent tells her killing anyone--even Chinese diplomats!--is wrong. She murders a guy in a clown mask during a routine test. She feels bad. Raybould's synth pads swell in mecha-grim portent.

Oh well, it's not hard to guess the rest, and we viewers we don't really give a shit about Vincent's Asimovian ethics, so Lawson needs to to up the stakes via an enforced robot lobotomy and another easy-to-guess subplot with the daughter. But what could be some douche chill sentimental nonsense in non-British hands (such as Guillermo del Toro's) doesn't rankle, and I've got a sensitive rankle meter for that shit.

Slick and dark, but with some genuine AI insight and vintage analog originality to back it up (See also CinemArchetype #13 - The Automaton / Replicant / Ariel), it's a good lesson in how you too can survive the coming robot revolution! Hint: treat the machines with compassion or at least tact, because they'll remember every last kind or derogatory word forever, no matter how far out of earshot you think they are when you say it. They are the past and future, reaching back and forward along your every gesture, like karma's own sweet engine.

Remember us, your future? CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS! 

If you have Spotify, click here for a mix of both the amazing scores of these films.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched The Machine on Monday and I really dug it! I found it because I had searched for Caity Lotz on IMDB (she got a Lotz a what they call the Most). I am pretty smitten with her! She was Stephanie on Mad Men and she plays Black Canary on Arrow. She is the Woman Action Star that is an actor first, which is novel. Ms Lotz aside, I loved the low budget with the high aspirations and I wish bigger budget movies used this much of their brains. I also loved Beyond The Black Rainbow - with it's weird Australian looking stoner massacre at the beginning of the end. I loved how both movies looked like they were filmed on dioramas - like a bizarro Wes Anderson world - and how they would play so well on a VCR. They both brought back the motherlode!

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