I’ve been feeling I’ve been far too intense and convoluted in these posts, and they are getting so long that no one’s going wade through them to the end, so I’m going to bring it back to basics with a lovely chat about some interesting films. Also, beware spoilers.
I’m going to talk about two Panos Cosmatos films: Beyond the Black Rainbow, which I saw in 2015, and Mandy which I saw at the cinema a few weeks ago. Incidentally, the Rio Cinema in Dalston where I saw Mandy is a very cool little indy cinema, not as good as the GFT obviously but not bad for London.
So, I watched Beyond the Black Rainbow with my flatmate at the time after a 12 hour shift and a few glasses of wine, and for those who have seen it know it is a very weird film but in my weakened state I was not prepared for the effect it had on me; it tied my brain in knots. I genuinely started to slip in and out of consciousness and the dream-like visuals and music just completely fucked up my sense of reality. It was a fascinating experience that had a big effect on me, I’ve never watched a film that has taken me out of my own mind and body, like some kind of waking dream, transcendent drug experience.
In terms of plot, Beyond the Black Rainbow (and Mandy actually), is very simple, and uses the classic beautiful-young-girl-escaping-weird-old-man narrative that is fairytale-esque and can be seen in many plays, books, TV and films over the centuries. (Indeed I could characterise the whole film as an inverted sci-fi chemical dream fairytale.) The first example that pops into my mind would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the Frollo/Esmeralda relationship, and indeed this story’s repetitions are so interesting to me I’ve been wanting to write separately about the pervy Beauty/Beast storyline as they crop up, and I will do once I think of more examples.
I’ve decided not to watch Beyond the Black Rainbow again (at least not for years and years) for fear I’ll be let down, and while I’m not expecting to feel the same dreamy transcendence again I want to keep the memory intact. So, I was really looking forward to seeing Mandy, Cosmatos’ new film starring Nicholas Cage in the cinema, and prepared myself for a similar immersive experience. My responses were mixed, but before I decide on my final verdict I’m going to jot down some thoughts.
One of the main things that struck me was the delicate vulnerability of the romantic relationship between Mandy and Nic Cage’s character. From the start you know, from the blurb, the poster, and from common sense, that this fragile heaven is doomed to a violent end, but I loved the understated tenderness of their domestic life. Even their bedroom (pictured above), with transparent walls so they can look at the stars before they sleep, describes metaphorically the couple’s frailty: only the thinnest membrane protects them, while sleeping, from the dark brutality of the wilderness outside. Their bedroom, and their bliss, is like a bubble, floating through the forest about to burst at any moment.
I also really liked the use of comic book/fantasy/almost anime animation in dream sequences during Nicholas Cage’s grief and torture following the loss of Mandy. The animations are disturbing but also beautiful and visually satisfying. As the lost love object, Mandy quickly stops being a real person and instead becomes the intense focus of revenge, a symbol for violence and destruction. The horror of her monstrous, decaying animated form clearly displayed the insane, animal mind of the broken hero, and a lot of the pathos was derived from witnessing the loss of Mandy as a real woman, turned into comic book character. And when we see non-animated Mandy again, at the end of the film post-revenge, the couple gazing into each other’s eyes, Mandy is re-humanised, becomes ‘flesh and blood’ again, and this is interesting because while she is still no longer alive and Nicholas Cage is as psychotic as ever, it shows an emotional development perhaps into a further stage of grief. The animated Mandy goes beyond the reality of Mandy as a person and enters abstracted, primal, heightened emotional madness territory, and this technique I found effective.
Generally though the whole film is quite simplistic and ‘comic-book’, like Beyond the Black Rainbow. The ensuing violence comes as a reaction to helplessness and humiliation, and is more intense and stylised than normal as the film is seen through/coloured by an emotional lens; we are experiencing the time of the film emotionally and viscerally, not rationally. Powerful emotions such as sexual desire, pain and anger are what drives the plot. Every part of the film is amped-up: the characterisation, music, colour, violence, scenery; but the story is still very simple. This is interesting because the blank spaces in the story allow the filmmaker to be dreamily creative with everything at his disposal (music, sound, colour, light), making an interesting juxtaposition between intensity and simplicity. However, I found these long odd moments to drag, and made the film feel slow; they didn’t have the same dream-like effect they might have done, and just made you want to get on to the next piece of action.
So, yes, the story of the film is simple even if the film-making is not. We can see that most clearly in the characters: we have hero, heroine/female love object, villains, wizard, sidekicks. I do want to talk about the villain element of the story though, as there were two separate elements of villainy that were working against poor Nicholas Cage: on one hand, we have the raw muscle of the mindlessly violent horror monster fucked-up bikers, completely devoid of humanity; then we have the mastermind of the operation, the perverted ‘messianic’ cult leader, who is a very odd character. He’s sleazy, paunch-bellied, 70’s glam rock, but charismatic and captivating, and the psychological hold he has over the members of his cult, slaves to his every whim, is unnerving. Indeed, all the action in the film comes from a chance sighting of Mandy, and his decision that she will be his. He uses the members of his cult and the monster bikers as tools to fulfil his carnal desires and satisfy his ego: again the film is driven by irrational emotional energy. Mandy’s downfall comes when, after she’s been kidnapped and drugged, the cult-leader stands before her naked, and she laughs at him. You got to love her for that, even as you know she’s not going to get away with bruising his ego.
My flatmate, who showed me Beyond the Black Rainbow, was very disappointed in Mandy. She said it was slow, basic, pointless; and I have to admit when I was watching the film my mind did start to wander, and I left the cinema thinking she might be right. But still there were enough weird things going on to continue mulling over; and actually now, while there are definitely flaws, there are new and interesting things that I really enjoyed. I love the idea of a film that is primal and emotional in its motivations, and this intense emotional energy transmits through every frame of the film. It’s not ruled by any narrative or rational structure; it’s all feeling. This naturally opens it all up to explore things like the animated sequences, the humour, the alternative way of describing violence, the odd characters. I did especially love the cult leader (sorry I can’t remember his name), he was pathetic and terrifying in equal measure, I’ve not come across a similar character in film before, done as effectively.
But, as a film driven by feeling and the spectacular, a feast for the senses, it’s important that the story does have an emotional heart, a hook, a depth at the centre. And I think that in the way the film portrayed the main couple’s tender relationship, this set up the rest of the bizarre story against a backdrop of real empathy, sadness and connection. Of course we were all cheering on Nicholas Cage; despite the moments of ridiculousness (see chain saw fight, and tiger scene) and laugh-out-loud moments (acid vaseline, drinking vodka on toilet in pants, looking manic covered in blood in car) we were firmly on his side at every moment, because we truly understood the beautiful, fragile thing that had been lost.