The Steep ‘Learning Curve’ of Panos Cosmatos

The Steep ‘Learning Curve’ of Panos Cosmatos

There are tons of movies out there that may seem off-putting. They’re alienating from start to finish, often called ‘artsy-fartsy’ or ‘pretentious’, and at their worst can repel most people. Other films can seem too good to be true and you can’t help but press play, wading through what seems the most bizarre plot line with unrealistic characters. 

And then, there are other films that seem a little… too weird. They make you go, “That’s it?” and you move on.

Or… so you think. 

Audio Transcript

Leaning Curve: A Primer
“The rate of a person’s progress in gaining experience or new skills.”

My wife and I were ecstatic about Mandy. The trailer blew us away and Nicolas Cage is an absolute joy to watch perform. And so, in preparation, we thought it would be a good idea to check out Panos Cosmatos previous film, Beyond the Black Rainbow. It was perfect timing. We had just signed up for Shudder, a streaming service that focuses exclusively on horror movies, and they were streaming Beyond the Black Rainbow as one of their offerings. Excited, we made a whole event out of it; blankets and pillows galore!

It was an interesting experience, to say the least. From it’s lullaby pacing, intensive closeups, hypnotic score, Beyond the Black Rainbow’s embrace of genre film-making was intense, and despite it’s quiet presentation, it can’t help but feel a little bold and brash. In fact, the second the credits rolled, the first words I said were, “Well… I hope Mandy is better.”

Suffice to say, we were disappointed. Our entire post-movie discussions was lathered in criticism, and for the most part, we agreed our Friday night would have been better spent playing video games, watching The Office for the umpteenth time, or spending time on our porch with a good book.

But… the strangest thing started to happen. Every now and then, one of us would call back to Black Rainbow in discussion. It would come out of nowhere. Either I would share my interpretation of a scene, or Kathryn would contemplate haunting visuals and the impact they had on her. I would have a song stuck in my head, or she would mention a moment I found interesting or poignant.

This kept happening for days on end, and I remember sitting on the couch thinking to myself, ‘Did we have this all wrong? Was Black Rainbow really as bad as we thought?’

Eva Allan in Beyond the Black Rainbow

Then it was time for Mandy, our most anticipated film of 2018. Tickets in hand at approximately 11:45PM, we grabbed our seats among countless metalheads. Popcorn at the ready, Coca-Cola to keep us caffeinated into the wee-hours of the morning, the haunting chords of Starless by Crimson King drew us in to the opening scenes of Mandy.

Then, the empty roads of Philadelphia took us home as we, yet again, had a discussion lathered in criticism for Panos’ sophomore film. And, apart from having a long work day, staying out extremely late, and watching a movie that initially disappointed us, we also got into a car accident on the ride home which you can hear more about in my Mandy episode of the podcast.

Perhaps the biggest criticism we shared was the stark contrast between the first half of the film and the second. Going from a slow-paced, ethereal romance into a mature, gore-crazed horror-thriller seemed antithetical in practice. It seemed to undermine what it established, as though Panos was tone-deaf and couldn’t keep his story straight.

But then, like clockwork, it didn’t take long before Kathryn and I were bringing up moments of the story with one another. And this time, it wasn’t just one-off comments amidst idle conversation, we were having in-depth discussions about character themes, choices, memorable sequences, performances, etc. It was weird.

Again, I thought to myself, ‘Panos, did we have it wrong? Is Mandy another film we simply didn’t get?’

Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough in Mandy

Two films. Two films that initially repelled us. Two films that, at first, we felt were nothing spectacular. Two films that embraced style over substance in such a way that detracted from the final product. Two films that, over time, grew like a seed in soil and bloomed into something we didn’t expect.

And let me tell you, they really bloomed. If you’ve heard me talk about Mandy in my latest episode, you’ll learn that it’s my #3 movie of 2018 out of 59. That’s a lot of movies, and it moved up my list steadily over the course of December. Not only that, Black Rainbow continues to be talked about in our household, and I regularly toss on the soundtrack when I’m on Spotify.

So, what gives? What is it about these movies that makes them stick? What changed while they slow-cooked in our brains?

I think it came down to patience. I think Panos has a wealth of patience apart from his unrestrained commitment. He isn’t afraid to take the time to establish something complex, be it visually or metaphorically. He isn’t afraid to test his audience. In fact, I think, by doing that, he’s respecting them greatly.

But that’s a steep learning curve, both for Panos when he decides what he’s going to commit to, and for the audience and their willingness to try and understand. I mean, goodness, Kat and I are examples 1 and 2 for people who weren’t on board with him at first. But as we talked about Black Rainbow and Mandy, there was a moment when things clicked, when we realized that Panos was less interested in telling deeply rich and complex stories, and more interested in how a simple story could be told.

In a short documentary, Mandy: Behind the Scenes, we overhear Panos talk about a film theory of his. In short, he believes the story can, often times, be the least interesting part of a movie, almost the weakest part of it. He’s far more interested in how the story is told and is convinced that that’s the quality that makes for a great film.

Something about that seems initially off-putting, almost stupid. I mean, really? The least interesting thing about a film is the story? Isn’t a film just a story?

Panos Cosmatos

Well, no, not really. In a book, how the story is written affects its ability to transport you into another world. In a painting, how the images are portrayed changes how you interpret them. In a song, how the chords are ordered, spaced, or altered change the feelings you get from it. So, how a film is shot, composed, paced, and colored can change the experience.

With that in mind, you’ll see that both of his movies are overly stylistic with an intense focus on creative, majestic visuals, and the stories are quite simple.

Black Rainbow is about a young girl trying to escape a science facility that is testing her psychic abilities. Mandy is a drug-infused revenge tale. Both are incredibly high-concept stories that, in their execution, allude to far more than meets the eye. Be it the returning shots to an enigmatic prism floating amidst a cloud-covered ceiling in Black Rainbow, or the animated segments of Mandy, how these stories are told are enhanced by the choices Panos makes to tell them.

And their often-cryptic association simply adds to the experience. Black Rainbow can simply be a story about a young girl escaping a facility, or it can be viewed as a commentary on boomer culture, and the intense divergence from seeking enlightenment via moral and philosophical interactions and simply indulging heavily into mind-altering substances and wack-job science. Or in Mandy’s case, you could watch it as nothing more than a revenge story, or interpret it as a picture of raw, man-made, incomplete justice.

And, if you’re one to enjoy careful interpretation over spoon-fed exposition, then all the more reason you should start watching these kinds of films. I believe you’ll find it an interesting, almost surreal experience to have a film grow on you, like a fresh beard that’s itchy and scraggly at first, then flourishes into a majestic symbol of persistence.

The reward is in enduring, the goal is understanding.

But, forewarning, if my wife and I were initially alienated by these films, I can’t guarantee it won’t happen to you. You might be repelled, even disgusted by scenes in these films, especially Mandy which is narratively more accessible than Black Rainbow but arguably less tolerable due to its extreme content.

Art-House cinema in general can be a learning curve, and these films have a large barrier that restricts them from being mainstream, but that seems to be a creative choice for Panos. And that’s neither a bad thing nor a good thing, just a thing. And it’s his thing, and if you don’t mind being tested a little, I’d give them a go.

On Topic’s are bonus episodes between the standard reviews. They largely contain ‘cutting room floor’ content from main episodes, and will be released irregularly. 

Cinematic Doctrine is available on iTunesSpotifyGoogle Play Music, and other major podcast apps.