Films of Panos Cosmatos: Retro as an Aesthetic of Alienation

Curator's Note

Recent retro works of popular culture—feature films and internet shows—seem to use 1980’s aesthetics as a catalogue of audiovisual attractions in order to evoke a sense of comfort and familiarity in viewers. In Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls (2015), Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (2016-), Whissell/Simard/Whissell trio’s Summer of 84 (2018) among many others, one can easily recognize qualities of postmodern “nostalgia film” described by Fredric Jameson as: “new genre […] set out to recapture all the atmosphere and stylistic peculiarities” (Jameson 1998: 7) of the past, represented in a hyperstylized and romanticized manner, triggering nostalgic reactions through aesthetic connotations.

There is however a filmmaker whose body of work could be interpreted as a polemic with aforementioned tendency. Influenced mainly by 80’s sci-fi and horror genres (in terms of both imagery and storylines) films of Panos Cosmatos (son of 1986’s Cobra director, George P. Cosmatos) serve the purpose of alienating and “exhausting” spectators rather than pleasing them. His two features, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) and Mandy (2018), both set in the 80’s, are built upon neon aesthetic, synth soundtracks (composed by Sinoia Caves and Jóhann Jóhannsson respectively) resembling those created by Tangerine Dream or Goblin, and intertextual references to numerous cult films—Heavy Metal (1981), Scanners (1981), The Keep (1983), Hellraiser (1987), to name a few.

Nonetheless Cosmatos’ works—unlike Stranger Things or Summer of 84—seem to be devoided of narrative integration and structure supporting audience engagement. His directing method comprises aggressive techniques of disorientation: distortions of image, grotesque and cosmic visuals, monotonous acting style, unconventional cinematic punctuation. The latter could be exemplified by usage of fading-out as a transition between shots separated by very short passage of diegetic time, or sudden alterations in pacing and editing (long and melancholic takes are juxtaposed with extremely fast cuts). Moreover, Cosmatos accentuates reflective surfaces—mirrors, glass walls—mise-en-scène elements evoking themes of introspection, memory, identity crisis. One can associate Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy with what Gilles Deleuze defines as “Time-Image” cinema: storytelling that implies ontological uncertainty of diegetic occurrences, lacks logical continuity, relies on “optical and sound images” (Deleuze 1989: 1-25). It is a narrative of inward, rather than outward. The interesting paradox is that Cosmatos aims to achieve estrangement and confusion through the composition of nostalgic and well-known symbols.



Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2. The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Caleta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” In Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn. Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998 (London, New York: Verso, 1998).


Of the two films on which you focus, I've only seen Mandy, which--like you describe--I found disorienting and exhausting at the same time that I was stunned--in a good way--by the outlandish rupture of narrative. It's an incredibly powerful film, and reading your piece what I'm most struck by is that the 80s aesthetics, particularly the soundtrack, were the only way I found an "in" to the film--because, as you say, there's a familiarity there. It's interesting then that you describe Cosmatos's films as inward, rather than outward, because an 80s aesthetic--at least from a contemporary POV--is so outward, concerned with surfaces, sppearance, color, etc. It blends to strange affect. The mental exercise of trying to reconcile those is difficut if not impossible--which is perhaps part of the point?

Thank you for your comment! Yes, I believe so—disintegration of narrative, confusing the viewers are clearly artistic strategies of Cosmatos. When it comes to inward/inside narrative, I refer to this term in context of Deleuze's ideas of Time-Image/crystalline regime of storytelling. In other words, I believe there are elements in Cosmatos' works (i.e. inaccessibility in terms of construction and plot, slow pace, exploring internal life and subjectivity, fluidity of past and present, actual and virtual, etc.) that resemble modernist films of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Fellini, whereas 80s aesthetic (colors, sounds, lights, intertextual references) is “merely a costume” here.

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