A rock solid write-up on a new documentary about Norwegian black metal, by my former Gays in the Military bandmate, CPO Sinkhole
UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US (2009)
Directors: Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell
Featuring: Gylve Fenriz Nagell, Varg Vikernes, Hellhammer, Faust, Abbath and Demonaz, Garm, Faust, Frost and (PUKE!) Harmony Korine.
Official Site: BlackMetalMovie.com
Review by CPO Sinkhole
My thoughts: wasn’t bad, wasn’t great. It definitely did not set itself up to be a history/development of Black Metal, a la Lords of Chaos or whatever. It was essentially about two early icons, Fenriz and Varg, and their takes on what happened then, and how it’s being co-opted now.
The filmmakers did a fair amount right, but they did a lot wrong. One thing
they did wrong was chop away any and all reference to Varg being a White-Power National Socialist.
Not that that’s the main story here, and they did rightly explain in the Q & A that “we have plenty of interviews with Varg where he just rants away about things like that, but once you put that into the film, it just overshadows everything else.”
They pick apart selected facets of each character’s personality to paint a select picture of the person. Fenriz is seen as this pained, slightly sensitive soul who resents the way BM has been co-opted by hipsters, visual artists, copycats, and people who don’t “get it.”
In his world, it would have been perfectly fine if BM had never strayed beyond the confines of a couple of hundred people. But, now the box is opened, and you can’t stuff it back in. Fenriz has these deep bags under his eyes, and he always seems melancholy, resigned, occasionally breaking out into a few minutes of humor (his phone interview with a metal magazine is hilarious).
Varg, on the other hand, has most of his more repellant/thugging sides of his personality hewn away, in order to tell a story that more or less paints him as a slightly hot-tempered but well-meaning version of Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down (1993).
He’s had it with globalization and commercialism, and by odin, HE’S NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE. They focus on Varg’s smooth, rather charming personality, and try to pain him as a sympathetic, thoughtful, intelligent character.
Of course, if you’ve done any sort of research on the guy, or if you give more than a handful of braincells over to thinking about some of the things he says, you realize real damn quickly that he’s actually kind of an idiot: “I called a newspaper reporter, and told him I burned the churches, but instead of writing about it in the paper, he had the nerve to go to the police and get me arrested!”
Really? You didn’t see this coming?
There was a strange but somewhat interesting side tangent about a Norwegian visual artist who uses Black Metal imagery in his work.
There’s a scene where Fenriz is looking at his exhibit ruefully (”I know all of these photos deep down inside…I’ve been to all these places”), shaking his head at certain things, and finally, as the artist himself comes in while he’s looking, the two shake hands uncomfortably (Fenriz says to him, in Norwegian, “I guess I should greet you politely now.”). Fenriz continues looking, and the artist stands behind him, watching him look. The tension is palpable.
The tangent about the way that BM imagery is being used is one of the main problems of the film. On one hand, they cut away all clutter from the narrative…each character is a ‘type,’ with no icky undercurrents tainting their personalities.
That would be fine…just make it about Varg and Fenriz, and how they’re different, and maybe opposite, takes on the BM lifestyle. But, having cut away so much (the roll-call of bands is glaringly absent some of the power hitters….NO footage of Emperor! NO footage of Enslaved! Immortal get like five lines (all of them hilarious/jokey)), why add this second, equally difficult narrative if you can’t even keep the first one straight?
Frost/Satyricon, inexplicably, is set up as some sort of opposition force/Judas character, seen in collusion with the visual artist, doing some sort of one-man show where he spits fire on Black Metal paintings, stabs a couch (!) and ultimately opens up a few veins for the morbid pleasure of the audience.
I’m cool with it not being a definitive history of black metal…we’ve all read the books, blah blah. But the thing it tries to be (personal histories of a few troubled people in the midst of a riotous time) isn’t all that clear.
They have a lot to work with (and the Q&A suggested that the DVD [yes, there will be one, but not for at least another year...the movie goes into general circulation in November first] will have more than four hours of additional interviews, including Enslaved and other bands totally cut out), and spent seven years researching, interviewing, and talking with these people, including two years living in Norway.
I don’t think they’re hipsters, or fakers, but I also don’t think they hit the bullseye, and, most damningly, I’m not sure that they have enough distance to give this thing the full-on edit that it would require to tell a different, more true, story.
The doc DID do a lot of things right, though. It gave us a good view of the Americanized, seemingly vacuous nature of places like Oslo and other major metropolitan cities (for some reason, ice cream seemed to be one of the primary signifiers for Western decadence, along with, duh, McDonalds).
It had a few good lines from Fenriz about the things he likes about modern art, and why rebelling from his conservative parents naturally drove him into the arms of Munch and other desolate artists. There was a line in the film that just stopped me in my tracks: “I prefer art that reflects the painful burden of easy living.”
The filmmakers talked in the Q&A about the little ’socialist bubble’ that exists in Norway. Low crime, free healthcare, free education, absurdly clean. Fenriz mentions that his least favorite kind of art comes from Central America, “where things are so hard, and they feel the need to make all their art happy and shiny and colorful.” Then he goes on to talk about “the painter that paints the women with the busy eyebrows.” He hates her, too.
The other part that I love about the film is the way it totally eviscerates Harmony Korine’s ironic/fad-based love of Black Metal, and does so with nothing more than Korine’s own words and actions.
As it shows the ways various artists have been influenced by the BM aesthetic, it just cuts to shaky VHS footage of Korine, dressed in a blonde wig and smeary corpsepaint, minces around his art gallery, tap-dancing for the camera, acting like a fool, while the soundtrack is his slack-jawed-yokel explanation about his new so-called obsession: “I totally love Black Metal, it’s like…totally the most brutal music on earth. It’s so cool, those guys are burning down churches, and it’s like, totally sick. I just love it…it’s my favorite music in the world.” (said as he tap-dances in corpsepaint and mugs for the camera)
We hear fucking Boards of Canada, like, four times, plus Black Dice, Thorns, Sun 0))), Lesser, and others throughout, but we get, like, five seconds of “Kathaarian Life Code” before it’s faded down again!
No “Transylvanian Hunger”! Bits and piece of Burzum, and tons of pieces from “Deathcrush,” which isn’t exactly the sound Mayhem would be known for during the BM heyday!
They talked for, like, five seconds about Euronymous’s trend-setting guitar style, and that’s it! In that way, it reminded me of Mingus’s autobio, Beneath the Underdog, which is all about what a rough life he had, and how he pimped his two wives, etc., but has less than three pages where he talks about music. THAT was the real disappointment for me.
Also, the filmmakers made it plain that “we presented each person as they presented themselves to us,” explaining that “Hellhammer definitely has a persona that he puts on and takes off,” and that they just let Hellhammer be Hellhammer.
In that way, the filmmakers are very reverent to their subjects, showing them as they want to be shown to the world. It might not be the most probing style of documentary filmmaking, but it’s a valid approach. Not a lot of masks are peeled off, but if you’ve never really seen any of these guys talk, it’s still interesting (inexplicably, Faust chose to have his voice be computer-altered and his face blacked out in interviews, not because he’s on the run or anything, but because he claims to regret committing the murder, and felt that talking about it with his face and voice visible would “legitimize” his actions too much).
To wrap up, Until the Light Takes Us had a lot of material to work with (over 45 hours of interviews with Varg, according to the filmmakers), and a lot of decisions to make in terms of what to leave in and what to take out, and ultimately, I don’t know that they made all the best decisions.
This is hardly going to stand as anyone’s definitive take on Black Metal, and I seriously doubt anyone could glean enough new/useful material. It was pretty entertaining, though, maybe kind of thought provoking. I’m less angry about the editing/selection process than I am at the dearth of Black Metal in the soundtrack.