Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Until the Light Takes Us

On the surface, Until the Light Takes Us seems a film tailor-made for people like me: curious about the Norwegian black metal scene that caused a media frenzy, and even open to some of the bands to emerge from the surprisingly complex evolution of a sound initially defined with a rigorous set of aesthetic and social codes. Unfortunately, the movie never gets off the ground, and not even the low budget can excuse some of the rampant amateurism of the production.

Directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, compared to someone like Sam Dunn, seem less devoted metalheads thirsting for the full story than curious hipsters who heard some such about a church burning or two and decided to look into it. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but Until the Light Takes Us never focuses on anything but the scandal, and its fleeting moments of insight come off as spontaneous, unplanned moments instead of something actively sought by the filmmakers.

Most of the film revolves around the commentary of two main subjects: Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell of the band Darkthrone and the legendary Varg Vikernes, he of Mayhem and Burzum fame. The directors establish them as foils: both were among the genres progenitors, but Vikernes helped nurse the public image until it spiraled out of control (largely thanks to him), while Fenriz, somewhat wistfully, only cared about the music. These are essentially the only two points of view presented in the film, and the directors ensure that what few sources they get to fill out their 90 minutes tend to fit on Vikernes' side of things, only without his retrospective clarity.

If your only interest in black metal concerns the church burnings, well, this might be the movie for you. Until the Light Takes Us makes sure to include endless montages of blazing cathedrals and concerned, stuffy Norwegian presenters gravely speaking about the black metal scene in old newscasts. Though most of the arson was limited to a set period in the early '90s, Aites and Ewell find a way to keep coming back to these montages, littering the film with them ad nauseam.

For those who actually wanted to hear something about the music, however, the film offers few nuggets. The talking heads discuss Helvete, the record store opened by Mayhem's guitarist Euronymous that became the epicenter for Oslo's nascent extreme metal scene, but they never discuss what the place really meant for people. The only time anyone does something of the sort is in a brief mention of Emperor's original drummer Faust, who came to Oslo from the Norwegian boonies as a teenager and found somewhere he belonged; then, one of his old friends changes the subject to focus on Faust's murder of a gay man back in his hometown, not to shed light on anything but to speak approvingly of the slaying.

Where is the discussion about black metal's growth? Bathory hardly rates a mention, and non-Norwegian groups like proto-black metal band Celtic Frost and modern masters Agalloch are nowhere to be found, nor is any talk, good or bad, included about semi-mainstream BM group Cradle of Filth. Even some magnificent, forward-thinking Norwegian bands like Arcturus and In the Woods... are cast aside. No effort is made to talk about some of the striking art related to the genre -- the inventive way bands stylize their logos alone should have been a minor focus -- the difference between traditional, death and thrash-influence black metal and the more symphonic, progressive sound pioneered by groups like Emperor. Even the considerable evolution of both Fenriz and Varg's groups are downplayed, mentioned primarily in each of the old, estranged friends' passive-aggressive put-downs of the other (Fenriz mocks the electronic doodling added to some black metal bands, bands like Burzum; Varg all but outright accuses Fenriz of selling out).

Only the intriguing quality of the main participants saves this film from total failure. I was surprised, considering how scandal-hungry the directors are, that they never once touched upon the anti-Semitic and racist Vikernes espoused when in prison. They do, however, tackle the reason why they are sitting in a (quite cozy, it must be said) prison talking to Varg, and the musician is forthright, if still self-justifying, about the arson and murder that landed him in jail. With the benefit of hindsight, his bitterness over taking credit for various church burnings just to piss off the teenagers and rival bands who did them to impress him is tempered by a realization that one shouldn't state in print that one committed a crime, or even leave open a hint that could bring investigation. About the murder of his Mayhem bandmate Euronymous, Varg sticks to his self-defense line but at last admits paranoid thoughts he should have considered. Still, he lightly chuckles at the idea, as if remembering some embarrassing moment from childhood and not the grisly stabbing death of one of his friends. Yet the filmmakers do not press him on this, apparently failing to understand the difference between being hostile and simply asking tough questions.

Luckily for the audience, Varg is so interesting he shines in spite of the hollowness of much of his words. He attributes the black metal philosophy to a reaction against Americanization and the loss of cultural identity in a liberal, globalized Norway that had already lost much of its past from Christian purges, but he also voices disgust with those who insisted black metal had to be tied to Satan. He comes across as one of the nicest, most polite white supremacists you'll ever meet, and it's difficult to reconcile how charming he is in these interviews with the dark nature of his past and the abhorrent views he continues to voice everywhere but in these facile 90 minutes. Fenriz, too, is a soft soul: the first shot of the film depicts the crew setting up the lighting for his interview, and he comes off as polite and a bit shy, smiling sheepishly as the crew prepares around him. He even whistles a bit.

Both Fenriz and Varg ultimately paint themselves as bright but alienated young men who reacted against society for not fitting into it. As Norway is one of the most liberal places on Earth, the solution they found was extreme and reactionary: if liberalism bred a conformity of its own, all the better to simply be authoritarian and violent. If one must conform, at least make it interesting. The best moment of the film involves Fenriz, in his halting English, explaining his outlook by bring up his least favorite artist, Frida Kahlo. Even though he hates her, Fenriz marvels that Frida and other Latin American painters, all of whom operated under oppressive regimes and exploitative American policies, used vibrant colors in their paintings. When one looks at art from liberal Scandinavia, however, there is a starkness, be it in Norwegian black metal or in the films of the Swede Ingmar Bergman. Artists, the discontent members of society, paint that which they see but is not before their eyes.

Another highlight involves the differing reactions to black metal's entry into the public consciousness. In Stockholm, Fenriz walks around an art gallery featuring photographs from the black metal scene and art inspired by it.* Though the less political of the two primary talking heads, Fenriz nearly has a physical reaction to seeing his past commodified and confirmed to be trend. He quivers with suppressed rage and disgust, and when he tries to be polite and shake the curator's hand, for a split second I wondered if he would lunge at the poor man. A third black metaller, Kjetil "Frost" Haraldstad, projects an image of being an attention whore, but when a performance artist convinces him to come to Milan to put on some black-metal-inspired visual art, suddenly the man who cheerfully talks about the flattering thrill of getting his photo printed comes to terms with just what his life has become. He broods on the flight over, and his self-mutilating act no longer seems a cry for attention but a response to mounting feelings of self-loathing.

Sam Dunn, with his degree in anthropology, traced metal's roots for his rockumentary. A journalist, trained to get anecdotes and a more personal perspective that makes even critical biographies intimate, might have made a better oral history of the scene. Documentarians rooted in film can find the narrative, best exemplified in movies like Harlan County, U.S.A. and Hoop Dreams. A film-background director might also have focused a bit too much on the scandals, but at least a narrative might have come from it. Aites, a musician inspired not by metal but indie bands such as Sebadoh and the Mountain Goats, just appears to be doing this on a lark. I like anything that deconstructs the absurd mythology around the black metal scene, but Until the Light Takes Us doesn't even do that. Aites, hipster that he is, appears to be genuinely impressed by the musicians' actions backing up their words, even if both are abhorrent. He has no interest in the music itself, and the film ultimately doesn't even rate a decent bit of muckraking. The low budget wouldn't have been such a hurdle if the filmmakers could have figured out what they wanted to say with this.

*I must confess, I couldn't stop laughing at someone's contribution: a photo of Mickey Rourke with corpse paint slopped over his face and a painted message reading "Black Metal Mickey." Next to it was the regular photo with another painted title: "Not Black Metal Mickey."


  1. "he also voices disgust with those who insisted black metal had to be tied to Satan"

    Which was a bit rich coming from someone who had a song on one of his own records called "Dominus Sathanas".

    You and I seem to have had a similar experience with this film (I was particularly astonished by its shunning of the far-right political side of the scene. And where were Emperor in all this?). The Australian DVD includes another documentary (which is available separately in the US) called Black Metal Satanica. Wondering if you've seen that and if so what you thought of it; personally I think it has issues of its own but it does the historical aspect far better.

  2. Yeah, it's a bit easy for Varg to reject Satanism after Mayhem itself helped found it as part of the scene. I mean, Euronymous actually gave and interview where he firmly stated that black metal isn't even about the sound but the Satanic quality (which really points out the ultimate hypocrisy in their "we hate trends" bullshit).

    I've never seen Black Metal Satanica, but it can't be any more lazy than this. I don't even see why it had to be limited to the Norwegian scene, other than to just do some half-assed muckraking. Like I said, I would have loved some more background for groups like Bathory and Celtic Frost (and maybe even Venom even though they were both death metal and utterly taking the piss). And no Emperor is just a stupid oversight. Even if the focus was still church-burning and such, all of the original members of the band have done time (at least Faust got kind of a mention, but only in relation to his crime). God I was disappointed by this.

    The interview with Euronymous is here: http://web.archive.org/web/20070823101907/www.thetruemayhem.com/interviews/previous/euro-badfaust.htm

  3. Man, I haven't seen this, but it sounds like such a wasted opportunity. These bands are fascinating, not only for their extreme and troubling views and their criminal tendencies, but for their very unique and unsettling music. Black metal is such a strange scene, and so much surprisingly fantastic music has come out of these bands, from the raw and brutal early stuff of Darkthrone (probably the best "pure," lo-fi black metal) to more elaborate and experimental offerings from bands like Arcturus, Abruptum, Emperor, etc. It'd be interesting to hear about how the original regional, hermetic scene wound up influencing bands around the world, too - Sigh from Japan, the great Wolves in the Throne Room and legendary Weakling from the US, etc. There's also a weird current of naturalism in these bands that's often tied to their more extreme right-wing views.

  4. What a shallow reading of a complex film. Too bad you missed the point.

  5. Ed: It was a massive missed opportunity. I understand the limitations of a low budget, but there wasn't even any effort behind the movie. They didn't have to badger these guys, but they could at least ask a hard question or two. All they cared about was the way a select few looked back on the scene, not where it went, and not even what it was like other than surface-level interviews.

    Anon: What was the point, exactly? Was it Varg's mission statement against commercialization that he typed on the computer furnished in his jail cell while recording on the synthesizer he also managed to obtain? Was it that black metal was meant to be pure, leading not only to crippling aesthetic limitations but even social and racial rules among some members? Was it that the movement was ultimately glamorized and satirized by the same hipsters who made this movie? The filmmakers do not touch on this, merely glossing over the material with its handful of interviews and lack of any follow-up. But I could certainly take lessons in complexity from you, what with your comment that says nothing about the film and could have been copy-pasted onto any review without changing a word.

  6. I've not seen this movie, but I have always found it astounding that people like Vikernes or Euronymous --apparently so shallow-- could make music that seems to me so beautiful. There has to be some aspect of their personality that they're hiding (consciously or not). I'm sure there are some great character studies that could be made of these people, but the people interested in doing that kind of thing probably are not attracted at all to black metal.

    By the way, great blog!

  7. Albert, the most interesting aspect of the film is how polite people like Fenriz and Varg come off. I mean, Fenriz is almost adorable, like a shy teen who never outgrew his adolescence, while Varg also comes off pleasantly even when he describes his worst actions. It's a strange thing, and something the filmmakers should have delved into further.

  8. Agalloch? WitTR? This is what happens when people (usually indie scene kids) come to this scene a decade too late. I agree, however, that the film has its shortcomings (not least of all the omission of Emperor) but Fenriz and Varg exemplify the genre more than anyone.