I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t get out enough. I live in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and I feel like I never see anything but the walls of the Compound or the walls of my modest apartment. It’s something I’m trying to remedy, because there’s way too much cool stuff to do in Toronto for me to languish in my room all the time, watching life pass me by through the lens of the interwebs.
With that in mind, I took up an invitation from Brent and Adam of Two Assholes to attend the premiere of a documentary recently released in Canada entitled “Until The Light Takes Us”. I didn’t know anything about it, so I looked up the trailer. Here it is.
Now, if you’re anything like me, your knowledge of Norwegian black metal is about as complete as your knowledge of quantum physics – you’re aware of its existence, you think it’s interesting and you always mean to get around to checking it out, but somehow you never do. That’s me and the Norwegians, all right.
I remember reading an article in Guitar Player magazine about fifteen years ago that dealt with this oft-maligned subculture; it featured a cartoon Viking with a Gibson, and treated the whole thing with a kid-glove of camp wrapped around very serious content. I distinctly remember being shocked at the characteristics of this music scene, so totally unlike what I was used to: murder, suicide, church burning, Satanism and a cadre of very, very angry people playing some of the hardest music known to Man.
Keep in mind this was before the internet, so I couldn’t very well download tracks from Darkthrone or Burzum or Cattlepress, and I was hardly going to venture into the alternative music stores downtown looking for import Cds when I looked a lot like this:
and the black metal fans, as far as I knew, all looked like this:
I might not have much going on, but I do have a finely-tuned self-preservation instinct and I figured I’d stick out like a sore thumb, so my interest in that scene waned and eventually passed from memory. Until yesterday. After watching that trailer I was sold on checking out the documentary, which was directed by first-time filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites. How in the world, I thought, did a couple of Americans manage to insert themselves into a scene that, as I understood it, overtly despised everything American culture stands for? Plus, I’ve been known to delve into really aggressive music at times; though the hardest I ever sampled was mostly of the industrial set (Ministry, Front 242, Revolting Cocks, etc), it wasn’t too much of a departure for me to find this fascinating.
Brent, Adam and I ventured down last night in the midst of an unpleasant but somehow atmospherically appropriate blizzard to Toronto’s Royal theatre. According to the Google page, the Royal is best known for it’s “old theatre” atmosphere, the indie style of film they tend to showcase, and is – apparently – a hot spot for young, single trendsetters. I felt right at home (right? Right). Actually the Royal, like my other favourite Toronto film spot (the Bloor Cinema) really is atmospheric. They’ve recently redone the inside to make it less haggard and cave-y, but they haven’t lost any of that old-school charm they’re known for – you even get the authentic experience of freezing your tits off in the cold on the street outside the lobby before the girl finally shows up in the little ticket booth thing to take your ten dollars and give you the dollar-store perforated ticket you immediately give to the gatekeeper right inside the doors. Hey, we trendsetters like our venues to have street cred with the miserable elites of this fair city, what can I say?
So we took our remarkably-comfortable seats in the front-middle section of the spacious theatre where we were treated to twenty minutes of glorious silence in place of the usual monotonous repetitive theatre-specific easy-listening radio station paired with blatant advertisements and laughably unchallenging “trivia” questions (“what actor is best known for his role as a scar-faced clown who often engages in battles with a MAN dressed like a BAT?”). I had my little bag of Fuzzy Peaches with me, a nostalgic homage to the movie-going days of my youth, and everything was going swimmingly until the Bint Patrol sat down directly behind us (in the middle of an almost-empty theatre) and proceeded to kick, nudge and otherwise displace my seat for the remainder of my time there. I suppose I owe them a debt of gratitude however, being as their incessant bothersome chair-punting was the only thing that would keep me awake for most of this 93-minute long epic.
The ambiance of the film started off all right – long shots of a dour-looking young man with long black hair and various flesh-rending accoutrements (I would later identify him as Fenriz, drummer and ad-hoc leader of black metal legends Darkthrone) wandering through wintry forested locales and the streets of Oslo, Norway, set to a cheerfully creepy score I couldn’t identify but for which the movie’s website credits Boards of Canada and Black Dice. While the soundtrack (later fortified by black metal from Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem and a host of others) never got old, those long shots of Fenriz aimlessly tooling around with a cigarette that never seemed to go out sure as hell did. But I’ll get to that.
The whole film, much like Norway (if their interpretation is any indicator), is sparse. That’s the word for it – sparse. A lot of long silences between interviews, a lot of silences within those interviews, and more glory shots of the Norwegian landscape than of the Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Set to silence, or the almost-silence of the ambient score. Even the filming was minimalistic: Adam pointed out the generous use of shaky cam footage colloquially known as the “Blair Witch” effect, and the film was bookended by Fenriz appearing in a completely white room, ostensibly to offset all the black clothes he was wearing and to blend in with his translucently pale, scarred-up flesh. I can assume these choices were made as a visual nod to all the rhetoric declaring black metal the coldest, emptiest, most devoid-of-meaning music in the history of sound, but the effect in my opinion was to artificially lengthen a film that was already sorely short on content for its running time.
The content they did have was very good. According to the movie’s site, the filmmakers actually moved to Norway for two years and lived with a lot of the people they interviewed, in order to (and I quote) “[build] relationships that allowed them to create a surprisingly intimate portrait of this violent, but ultimately misunderstood, movement.” Okay, that’s pretty standard for self-aggrandizing movie sites, but they weren’t far off the mark this time. They closely interviewed a number of key players in the BM movement; Fenriz took center stage for the most part, but we also heard from Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg of Mayhem, Harald “Demonaz” Naevdal of Immortal, and perhaps most surprisingly the infamous Varg Vikernes, better known as Count Grishnackh, who was interviewed from his jail cell. All of the interviewees were surprisingly forthcoming in their responses to the off-camera questions, especially Vikernes, who was in the process of serving a 21-year sentence for the murder of Oystein “Eponymous” Aarseth, onetime leader of Mayhem, as well as the torching of several centuries-old churches around the Oslo area.
Okay, this is where it started getting interesting for me. The filmmakers and those they interviewed went out of their way – well out of their way – to reinforce the idea that the public’s (also known as “my”) perception of black metal is probably far out of whack with the reality. The church burnings for example, which mostly took place in the early 90s, were not borne of Satanism the way the media liked to hype them. In fact, none of the interviewed parties claimed to be Satanists at all. They’re not particularly fond of Christianity, mind you, and that’s what caught my attention. According to Vikernes, whose calm, charismatic demeanour reminded me uncomfortably of Edward Norton’s character in “American History X”, the church burnings were retributive acts against what he and others saw as a centuries-old infringement on Nordic culture by the Christian faith. Apparently many of the destroyed churches had been built on top of Pagan holy places which had been torn down to accommodate the places of worship favoured by the new guys in charge, and a predominant facet of black-metal “counter culture” was to strike back against that unwelcome infringement – not to forward a Satanist agenda (which is itself inherently related to Christianity), but as an expression of Pagan rage. Fenriz and Hellhammer, particularly, backed up this sentiment, blaming the media’s Satanist angle on the “posers” – young people drawn to the isolation and misanthropy of black metal who assumed burning churches must go hand in hand with Devil worship. Which, as I’ve said, it doesn’t.
I think for me the highlight of the film was the interview with Vikernes specifically. Like the rest of the movie, it was parsed out in a non-linear collage throughout the ninety minutes, but every time he appeared on screen looking so deceptively calm, my interest was piqued again (this was typically after another god-awful montage of Fenriz the Wandering Goth). Vikernes is an interesting character; according co-director Audrey Ewell, “[m]aking a Norwegian Black Metal documentary with out Varg Vikernes is like making a Rolling Stones documentary without Mick Jagger.” Based on my limited knowledge of the subculture, I was inclined to agree – Vikernes is widely known and respected in much the same way as Irvine Welsh’s Frances Begby from “Trainspotting” – everybody knows him, and especially after that incident with Eponymous, everybody knows not to fuck with him.
Unlike Begby, however, his demeanour is collected and he appears highly educated (a function of spending most of his life in prison, he says – gives him time to read books). When he speaks on the formation of black metal, he seems far less interested in the music as an art form and more interested in the underlying philosophy behind the subculture – his extremely anti-Christian, anti-American sentiments speak to a desire to keep Norway, and indeed all of the Nordic culture, free of external influence. He doesn’t speak directly to the issue of race, but his rhetoric is eerily similar to the kind of “purity” you’d hear talk of from a bunch of stiff-legged guys in brown shirts not so long ago.
The part that really put me on my ass about this guy came from Brent’s addendums to Vikernes’ account of the murder of Eponymous. I’m not going to go through the whole story here, but suffice to say Vikernes really glossed over the actual murder, mentioning something briefly about how he stabbed Eponymous in the head after the other man came at him with a knife. Sounds reasonable, right? Self defense and all that. Yeah. According to Brent, Eponymous was found to have been stabbed twenty seven times. All of a sudden that friendly, calm exterior doesn’t seem so convincing.
Vikernes’ chilling appearance in the film was a direct contrast to some of the other players. While guys like Fenriz and Hellhammer presented as pretty middle-of-the-road – sort of like elder statesmen of the genre – others, like Kjetil “Frost” Haraldstad of Satyricon, was the polar opposite of a scary guy like Vikernes. His appearance in the film, including his unendurably drawn-out performance art piece “Kill Me Before I Do It Myself” made images spring to mind of disenfranchised North American emo boys who frequent Myspace and call themselves things like Dark Raven or Nysstyr or whatever. His entire interview read like an oration from the Angsty Teenage Dictionary Of Deep Terms, and while I know that “darkness”, “void” and “cold” are all pretty major tropes in black metal, this guy looked more like the type of kid who got into Marilyn Manson a little earlier than everyone else to get a head start on pissing off his parents, only to find another reason to be mopey when Manson got discovered by MTV.
Much is made in this movie of the “cultural importance” of black metal and the anger of its progenitors about how “mainstream” it has become. This doesn’t do much to alleviate the big dark hormonal cloud cast over the whole thing by the likes of Frost, and while I don’t pretend to be anything resembling an expert on this kind of music, I see a lot more Killswitch Engage and Children of Bodom teeshirts on Queen Street than I do of Burzum or Darkthrone. Whether this is a function of the cultural dearth that is the North American music scene, or else simply because a lot of the Norwegian bands don’t perform live ever (let alone here), I’m not qualified to say. But based on what I saw of “Until The Light Takes Us” I think it’s safe to say that particular genre will definitely be considered underground for some time to come.
My biggest problem with the movie, apart from the Douche Squad sitting behind me, was the pacing. This is the debut for both filmmakers, and it shows. Far too often I found myself drifting off to the creepy-yet-pleasing sounds of Boards of Canada during another long series of shots featuring Fenriz ambling about in his leather jacket, either amidst tree-dotted landscapes that call to mind “Dead Snow” or else in the dirtier corners of Oslo. I know what they were trying to do, but it was honestly too much of a good thing. The content was great, but it would easily – easily – have fit into a movie half the length of the final product. When I spoke with Brent and Adam at the end of the show, we discussed how we’d rate the film in general, “out of five” terms. Adam said “if this is the second or third draft, three and a half out of five. If this is the final product? One and a half.” I tend to agree with him, though my innate interest in the source material would lend me more towards generosity.
All told, I’d recommend “Until The Light Takes Us” to you, my dear readers, strictly because I’m a firm believer in learning something new every day – and for my money, I came away from the Royal last night having learned a lot about a subject that until now has evaded my attention. If it wasn’t perfectly executed, I can still give them an A for effort – it takes a lot of dedication to pull up stakes and move to a foreign nation to hang out with weirdos for two years just to make a movie, to say nothing of getting funding together and actually making a final product, and for that I salute them.
Just make sure you’ve got a coffee on hand for the slow bits and for the love of Odin, wait until it comes out on DVD and watch it at home. Unless your roommates enjoy kicking your chair every time you sit down, you’ll probably have a better experience.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brent has written his own review of the movie, and since he’s closer to being a “professional” reviewer than I am, not to mention his extensive background in aggressive music, I’d check his out too.