The other night, I saw a special screening of the film Until the Light Takes Us, directed by Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites. Still reeling from my love affair with Anvil: The Story of Anvil, I returned to Portland's Hollywood Theatre to see what I hoped would be another inspiring music documentary. After all, how could you go wrong with the fascinating and mysterious subject of Norwegian black metal? There are church burnings, pagan rituals, murder, suicide and face paint! What more could you ask for?
Until the Light Takes Us' trailer:
Until the Light Takes Us aims to "reveal the true story behind the music," to dispel the rumors of Satanism and abductions, to give the progenitors of the genre a forum in which to tell their story, and to explore the ramifications of a movement thrust into and misinterpreted by the mainstream. Unfortunately, and I can't entirely explain how this happened, I left the theatre more confused than I was before entering — not only about black metal, but also about art and how people get funding for their projects.
Until the Light Takes Us makes no attempt to contextualize black metal, either in terms of the broader Norwegian culture or in terms of musical predecessors. A few shots of Subway and T.G.I.Fridays in Oslo hardly justify or explain anti-Semitism and church-burning. There have been plenty of artists and genres aside from black metal that eschew cultural imperialism and capitalism, from punk rockers to stalwart indie bands. So why is so much black metal specific to Norway and not to France, New Zealand, Canada or Mexico? And who were these black-metal artists listening to and reading that led them down a path of atonal, angry music and extreme anti-Christian and anti-American sentiment?
Photos from the black-metal scene:
In addition to not providing any substantial context or history for black metal, Until The Light Takes Us is a structural mess. The film begins with Gylve Nagell, a.k.a. Fenriz, a member of the band Darkthrone. Nagell is a poor central figure for the film. Aside from expressing disappointment about the cooption of black-metal music and aesthetics by the mainstream, he provides no unique insight.
Or perhaps the directors were asking the wrong questions. Whether with Nagell, or with the far more complex Varge Vikernes of the band Barzum, far too many questions were left unanswered. How did these bands form? What were the early shows like? What is the songwriting process? How does it differ from other forms of music? How did the audiences change over time? Not to mention still more questions about the murder committed by Vikernes, for which he served 16 years of a 21-year sentence.
Vikernes at the reading of his sentence.
Lastly, and I'll be blunt, where was the footage of the bands playing?! A few minutes of found footage that looked and sounded like it was shot from inside a washing machine hardly suffices.
In a post-screening Q&A, Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites said that they wanted to let the musicians tell their own story, and to not get in their way. But this is a documentary, and for the directors to claim that they didn't make editorial choices or shape the narrative is absolute bull. Most frustrating was how condescending and defensive Aites was during the questions. More than once, Aites actually said, "You'll have to take that up with Varg." He was also unable to answer the "Why Norway?" question, except to revert back to the intrusion of American culture on Norway. Yes, but that's the case almost anywhere. Nor was Aites able to respond to historical questions about religion and the church burnings. I guess the audience assumed, wrongly, that the directors of a supposedly definitive documentary might be able to provide further information about their subject.
An interview with the directors.
Until the Light Takes Us - Junket - For more of the funniest videos, click here
I rushed home from the theatre and had to watch another movie in order to cleanse my palette. It was bad, but it was a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy/thriller, so I gave it some leeway. I do not, however, have much patience for poorly constructed and naive music documentaries.
Anyone know anything about black metal? Please share.