With the Olympics in full swing, I didn’t wanna miss a gold medal performance by Canada to watch a black metal doc. (On the other hand, had they been screening Such Hawks, Such Hounds I woulda been seriously conflicted…) But as the Royal extended its run into early March, I started reading some of the reviews and interviews about the flick, and decided to check out its final screening on Thursday.
I was mostly intrigued by the lengthy interviews with Varg Vikernes of Burzum. While I’m not a fan of his music–or his politics–the man has become somewhat of a legend, a cult figure of sorts, due to his criminal exploits. Turns out, he’s pretty well-spoken and has strong camera presence, even when he’s talking nonsense. (His version of Euronymous’ murder shoulda had a laugh track in the background…) The filmmakers, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, dug up several archival newspaper clippings and Norwegian news coverage of his crimes, showing us why Varg was known as the OJ Simpson of Norway in the mid-90’s.
But aside from Varg, the film falls flat. The other principal character, Fenriz of Darkthrone fame, is dispassionate, emotionless, and seems to lead a rather boring life. The filmmakers have stated that they spent two years living in Norway, and were hanging out with Fenriz (real name Gylve Nagell) for months before they started filming. Perhaps that’s why he appears disinterested–or simply uninteresting. On the other hand, when shown conducting a phone interview with some magazine, he’s outspoken and passionate. After hanging up, he turns to the camera and says “One down, one to go,” as if the interview was just a charade. That being said, viewers of the film could have used some of that feigned enthusiasm, which we might have gotten had he been speaking to a serious documentary crew, and not two of his “pals” with a camera. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say…
The film revolves around Varg and Fenriz, perhaps a little too much. While other musicians (members of Immortal, Ulver and Satyricon) are interviewed, their screen time shows them answering questions about Burzum, Mayhem, or church burnings. And the doc doesn’t really focus on the music. We get a few anecdotes here and there, about Euronymous inventing the “black metal riff,” the low production values of the first Burzum recording, how Peaceville begrudgingly agreed not to remix Darkthrone’s debut–but less screen time is given to discussion of the music than to shots of Fenriz walking through streets and forests, or of the various American retail outlets in downtown Oslo.
One gets the sense that the filmmakers just followed people around with cameras, and didn’t stop to ask any tough questions. This approach to documentary film-making can be effective at times, as seen in Anvil! The Story of Anvil. However, to make it work, you need strong characters (Lips fits the bill) and something has to be happening, like Anvil’s European Tour From Hell. Varg certainly counts as a character, but he spends the duration of the film sitting in prison. The only two “events” shown in the film are black metal-related art exhibitions, one of paintings and photography, and the other a performance piece involving Frost from Satyricon. While Aites and Ewell film the artist behind these exhibits, they don’t really question his motives. And when Fenriz visits the art exhibit in Stockholm, the potential for a strong scene is squandered. After looking at the paintings and photos, he shakes hands with the exhibitor, then says “I need a smoke”–before the film cuts to a scene of smoldering churches.
My journalistic instinct in that situation would compel me to ask “Well, what do you think about all this!?” But apparently that never occured to Aites nor Ewell. I didn’t major in broadcasting when I went to journalism school, instead going the magazine-writing route, but watching Until the Light… reminded me of a principle that was drilled into us when I worked on the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Essentially, the length of a piece that would run in the magazine was determined by the amount of research that went into it. For example, we were expected to do 50 interviews for a 2,500 word story, even though most of those sources would never make it into the piece. Along those lines, I feel that the filmmakers didn’t do enough research–especially in the interview department–to produce a 90-minute, feature-length documentary. They musta spent most of their two years in Norway getting drunk in the forest, cuz there definitely wasn’t two years’ worth of footage in this film. As it stands, the best parts of Until the Light… could be condensed into a half-hour public TV special on Varg Vikernes and the church-burning scandal, as it’s the only aspect of Norwegian black metal that’s examined with any depth.
In fact, I feel that the mini-doc on Norwegian BM included in the special features of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey did a better job of capturing the essence of the genre and its relation to Norwegian culture, Sam Dunn saying “I see your extended fellatio sessions with Varg Vikernes, and raise you… an inteview with the pastor whose church he burnt down!”
Like many other aspects of Until the Light Takes Us, the final scene could have been much better. Fenriz returns to Helvete, the notorious underground record store ran by Euronymous, to find that the place is not what it used to be. He makes some comment about how it’s really different, then picks up his cell phone. End scene. What would’ve been more effective is if the cameras actually followed Fenriz inside, contrasting shots of the current location with old photographs from back in the day. Or, y’know, they could have always asked Fenriz that age-old question: “How does this make you feel?”
While I wasn’t a huge fan of Global Metal, Sam Dunn’s sophomore effort, (my thoughts on that here-ya don’t hafta even scroll down!) I still left the theatre feeling that I’d seen an interesting, informative documentary. That was not the case on this return visit to the Royal. After watching Until the Light Takes Us, I came away feeling puzzled and unfulfilled, not unlike when I saw Harmony Korine’s latest flick at TIFF.
When it comes to metal film-making, Aites and Ewell’s tiny hands couldn’t carry Dunn’s jock. Their work will certainly garner some interest in the extreme metal community, and some screenings on the art house circuit, but should not be mistaken for a professionally-produced doc. If you don’t have any interest is seeing Varg or listening to what he has to say, then don’t bother with this film. Just look up “Frost stabs couch” or something on YouTube, cuz that shit’s hilarious!
P.S.: Smokin’ Green gives y’all the lodown on the heavy bands playing CMW next weekend. Be sure to tune in tonite at 1 am at 88.1 fm on yer radio, channel 947 on yer TV, or www.ckln.fm on yer computer!