Moriarty @ AFI Fest, Day Three: UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US and BEFORE THE FALL!!
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Turned out to be a shorter day than I expected, and I got a late start on it in the first place. I wanted to pick Toshi up from preschool and have lunch with the family if I could. That’s one of my favorite parts of the day, so it was nice to find at least one day this week where I could do that, and then still make it into Hollywood in time for the first film. I was surprised by how full the theater was when I got there about ten minutes before showtime. Always nice to see that kind of support in the middle of the day, especially when you’re talking about a documentary about the black metal movement in Norway, hardly the sort of marquee title that normally sells out at a festival.
UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US is my favorite kind of documentary, squarely focused on someone instead of something. It’s not enough to just say that your film is about something as broadly defined as “Norway’s black metal scene.” That’s not a story. That’s not compelling. It’s a backdrop at best. Wisely, co-directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell chose to focus on a few particular players in the scene, using their stories to paint the larger picture. It’s incredibly effective, and there’s real control in the way they parcel out information at just the right moment for maximum effect.
I don’t think I could call myself a metal fan by any stretch of the definition today, but there was a time where I would wake up after a night of live music with a wicked case of headbanger’s neck, sore from mosh pits the night before, and I do have a fondness for the era of metal I grew up with. I think METALOCALYPSE is one of the funniest shows on TV right now because of the way it viciously lampoons the self-seriousness of most metal while still displaying real affection for all the trappings of it. That’s not easy to do. I would say that the makers of this film obviously love the black metal scene in the same way that Brandon Small loves the broader speed metal world and all its absurd subcultures. When I was in high school in Tampa, there was a fairly active local metal scene, guys in my school putting out actual self-published indie records, and part of the appeal was knowing that the guys in the bands were just fans like the rest of us.
What made it special was that it had its own particular take on metal, and the trappings of it, and the bands all happened in reaction and response to one another, so there was a lot of cross-influence back and forth. That’s what makes a music scene really “happen,” that chemistry from a bunch of people all working toward the same thing at the same moment. I remember when Norway’s black metal made its appearance in the world press, back in the early to mid ‘90s, with articles and profiles and guest appearances on HEADBANGER’S BALL, and it was all fascinating, the radical extremes these post-punk, post-metal, post-hope Norwegian kids embraced as they created their own personal brand new sound. There was an image they created, scary and crazy and genuinely dangerous, and it worked as immediate iconography. The entire scene boiled down, at its essence, to four people, and two of them are dead now. Per Yngve Ohlin (better known by his stage name, Dead) was the vocalist for Mayhem back in the late ‘80s. He was a sort of a GG Allin style onstage provocateur, cutting himself and using dead animal parts as props, and his usage of extreme stage makeup, which he called his “corpse makeup,” led to a widespread use of it in other bands. When he killed himself in 1991, it was a turning point for the entire scene, especially when Oystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous), the guitarist for the band, was the one who discovered the body, which he photographed for an album cover before calling the police. Euronymous, who owned a store called Helvete which was pretty much the hub of the entire black metal movement, was later murdered by another musician. These two are the fallen icons of black metal, eternally frozen at the perfect age and the perfect point of artistic integrity. Their deaths actually validate the fiction that they spun on their records in many ways.
Meanwhile, Fenriz is alive and well and still working, and he’s arguably the star of the film. Gylve Nagell was part of the band Darkthrone. If there’s any band still intact in some way that is unchanged from the pure early days of black metal, it would be Darkthrone, and it’s pretty obvious why as you watch Nagell move through his life. He’s a guy in his late 30s now, still absolutely visually the stereotype of a metalhead, a survivor in a genre that really didn’t last very long at all before imploding. He’s had a ton of side projects as well, and he seems to have carved out a Henry Rollins-like existence for himself, a sort of elder statesman in a scene that used-to-be.
And then there’s Varg Vikernes. AKA Count Crishnackh. He’s easily the most articulate and charismatic of the guys we see either interviewed or in archival footage. He recorded a series of influential albums under the name Burzum, and he gained a fairly dedicated following and a place in the cornerstone of the burgeoning music scene in Oslo. He had a series of clashes with Euronymous, and eventually, he grew so paranoid about what Euronymous might do to him (he was convinced he was going to be kidnapped and driven to the middle of nowhere to star in a snuff film) that he visited his apartment and fatally stabbed him. And worse than that, he was linked to a series of church burnings that were seen by Norwegian media as proof that black metal was tied in to actual Satanic rings.
Vikernes is a frightening guy because he makes his case clearly and articulately. It’s amazing what impact musicians can have on revolutionary or radical thought among the very young. It’s no shock that Charles Manson was on the fringe of the LA music scene, or that so much of his message was wrapped up in the aesthetic of ‘60s rock. That was the language of rebellion for that particular time and place. The music that sounded like an assault on taste and melody to one generation was downright beautiful and essential to another. The same is absolutely true of black metal. It was a genuine reaction to a world grown ugly from commercial concession, to what they saw as the end of traditional Norwegian culture and an encroachment by Christianity and the West. His loathing of Christianity seems to be genuinely earned, and one of the points he makes is one I would repeat to anyone out there planning to start their own religion: when you do, do NOT build your place of worship on the exact spot that an older culture believes is sacred to them. You see how well its worked out in Jerusalem? Well, the same is true in Norway, where Christian churches were built on top of sacred pagan sites that were long-cherished. No matter which faith you side with, you’d have to agree that there’s something profoundly wrong with intentionally replacing one faith’s sacred spot with your own building, almost as a matter of spite. Still... nothing justifies the spate of church burnings that rapidly became associated with black metal, and more specifically, with Vikernes. What the film suggests is that Euronymous did a lot of bragging about how he was part of the organization of the church burnings, but it was all a lie.
That lie led to kids doing it for real, then giving the credit to the “leadership” of Euronymous and Vikernes and Mayhem. And that led to Vikernes and Euronymous having that fatal falling out, and to Vikernes being targeted by the cops as a Manson-style political anarchist, a ringleader in a Satanic arson ring. It’s a bizarre story, and I like that the documentary doesn’t try to make it more sensational than it already is. If anything, they go the opposite direction, making it all seem sort of mundane. Watching Fenriz go through his life these days, he seems like he’s made a place for himself, but it’s a costume he wears at this point. It’s an identity that he keeps afloat because that’s what pays the bills. That’s how he’s known. It seems like he’s haunted by the dream of a real underground music scene, one that had completely avoided any sort of mainstream recognition, one where his friends were all still alive and where they were all making new music all the time. He seems broken. Black metal is a footnote in music history now, a museum piece, and the real tragedy of UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US is that the people who were part of it still seem to be grappling with the experience today.
It’s a pretty rare subgenre in end-of-the-world SF, but BEFORE THE FALL is a fine example of a pre-apocalyptic film. It’s not the most original premise ever: the governments of the world announce that the Earth is going to be struck by a meteor in three days, and it’s an extinction level event. No one will survive. Anywhere.
What director Javier Gutierrez does with that premise is bleak, sad, and angry. He embraces his miniscule budget to go the opposite direction from something like DEEP IMPACT or ARMAGEDDON, focusing on one small human story while only acknowledging the global story in TV broadcasts or on the radio. In a small Spanish village, Emilio (Daniel Casadella) hears the news with his mother Rosa (Mariana Cordero). As they watch reactions from around the world and from closer to home, one of the images is of riots inside of prisons where all the guards have walked off the job. Rosa’s reaction is immediate and extreme. She’s terrified of someone. She’s not scared for herself, though... she’s scared for her other son Tomas and his family. Tomas was a teenage hero, helping to put the guy behind bars in the first place.
Emilio, on the other hand, has grown up in the shadow of Tomas and his heroism, so much his brother’s opposite that his vertigo prevents him from even climbing a ladder or leaning out a window. As their small town rapidly falls apart under the weight of panic and fear, they work their way out of town to the farm where Tomas and his family live. Tomas and his wife aren’t home, but all four of the kids are, ranging from a teenager to a five-year-old. Right away, they’re faced with a huge choice, since the farm’s TV and radio reception is so poor: do you tell the kids what’s about to happen, or do you just protect them and let them enjoy the last three days of humanity?
The question doesn’t just apply to the meteor, either. The same is true regarding this figure from the past, this possibly-escaped child murderer, who both Emilio and Rosa believe is going to show up at the farmhouse at some point. They stay silent, but they’re both paranoid, jumpy, freaking out. The kids can’t help but notice that something’s wrong, and of course they’re going to resent not being told the truth. When a stranger named Lucio (Eduard Fernandez) shows up at the door, out of gas and looking for Tomas, Emilio finds himself forced into making choices, each moment of survival just staving off the inevitable destruction from the sky.
Gutierrez plays dirty, and it’s a transgressive film at times, even prompting a few walk-outs at the late show on Wednesday night. It’s always interesting to see what sets people off, and here, it’s violence against children that had people visibly upset. Lucio is a genuinely loathsome screen villain, without any redeeming qualities. He tries to play charming at first, but he’s not remotely convincing at it. Once all need for pretense is gone and he’s off the leash, the ffilm takes a few very dark turns, and more than a few cues from Hitchcok. There are very few effects in the film, but the ones he uses, he uses well. It’s sad that the combined costs of this and TIME CRIMES are probably equal to the catering budget of even a mid-level SF film in Hollywood, but with about a thousand times the creative approach to what SF is. This is a film of ideas, a film that depends on the simple virtues of good storytelling for its considerable impact.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
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Nov. 8, 2008, 9:40 p.m. CST
southern comfort is my only friend...
Nov. 8, 2008, 10:11 p.m. CST
by georges garvaren
Kinda like McKellar's LAST NIGHT? Or not so personal and more traumatic? I've never understood "end of times" films. In reality, most people would just screw for two days and eat for one. personally, I'd watch the Marx Bros. till the final BOOM!
Nov. 9, 2008, 12:03 a.m. CST
by drew mcweeny
... fair comparison. I think McKellar's film was a little sadder and more about fatality, while this is more about protecting innocence for as long as humanly possible, even as the shit comes down all around you.
Nov. 9, 2008, 12:30 a.m. CST
by most excellent ninja
Uhh Moriarty, I know you are from a more mainstream world in regards to music. But underground culture exists in various forms of music. It's like saying Hardcore Punk is a footnote just because it isn't like the early 80's, hell they were saying it was a footnote in the late 80's when it was bigger than ever with bands like Gorilla Biscuits.
Nov. 9, 2008, 12:41 a.m. CST
by georges garvaren
about a father trying to preserve something that is very much doomed. I guess this is what parents try to achieve every day (perhaps not under such bleak mentalities though). Chances are BEFORE THE FALL won't receive a wide release in Vancouver, but I'll keep my finger crossed that it arrives with the annual European Union Film Festival. You've certainly peaked my interest, Mori.
Nov. 9, 2008, 4:11 a.m. CST
Looking forward to seeing this whenever and if it gets a release date for the UK.
Nov. 9, 2008, 2:30 p.m. CST
by Gil Brooks
and I thought it actually lacked a lot of focus. The story itself is interesting on it's own, but I do feel the directors weren't really sure how to let the it play out. The subplot of the artist should have been more of a footnote, and not given so much focus. And lastly, on the technical side, they've got a ways to go. I've shot shorts films with a $5 budget, that had steadier camera work.
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