Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

Until the Light Takes Us

March 16th, 2010

utltu cover Until the Light Takes Us

Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell moved to Norway and lived there for several years in order to make their documentary Until the Light Takes Us, which is supposed to finally clear the air and dispel the Satanic myths surrounding the small but infamous Norwegian black metal scene. What they produced, however, is a complete mess.

The movie centers around two men, Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell of the band Darkthrone and Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, who played bass in the band Mayhem and was the sole member of Barzum. Early on Nagell tells us that the two drifted apart as he wanted to concentrate on music and Vikernes on politics. Unfortunately their relationship is described only vaguely as is the black metal scene in Oslo. All we ever discover is that there were a few black metal bands and that the members all seemed to know one another in one nebulous capacity or another.

Vikernes’ interviews were done while he was still in prison serving time for murder and arson. He killed Mayhem bandmate Øystein “Euronmymous” Aarseth and burned down several churches. With his short hair and well-trimmed goatee, Vikernes is a charismatic figure who discourses at length on the evils of Christianity and modern consumer capitalism in a passionate, though measured tone. However, when it comes to discussing his own personal actions, he retreats to stoicism and recalls the events as if he were merely an objective observer having had no role in the murder.

Nagell, on the other hand, is a much more sympathetic character but also much more bland. Most of the time he relates confusing stories of who was friends with whom and contributes banal reflections on the early days of the black metal scene in the first part of the 1990s. Perhaps his most interesting contribution is to say that the Norwegian mindset can best be demonstrated by how they wait at bus stops – always a couple meters apart. We see him peering out the window of a train, at home, at a bar, at a rather odd gathering in a building off of a back alley where people are drinking while King Crimson plays in the background – but none of these scenes tell us a helluva lot about Nagell much less the black metal scene.

This is the movie’s M.O. It wanders around almost hoping for something interesting to happen instead of seeking it out and trying to relate a cohesive anything. If you’re not Norwegian and/or have no knowledge of black metal like me, then you’re going to end up confused because Until the Light Takes Us makes no attempt to describe the genre or place it into any kind of context. What makes black metal Norwegian? Is it simply being dark and cold? I’m not sure because, as far as I can tell, there’s only about 60 seconds worth of black metal in the movie. We get a few brief and very fuzzy clips culled from 20 year-old tapes shot on camcorders but, as far as I can tell, that’s it. All of the non-diagetic music was devoid of anything metal and was instead dark ambient stuff. There was no contemporary concert footage or, indeed, any indication that the black metal scene still exists today. Do fans count for anything? How is the genre perceived? For a movie that aims to clarify matters, it doesn’t provide much in the way of those false perceptions to contrast against the words of the musicians themselves.

utltu mayhem Until the Light Takes Us

Vikernes is the most interesting figure but I felt that the filmmakers did a disservice to by neglecting a larger picture of the man. He rails against America, consumerism, and Christianity but non-Norwegians are going to be at a loss as to how these forces play out in Vikernes’ homeland. He espouses an overly romantic neo-paganism but I think he rightly inveighs against Christianity and its history of imposing itself on non-Christians often through coercion and violence. But his views were tinged with anti-Semitism as he berated Christianity for essentially being a knock-off of Judaism. In other words, a bunch of evil foreigners are responsible for forcibly trashing a culture content with Odin and Thor, which, he claims, Norwegians still instinctively respond to.

Ewell and Aites fail on all counts. Black metal and its fans are notable by their absence and the filmmakers construct a music scene that consists of about half a dozen guys and a house outside of Oslo. Their stated intention was to go beyond the sensational headlines of “Satanists running amok in Europe” and instead gave us a racist that is also anti-Christian, anti-consumerism, and revels in nationalism who seems to have no remorse for having committed murder and arson. While we can drop the Satanist tag because of semantics, we are left with a distinction without a difference.

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