Documentary Sidebar : “Until The Light Takes Us”

Posted: March 21, 2011 in movies
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I’ll admit it, for most of the 1990s and into the early 200s, I was an absolute black metal junkie. Simply put, this amazingly misanthropic music was — and is — like nothing I’ve ever heard before (or since). Most folks just plain don’t get it, but if you’re on the same antisocial wavelength as those who create the stuff, it’s pure audio magic (or at least it can be when at its best). I still listen to it on occasion, sure, but my tastes are pretty dated by now — most of the scene has become way too showbiz-like and it’s just too hard to keep up with all the new, more raw stuff still (fortunately) emerging from the underground. Still, the whole 1990s Norwegian scene — since that was the epicenter of the black metal universe at the time, both for the music and — ummmm — other reasons, will always hold a special place in my black heart.

So I was excited when I heard about documentarians Aaron Aietes and Audrey Ewell and their independent cinematic effort Until The Light Takes Us. Released in 2008 but shot primarily over a period of years much earlier in the decade, it promised the first comprehensive celluloid glimpse into the infamous “black metal mafia” that kept all of Norwegian society on knife’s edge for the better part of a decade or so. I knew it would never be as comprehensive an overview as that provided by authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind in their seminal book Lords Of Chaos, but I figured it would at least be pretty good.

Unfortunately, while it did get some midnight movie and festival screenings around the country here and there, it never made it to my home city of Minneapolis, so I had to wait for the DVD. And now that I’ve watched it through a couple of times, I have to say my initial impression/guess was right — it is, indeed, pretty good.

It’s shot entirely on HD video, but the filmmakers seem to have bypassed most of the limitations inherent in that format and the whole thing actually looks pretty moody and appropriate to its theme.The soundtrack, too — both the black metal and non-black metal selections — complement the “storyline,” if you will, nicely. All in all its most competently and professionally done.

I do, however, feel that the net could have been cast a bit wider in terms of viewpoints shown on screen and subjects interviewed. For the most part, the only people involved directly in the scene that we really hear from are Hellhammer of Mayhem, Fenriz of Darkthrone, and Varg Vikernes of Burzum. Sure, if you’re only gonna talk to a few people these are probably the first I’d go to, as well (and for the most part their English is surprisingly good), and I appreciate the fact that there are time limitations involved and what have you, but I do think the scope ends up being a bit too narrow, even for a 90-or-so-minute film.

I didn’t really expect anything new to emerge here in terms of broadening the amount of information we already knew about, and sure enough all the basics of the most historic moments of the scene’s history are covered, from the suicide of original Mayhem vocalist Dead to the arson fires at numerous Norwegian churches to the eventual murder or scene ringleader and Mayhem founder Euronymous at the hands of his former protege (of sorts), Vikernes, so the “”need to know” information is all present and accounted for.

But therein lies the other problem for seasoned black metal veterans such as myself — simply put we already know all this stuff. Sure, it’s intriguing to see it all discussed by the principal players involved, but it’ still old (if always interesting) hat. How the scene has evolved since then, both stylistically and philosophically, is only briefly touched upon, mostly by Fenriz. It makes it all seem somewhat dated, even if it is pretty amazing to see actual news footage of Fantoft Stave Church burning to the ground.

There are intriguing clues as to what is going on down on a deeper level scattered throughout, such as when Vikernes states that Satanism had nothing to do with his music or his actions (which is absolutely true), but his anti-Christan, pro-pagan/heathen sentiments are given only the briefest examination by the filmmakers. Stated most basically, they maintain a respectful and non-judgmental attitude toward the subjects of their work, but don’t seem to have either the time or the inclination to go into the subject as deeply as fans such as myself would like. I was hoping that the deleted scenes that serve as the only bonus feature on the DVD (which features both exceptional widescreen picture and stereo (although 5.1 woulda been nice) sound quality) would fill on some of the gaps, but alas, not really.

I don’t want to sound too negative, really, because on the whole the film is, as I said, well done, and avoids the simple route of veering into pure shock-value territory, which too much of the media “attention” surrounding some of the more admittedly spectacular events associated with this music went in for. I think the film would serve as a great introduction to the music and more specifically the period of the music’s history that it covers to someone previously unfamiliar with it, but I also honestly have to wonder how much interest somebody who’s not already “into” black mental would have in this flick in the first place. They’re largely preaching to the choir here, it stands to reason, and a more thorough and comprehensive overview probably would be more than welcome by most of us, especially since these filmmakers so obviously understand just what the hell it is they’re talking about

For those of us who know the story, though, there’s nothing much new to be found here — but it is nice to see it recounted this stylishly and this well. I was hoping for (though admittedly not expecting) greatness, I admit, but am more than happy to settle for good.

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