Until the Light Takes Us
Digital democratization of the means of film production has brought us to the point where every subculture on the planet seems to have generated its own documentary. This summer alone, for example, programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center has included or will include reasonably well-mounted micro-docs about a Seattle school for amateur burlesque dancers (Deirdre Allen Timmons’s A Wink and a Smile), die-hard Star Wars fans (Cristian and Cortney Macht’s The Force Among Us), a coterie of 30-ish Humboldt Park hipsters whose social lives center on kickball (Ben Steger’s Left Field), and the Norwegian black-metal scene, whose leading lights committed two homicides and a rash of church arsons in the 1990s (Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us, premiering Saturday, July 25).
At first blush, this trend appears to be nothing more than a positive development that will further the advance of human knowledge and add to the gaiety of nations. Unfortunately, the majority of these new docs are not distinguished, and even the best (e.g., Left Field) are not a fraction as interesting as they could be. The filmmakers’ own enthusiasm for their subjects is to blame, leaving them unfit to engage audiences not already invested in the subject.
The purest example of this syndrome I’ve seen recently is The Force Among Us, a paean to the pleasures of Star Wars fandom by Chicago siblings Cristian and Cortney Macht. If the geeky subject strikes you as inherently tedious, I refer you to The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon’s enthralling 2007 dissection of power politics among world-class competitive Donkey Kong players. The King of Kong succeeds where The Force Among Us fails because Gordon has an actual story to tell, about the efforts of an outsider and underdog to defeat the legendary reigning champion of the game. The characters and narrative confer a comic dignity on what initially strikes the lay viewer as a ridiculously self-serious subculture, and the dramatic force of the story is proof that virtually any arena of human passion can be fodder for a satisfying doc.
The Force Among Us, on the other hand, has no narrative structure whatsoever. Worse, it was generated from within the subculture it explores and hauls with it the heavy baggage of special pleading. The filmmakers’ agenda, declared at the beginning of the film, is to destroy “the stereotypes that are all too often related to Star Wars fans,” but even on this level, the film is a marked failure. One of the Machts’ strategies to rehabilitate the fans’ nerdy image is to give lots of screen time to an attractive young female fan anomalously posed in front of a glowing fireplace in a low-cut blouse. (On the director’s commentary track, Cristian Macht likens the setup to a scene from Cinemax After Dark.) This gambit backfires, highlighting the way the other interviewees look pretty much like you’d expect. Even less persuasive is the defensive testimony of Professor John Tenuto, an expert in “the sociology of Star Wars” (and of Star Trek, and Superman) at the College of Lake County, whose input suggests that Star Wars fans don’t actually understand the charges against them. Tenuto considers it probative that fans are on average slightly ahead of the general populace in both education and earning power. “They’re out there, they’re earning money,” he says. “So this concept that Star Wars fans have no life is not beared out [sic] when you look at the data.” (Memo to Professor Tenuto: Prejudice against your people may have less to do with what they earn than with how much they’ll spend on a Limited Edition Boba Fett Logo Watch, “never taken out of box.”)
Tenuto also gripes entertainingly about the mass media’s uninformed handling of Star Wars-related issues (“They don’t let non-science experts write science reports”), but flashes of unintended comedy aside, the film is essentially an 86-minute holding pattern of relentless in-group affirmation. And if The Force Among Us is an extreme case, similar formlessness and boosterism afflict all of the films I’ve mentioned to some damaging degree.
Until the Light Takes Us, however, is in a class of its own for wasted cinematic potential. In Norway’s black metal music scene, tyro directors Aites and Ewell have hit upon a rich vein of violence, stupidity, and delusion comparable to those mined by Nick Broomfield in his excellent Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, but they’ve been prevented from capitalizing on it by a daffy, SpongeBobian need to see their subjects in a positive light. Their press kit directors’ statement sums up their unfathomably chipper outlook: “What truly inspired us and inspires us still is that at the core, there is a group of kids who actually thought they could change the world with their underground music scene, and who actually tried to do so.”
One of the young idealists so inspiring to Aites and Ewell is 36-year-old guitarist Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, a seething anti-Semite and self-styled “racialist” recently paroled after serving 16 years for stabbing bandmate Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth to death and burning down four historic churches, including one built in the 12th century. Another is former record-store clerk Bard “Faust” Eithun, who served nine years for the 1992 knife slaying of a gay man. (The murder still yields Eithun big-time cred among fellow black metallers: “When I was told Faust actually killed this fucking faggot I was quite surprised, because I didn’t think he had the guts to do such a thing,” says one. “But I really honor him for that.”)
Aites and Ewell’s capacity to idealize these thugs appears to be informed by a credulous and highly selective response to what passes for political thought among them. Their worldview is a chowder of ideological cliches generously seasoned by standard-issue skull-and-pentagram aesthetics: they invest cosmic importance in musical anticommercialism, fancy themselves inheritors and defenders of pre-Christian paganism, and espouse a vulgar McDonald’s-sucks line of anti-globalization. They sound more like cultural studies majors than shock troops of Odin (“I think it’s to a big extent nauseating to see the beauty of specific cultures being contaminated by the not-so-beautful facets of other cultures”), and this is sufficient to get Aites and Ewell past their cheap, crypto-fascist nihilism and murderous homophobia. Burning the churches, burbles Ewell on the film’s Web site, “was more about a symbolic negation of globalization, because the last big wave of cultural imperialism had been Christianity coming in and raising [sic] the heathen places of worship and erecting churches on top of them. It’s so metaphorical, so symbolic and so doomed to misinterpretation.”
Smarter filmmakers equipped with a sense of humor could have worked up this material into a vigorous hybrid of This Is Spinal Tap and The Weather Underground. Nevertheless, the film, however exasperating and morally obtuse, is still sort of worth seeing for the ugly information that manages to seep through Aites and Ewell’s rose-colored lens. But it’s a waste of pixels compared to what it could have been if the filmmakers had brought more to the table than fandom.