No-one Knows About Persian Cats: showcase of Iranian pop culture and contemporary society

Bahman Ghobadi, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” (2009)

An ingenious film that uses a fiction plot to structure and showcase the Iranian pop music scene and youth culture, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” brims with young energy and zest and combines youthful hope with tragedy born of the repressive authoritarian restrictions in modern Iranian society. Two young musicians, Ashkan and Negar, played by non-actors who really are called Ashkan (Koshanejad) and Negar (Shaghaghi), dream of hiring two other musicians for their band so they can get passports and visas to go to Britain, ostensibly to play at a music festival there; in reality, they need the passports to escape Iran permanently so that they will be free to play the kind of indie bubble pop they specialise in without having to conform to Iranian government requirements. To this end, they must raise the money by organising a gig and they must find other musicians; they are directed by a friend to Nader (Hamed Behdad), a hyperactive, fast-talking impresario, who agrees to organise the passports and visas, and chase various bands, artists and others to perform at the gig. The bulk of the film is devoted to Ashkan, Negar and Nader travelling around Tehran on Nader’s scooter, meeting bands and musicians, and hearing their music. As time goes by, the threesome feel the pressure to get the documents done, the gig line-up ready and the money on hand to pay the shonky passport-makers; Nader disappears for three days so our friends Ashkan and Negar look for him. They find him at a rave party but as Ashkan tries to coax him out, the party is gate-crashed by the police, everyone tries to flee, the cops resort to heavy-handed tactics and tragedy results.

With hand-held cameras, the film uses a mixture of music-video filming and home-movie filming methods for a somewhat amateurish (but not fully improvised) look with some scenes that are very obviously rehearsed and staged. Each act the trio visits represents a different genre of music popular in Iran: folk, jazz rock, r’n’b, Metallica-influenced thrash metal, garage rock, hard rock, hard blues, fusion, indie pop and rave, and while each act plays, the music-video filming methods adopted for each are borrowed from the filming style associated with the act’s genre. So while hiphop artist Rap Khon sings, the camera moves slowly before the singer as he walks towards it, during the rave scene, the camera shutters flicker to simulate the trippy atmosphere of the party. The subject of the songs sung is significant: romance, longing for freedom, modern urban life and its ills, anomie and lack of connection in contemporary Iran are covered; most of the songs though are not sung in full. The most noteworthy performances are those of Rap Khon and the honey-voiced female torch singer Rana Farhan.

Most actors are non-professionals and viewers get an insight into the restrictions the musicians labour under: the guitar-oriented bands talk of having to practise in cow sheds and garages at certain times of the day, else their neighbours will report them to the police. Ever present by their very absence are the authorities who are portrayed by Ghobadi as hovering at the edges, unseen yet ever ready to strike. Ashkan and Negar play their characters straight and are a little dour; Negar almost verges on being a hysterical nagging mother-hen. The person most likely to make the most impression on viewers is the fast-talking Nader who rattles away so quickly he makes even the most stereotyped, fast-talking Hollywood music impresario creation look like a Texas drawler. In a memorable Best-Actor-Oscar scene with an unseen police inspector, Nader prattles at near-Mach speed, lying through his teeth so hard it’s a wonder they don’t break, and collapses into tears so convincingly that the hardened police inspector, who’s obviously seen a lot of hammy Iran’s-Got-Talent performances, takes pity on him and waives the fines and punishments! Near the end though, Nader unexpectedly reveals a more sensitive side to his otherwise sparkling if irresponsible personality.

The climax could almost have come straight out of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel / film “Persepolis” but it’s more likely a coincidence that the party scenes in both Ghobadi and Satrapi’s creations are so similar. For most young Iranians, private parties are a way of discovering new music, making contacts and meeting new people; they are also an expression of dissent in a society where authorities are intrusive enough to dictate what people, men and women, are allowed or not allowed to wear on pain of imprisonment or heavy fines. No wonder the police are so thuggish in chasing and arresting party-goers.

The film does get repetitive but Ghobadi is as interested in showcasing contemporary life for young people and musicians in an underground music scene as in telling his story. A tension arises from the filming techniques used and the mixed documentary / fiction narrative adopted which gives energy and crackle to the film’s subject matter. Viewers may feel Ghobadi is trying to prove to Western audiences that Iranian kids are just as hip as everyone else in the world and there may very well be an element of that striving in Ghobadi’s decision to make the film.

Overall this is worthwhile viewing to get a snapshot glimpse of Iranian youth culture as it was in 2009 and of the broader Iranian society, its challenges and problems for young people there generally.

Modulations, Cinema for the Ear: boring and direction-less survey of electronic dance music genres from 1970s to 1990s

Iara Lee, “Modulations, Cinema for the Ear” (1998)

Billed as a history of electronic music and music technology in the 20th century. “Modulations …” turns out to be a survey of various electronically-based dance music genres from the 1970s to late 1990s as they developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Some of the music might be nice and I did recognise some musicians and music journalists who were interviewed (Genesis P-orridge, Kodwo Eshun who used to write for The Wire music magazine, David Toop, illbient pioneer DJ Spooky, members of the 1970s German psychedelic experimental group Can) but I felt let down and cheated by the documentary’s emphasis on dance and rave music to the exclusion of everything else that happened in popular music and its associated subcultures since the late 1970s. Reliance on interviews with musicians, DJs, fans and journalists and their subjective views on dance music genres such as Detroit techno, house, jungle and their various spin-offs with no over-arching voice-over narration to tie all the different points of view together makes for a fragmented assemblage from which viewers have to piece together the competing genres into a time-line in which the genres exist in parallel on both sides of the North Atlantic pond. There’s no attempt on the film-makers’ part to make sense of the dance music phenomenon and what it says about youth culture and why it arose and became popular when it did. As the film progresses, the lack of an over-arching structure and direction means the documentary risks being boring with the constant parade of talking heads spliced with snippets of live and studio performances, some animation and general film footage.

The documentary begins with Genesis P-orridge talking about how early forms of experimental music were inspired by the cut-up techniques of William S Burroughs (in which bits and pieces of prose are cut out of their original paragraphs or story and spliced together to suggest something new or different). There is a progression from musique concrete, a genre of experimental music developed in France which uses found sound and field recordings as material for creating original music, to Detroit techno (a form of house music that arose in Detroit in the late 1980s) to jungle, a UK genre combining hiphop and elements of techno. The scene then shifts to the US to investigate disco and the rise of house in Chicago in the 1980s, combining disco with electronic influences from the German band Kraftwerk. This calls for another leap back to Europe to investigate genres like gabba (a Dutch form of techno using hyper-fast beats and an aggressive approach) and ambient versions of house.

The film’s attempt to emulate the energy and pace of the genres it covers is understandable but without an unseen narrator to tie the quick edited shots and the interviews together, “Modulations …” will lose viewers quickly. Showing snapshots of interviews rather than large passages from them loses the context necessary to understand statements made by interviewees and some of what they say could be misinterpreted by viewers. Interviewees and the people and scenes they talk about end up coming across as self-centred, hedonistic and uncaring when such may not be the case. If the purpose of much dance electronica is to induce a trance-like state through repetition, speed and over-stimulation / over-saturation of the senses with colour, sound, smell and image, that isn’t to be derided as self-indulgent: people may find their own freedom, liberation or a sense of community and oneness with others that way. The use of drugs like ecstasy is a means to an end, not a self-indulgent activity in itself, though it must be said that precautions such as drinking lots of water while dancing and ingesting ecstasy are necessary and that it’s the illegal status of ecstasy, not the actual drug itself, that could be encouraging organised crime to control its distribution networks and to tamper with its purity.

The really interesting moment comes about the 47th minute when some American house fans and DJ Spooky talk about anomie and passivity in modern Western society, and how many people feel alienated, bored and unengaged with their cultural surroundings. This is an interesting point that the documentary could have taken up to show how modern dance electronica culture can alleviate such feelings and encourage people to feel connected to others. Another interesting moment is a camera shot of Asian women workers, some looking middle-aged, in a factory inspecting synthesisiers and samplers: what do these women think of these instruments, do they know who uses them and how they are used, do they know what music is made with them? What are these women paid for making and inspecting these instruments, and do they feel proud of their work?

Though the film does mention experimental music pioneers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, Genesis P-orridge and Pierre Henry are interviewed and there’s even a very brief shot of Japanese noisician Masami Akita of Merzbow fame playing live, there’s no coverage of any other form of electronic-based music that isn’t dance or rhythm-based: there’s no mention of isolationist music, formal composition or improvised music that uses electronics, industrial, power electronics or noise music. If the film had been packaged and presented as a documentary on the history of dance music and that only, then it has historical value but as it is, it’s a jumbled collection of talking heads and music clips that fails to do much justice to a set of music genres that in their own way try to celebrate individuality, freedom, diversity and tolerance.

Satan Rides the Media: how media sensationalism helped create a legend and a cult

Torstein Grude, “Satan Rides the Media” / “Satan rir media” (1998)

Focussing on the sensational murder of Norwegian black metal musician Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh in Oslo in 1993, the media hysteria that followed Vikernes’s trial in 1996 and the issue of church burnings by black metal followers generally through the 1990s, this documentary raises the question of the interplay between media sensationalism and the tendency of people in the media spotlight to play up to and manipulate news reporters with provocative stories and actions, many of which turn out to be untrue.

Using interviews with black metal musicians, police, journalists and academics, Grude builds up a clear and complex picture of the media cooking up stories about the supposed Satanic outrages of a small underground music scene whose main crimes until Euronymous’s murder were of church arson, how these stories were used by Vikerenes himself to gain sympathy among young people, and how the stories actually hindered police investigations into other crimes suspected of a connection with the black metal scene. Musicians freely admit that they deliberately used shocking images to create spectacle and theatre, to scare people, to release emotion and relieve social pressures on young people in contemporary Norwegian society. Journalists from the Bergen Tidende and other Norwegian newspapers admit to making up and embellishing stories about blood-drinking, sacrifices and Satanic worship when nothing of the kind ever occurred. Academics and police pour scorn on the sensationalist aspects of the black metal subculture which the media fabricated and obsessed over.

What gets lost amid the media hysteria is why black metal blossomed as it did in Norway and nowhere else: what was it about Norwegian society in the 1980s that a group of young people felt alienated and got together to create and play extremely aggressive and violent music that attracted people of like mind and yearning and which also drew in attitudes and behaviours that eventually spiralled out of control? A significant issue is that once Vikernes was arrested for murdering Euronymous, people in the BM scene started to open up to police about crimes committed by others they knew in the scene and provided details that often pointed to Vikernes’s involvement; as though Vikernes’s arrest was a relief and a heavy burden had now been suddenly removed. This might suggest that the level of alienation in Norway among young people in this scene was so great that though they obviously needed guidance from adults, they felt unable to ask for it and the adults did not or could not see that the youngsters were in trouble.

There is also some cursory treatment of black metal’s stand against institutional Christianity: in some of his interviews Varg Vikernes makes very valid points about the forced conversion of the Norse people in Norway to Christianity under Olaf Tryggvason who reigned as King Olav I from 995 to 1000. Olaf Tryggvason used violence, torture and death to terrorise and steamroll his people into accepting Christian beliefs. Temples dedicated to worshipping Odin and his retinue were razed and Christian churches, usually made of wood, were built over their remains; hence, black metallers who resented Christian hypocrisy and Christianity’s history of oppression against non-believers believed they were dealing out justice to an evil force by burning its houses of worship. It’s possible that much of the conformity and the sanctimonious morality of Scandinavian society, disguised as egalitarianism and fair justice for all, can be put down to Christian oppression of individuality and encouraged a passive aggression that found release in black metal.

Vikernes comes across as intelligent but self-serving: he blames his problems and his arrest on others; in court scenes, he plays up to the media and his fanbase. Other musicians say he liked to provoke people and stir up trouble to get attention for himself, his albums and for the black metal scene generally while Euronymous was keen to keep the subculture small and exclusive, the better perhaps to control and direct it. After his imprisonment – he was sentenced to jail for 21 years, the maximum allowed in Norway – Vikernes continued to be a source of unhealthy media speculation which kept linking him to church burnings and murders in other countries. As recently as 2004, a teenager burned down a church in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, Australia, under the supposed influence of Vikernes and his Burzum project and was sentenced to three years working in a youth training centre. The church itself has been replaced by a community park.

That these issues are made very clear is a tribute to the director and his crew who made the film: some of the issues may seem complicated but they are easy to follow and the film’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact. One might expect a lot of black metal music in the background but there isn’t much there at all; I was so absorbed in listening to the issues that emerged from Vikernes’ trial and the accompanying circus that any music that might have been there became completely invisible (or inaudible rather). For most of the film’s running time, Grude lets his interview subjects do the talking and drive the documentary, and there is little voice-over narration. It would be good if Grude had the time and resources to revisit the documentary and find out what has happened to the people involved in the case (especially Vikernes now that he is out of jail and keeping busy recording new albums and spending time with his family on his farm) and perhaps record a follow-up documentary.

The show goes on in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Contrary to my expectations, knowing something of the band’s history, I found the second part of the BBC2 documentary more interesting and involving than the first part. The episode is a more unified piece and is entirely a straightforward account of the band’s years from the “Flash Gordon” album, released in 1980, up to and beyond Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS. As in the first part, the narrative is based entirely on interviews with remaining band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired from music soon after Queen’s break-up in 1992) and other significant people who worked with the band during the 1980s.

The main issues that arise in the documentary include those that plague many bands after they achieve success: a search for a new direction after having reached the top; the drop-off in creativity and originality combined with the struggle to keep pumping out the hits; getting on one another’s nerves after being together so long and wanting to do different things that may not agree with your band-mates. With Mercury finally acknowledging his homosexuality and finding acceptance in the gay community in the early 1980s, Queen starts drifting apart in musical taste and direction at a time when the band most needs to consolidate its reputation in the United States; after a trail of literal hits followed by misses, by 1984 the musicians finally realise they will never conquer middle America, the country too conservative and restricted in culture, taste and humour. By this time having successfully toured Argentina and Brazil and playing to huge crowds in football stadiums, the members console themselves by writing and releasing more material, playing Live Aid and touring eastern Europe. The Live Aid show in 1985 is particularly invigorating and leads to a renewed purpose which doesn’t last long; by the time the band reaches the end of its 1986 tour in Wembley Stadium in London, May and Taylor already have a hunch that Mercury isn’t up to performing at his usual high level of intensity and that he is already unwell.

The other significant issue that arises is the extent to which the band compromises with the political context the members find themselves in, in agreeing to tour Brazil and Argentina, then both ruled by military fascist governments in the early 1980s, and later playing Sun City in one of the bantustans in South Africa in the mid-1980s. Although May and Taylor stoutly defend the decision to play Sun City and the band did donate the concert proceeds to charity, their justification never sounds quite convincing and the two appear to be trying to convince themselves more than their interviewer. Of course their dilemma pales in comparison with, say, the astounding hypocrisy of U2’s decision to relocate their tax base in the Netherlands after Ireland’s taxation law reform in 2006 which would have required the U2 members to pay a higher rate of tax; while minimising your income tax in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, this combined with U2 and in particular Bono’s self-promotion as leaders of charity and other “social justice” causes leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – but in the more “innocent” 1980s, to go to Sun City supposedly to play to mixed-race audiences in a country where racial segregation was a fact of everyday life was a very naive decision for people who had university degrees as Queen did.

The period from 1986 to November 1991 when Mercury died is portrayed as fairly heart-breaking; Mercury’s condition goes from bad to worse and then some. There’s a whiff of manipulation here: in 1988, Mercury managed to fit in a musical collaboration with the Catalan-Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe which is not mentioned in the documentary. Video clips alone demonstrate the ravages of AIDS on Mercury’s looks: despite a defiant blazing-eyed attitude in “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, he is shrunken and gaunt in most filmed appearances. The film filters for Queen’s last video clip are deliberately clouded over to soften Mercury’s heavily made-up features.

The documentary quickly sweeps through Mercury’s death and funeral, and the prurient attention this sparked in the Murdoch tabloid press, and concludes with the 1992 Wembley Stadium send-off that featured several famous singers of the time on a run-through of beloved Queen hits. There’s a quick race through post-Mercury projects including a musical and a collaboration with Paul Rodgers but surprisingly nothing about Queen’s actual impact on their public and on other musicians in particular.

As in the first episode, none of Mercury’s close associates appear to elucidate or defend some of his actions and the behaviour that resulted in his contracting AIDS. The fact that John Deacon doesn’t appear as an interviewee is also a blow as he was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hit-single successes during the 1980s. As a slightly more detached member of the band through much of its history, Deacon is an ideal person to offer a different though still first-hand perspective on his band-mates’ decisions and actions; May and Taylor are simply too close to Mercury as friends to offer a critical view of him though May at least tries.

The episode is better than I thought it would be: the songs that Queen offered in the 1980s aren’t anywhere near as good as what they pumped out in the previous decade but the episode does show that even when a band achieves success, the commercial pressures to maintain that level of achievement increase. It may very well be that such pressures to keep banging out hits sapped the band’s creativity and encouraged Mercury’s self-destructive behaviour. Away from the stage, Mercury was known to be shy and introverted and possibly he found the disconnect between his stage persona and his actual personality to be too much for him to handle.


Just another ordinary rock music documentary in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)” (2011)

To mark the 40th anniversary of a beloved British rock music institution, the BBC made this 2-part series featuring apparently rare interviews and until now unseen archival film material. Part 1 covers the band’s early history from its formation up to the early 1980s and includes the first seven albums. The episode revolves around two of the remaining band members, lead guitarist Brian and drummer Roger Taylor, speaking to an unseen interviewer and reminiscing about significant periods in the band’s career; other people associated with the band, like John Reid who managed Queen for a brief time in the late 1970s and producer Roy Thomas Baker are also interviewed. Band recordings relevant to the passages that proceed chronologically enliven what is a basically straightforward retelling of Queen’s 1970s history which is further spiced with music video clips and a bit of old late 1970s social background context when punk and new wave erupted in the UK and for a while made Queen look dangerously antiquated.

In its first half-hour the film whooshes through the band’s timeline with an emphasis on how particular songs were put together and recorded in the studio. The second half-hour relaxes into an amble through a number of issues that affected Queen’s career throughout the decade such as the tension between preserving musical integrity and the drive for commercial success, creativity under pressure and production expenses, the hostility of the music press, the ownership of songs and the naivety of American audiences confronted by the band’s deliberate artifice and camp image. Parts of this section aren’t always interesting and feature trivia that don’t add much to viewers’ understanding of why the band formed, why the members were so hungry for success and recognition and the song-writing and recording process. Not much really has to be done by the film crew save for ensuring that the images have a structure most viewers can follow: to some extent the music itself reflects and suggests progress and change, and the band’s upward career trajectory in the 1970s and early 1980s conveniently fills out part of the episode in an entertaining way.

Ultimately the episode isn’t very in-depth and merely falls into the kind of conventional rock music documentary territory that dutifully recounts the peaks and troughs of the band’s career. I for one would really like to know what drove singer Freddie Mercury into wanting to be not just another rock or pop singer but a legend, how he developed his singing style and stage act, and what people or styles of music influenced him when he was young. The fact that Mercury was of Parsi Indian ancestry and grew up in an environment heavily influenced by British colonial culture, Zoroastrian culture and others against a multicultural background in India and the-then Tanganyika and Zanzibar territories must have had considerable effect on his vocal style, visual presentation and song-writing approach but the film says nothing about this. The film omits interviews with significant people in Mercury’s life including his girlfriend Mary Austin and family members who might have shed some interesting or revealing light on his motivations and character. Also early music influences on the band overall – influences that would have included 1960s psychedelic rock, early 1970s progressive rock and early heavy metal among others- aren’t covered much.

Shame that an opportunity to look at Queen’s career in a way different from how most rock music documentaries are done was wasted. This particular number will soon join the ranks of other ho-hum TV biographies and be forgotten by most people apart from Queen fans.

Black Metal Satanica: not very Satanic and not very informative

Mats Lundberg, “Black Metal Satanica” (2008)

This documentary promised initially to be a fairly in-depth investigation of the Scandinavian black metal music scene and its agenda and for the first half hour “Black Metal Satanica” did entertain with a pleasing mix of band interviews, music and historical archive material. Over the rest of its 80-minute course though the film deteriorated into an unfocussed parade of interviews which suggests director Lundberg lost control of the project and let the musicians he interviewed take over. I was quite disappointed at how the film turned out as the mostly Swedish interviewees were well-spoken, polite and thoughtful, and offered interesting insights into the general tenor of the scene and their own motivations for joining it; they gave the impression of being able to answer almost any challenging and provocative questions Lundberg could have put to them. The film also offers snapshots of very interesting and often expressionistic black metal film clips and energetic concert footage. The mostly black metal music soundtrack which also features a little ambient music and even some Christian church choral music in parts runs throughout the film and gives it an energetic and aggressive ambience though it is never intrusive.

The most interesting section of the film is its examination of black metal’s opposition to Christianity and how this derives from the history of Christian proselytisation in Scandinavia at the tail-end of the Viking period: in many parts of Norway and Sweden, communities were forced to accept Christianity and baptism under threat of invasion. The film omits to add that temples dedicated to Odin worship were razed and churches built in their stead which would have explained the church burnings that mentioned later on. A link is made between Scandinavia’s Viking history and culture on the one hand and black metal on the other in a superficial way: the interviewees talk about self-respect and resisting the Christian influence on current society but there is little about the appeal of Viking values such as individualism, curiosity, an adventurous spirit which drove the Vikings to explore and colonise Iceland, Greenland and parts of North America, self-reliance and a desire to beat the elements, transcend death and be remembered for heroic exploits.

After this stirring episode, the film investigates early inspirations like the northern European physical environment and climate, and bands like Bathory, Mayhem and Burzum on black metal generally (no mention of Darkthrone and Emperor?) and delves into various black metal recreations such as grave desecrations, murdering homosexual men, church burnings, studying Anton Szandor LaVey’s Satanic Bible, self-mutilation and apocalyptic fantasies. Distinguishing between Norwegian and Swedish BM is non-existent; the credits that introduce each interviewee/s at least could have indicated which country they were from and Lundberg could have asked some Swedish subjects about when and how BM became popular in Sweden. I begin to wonder whether Lundberg is becoming enthralled or overwhelmed by the style of BM rather than its substance. There is plenty substantial that is suggested by the interviewees and the activities covered here which is not covered in much depth: black metal’s emphasis on pseudo-Nietzschean elitism, freedom of expression and individuality, and closeness to and concern for nature which lead to a love of land, nationalism and Romanticism (and National Socialist beliefs) which in their turn feed a hatred of humanity, pessimism about the future of the planet and ultimately a desire for an apocalypse or a series of disaster events that will sweep humans away into the dustbin of history and cleanse the Earth.

(I always smile wryly whenever I hear or see people say that a concern for the environment indicates a left-wing / socialist point of view with a concern for social justice: I only have to think of what I learned at high school and read in books and on the Internet since to remember that the one time when a bunch of nature-worshippers and environmentalists plus others among them took over an entire government by themselves was in Germany from 1933 to mid-1945. Even today, First World environmentalists frequently advocate one position or policy after another in various Third World countries without considering the impact their ideas might have on the people who would have to live with the fallout as well as the intended results: not a good look, I’m afraid.)

Past the halfway point, the narrator with the irritating American accent drops out and the film becomes a series of the same talking heads covering familiar ground. At one point the topic of Christian black metal (a mostly American sub-genre phenomenon in which BM elements are in the employ of a robust take-no-prisoners Christianity that shoots first before proffering the other cheek) is broached to the interviewees who express surprise and disbelief and for a brief moment the film shows some sparkle. When the closing credits arrive, I realise I didn’t learn much from “Black Metal Satanica” that I wasn’t already aware of and that there is plenty more Lundberg and his guests could have spoken about. Why does black metal have an elitist point of view rather than an inclusive democratic one? How much influence does Nietzschean philosophy have on the music and the sub-culture that surrounds it? Is that influence a superficial one or are black metal followers aware that to be an Übermensch, one must not only continually test oneself against insuperable odds but welcome such tests joyfully?

Black Metal Satanica? – not very much so as it turns out: the film serves best as an introduction for viewers not familiar with BM who moreover will have to do some extra homework on the BM agenda if they want to understand it fully.

Once upon a time in Norway: film misses a lesson about social conformism

Pål Aasdal, Martin Ledang “Once upon a time in Norway” (2007)

This one-hour film is a straightforward blow-by-blow chronological account of the early career of Mayhem, one of the pioneer bands of Norwegian black metal which since the late 1980s has exploded across the world and become Norway’s most significant cultural export and contribution to international youth music and culture. Mayhem itself continues on an on/off basis with bassist Necrobutcher and drummer Hellhammer at the helm since 1995. The documentary concentrates on the band’s history from its 1984 founding by guitarist Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous and Necrobutcher through its revolving-door personnel up to and just a little beyond Euronymous’s murder by Varg Vikernes in 1993. The film is good and very informative but I feel it could have lightened up on the information and gone for a more general overview of Mayhem’s history and the birth of black metal.

The film’s structure is dominated by interviews with various members and ex-members of Mayhem including Necrobutcher himself, Kjetil Manheim and Billy Nordheim, and various friends and associates including Darkthrone guitarist Nocturno Culto, musician Anders Odden and ex-Emperor man Tchort. Almost immediately the major focus of the interviews is Euronymous, in particular his attempt to dominate and control the music’s development and direction, and his eccentric character and bizarre sense of humour: these factors led directly or indirectly to his death. There is some discussion of Mayhem’s musical and philosophical inspirations and of the band members’ desire to create fast, aggressive and extreme music with the intent to shock. The musicians admit to flirting with Satanic beliefs, Nietzschean philosophy in a rather superficial way, nihilism and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy: anything that legitimised and support their desire to shock and rebel against perceived traditional authorities in Norwegian society. There is little investigation in the film of the philosophical underpinnings of black metal apart from the musicians’ own observations otherwise.

As the film progresses, slowly but surely – there is a lot of talk and the detail about what Euronymous got up to, his political beliefs and his attempt to run a record shop and label is immense – viewers get an inexorable sense of progress towards the moment when Euronymous is killed so when the murder does happen, it comes as an emotionless, matter-of-fact anti-climax. Perhaps the film-makers’ approach to making the documentary is just too calm and measured for the subject matter. Even the discussion of various church burnings that took place around Norway, including the destruction of the historic Fantoft stave church (it was rebuilt by 1997), in the early 1990s by fanatical black metal fans and hangers-on appears relatively unemotional, at least to my Australian senses. Norwegians are such cool, calm and collected characters!

As would be expected, excerpts of early Mayhem songs are played here and there though in my opinion there is just not enough music to carry the film. The overall tone can be very dry, even intellectual. The passage dealing with Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, his psychological problems (he was possibly borderline schizophrenic), a near-death experience as a child and his gunshot suicide comes across as very clinical. With a film like this, there needs to be a fair amount of music throughout the proceedings to convey a sense of urgency and passion; to help viewers understand the power of black metal and how it inspired a small group of socially alienated individuals; and ultimately to inspire viewers themselves to find out more about the early Norwegian black metal scene and check out classic works like Mayhem’s first album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” and Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”.

Maybe the documentary could have concentrated less on the details of Mayhem’s history and a little more on issues such as the cultural policing of the extent and boundaries of black metal vis-a-vis death metal and other forms of heavy metal, an obsession beloved of heavy metal magazines and websites; the rivalry between Norwegian black metal bands and Swedish death metal bands which reflects past historical resentments; when talking about doing something itself becomes dangerous if it inspires others to carry out the act spoken of; and burning churches as a way of gaining acceptance into a social network and later gaining power over it.  There’s an interesting diversion when interviewees talk about why Euronymous took photographs of Dead’s death scene: was Euronymous really that twisted or did he take the photos as a way of “proving” to himself and to others that Dead really was dead? Many people find accepting a piece of news difficult until they have seen it for themselves on the TV news or in the newspapers.

The narrow focus of the documentary also means an elephant in the room is completely missed: just what social conditions prevailed in Norway in the 1980s that a group of young men, well brought up, highly intelligent and very likeable, should feel alienated from society enough that they find relief in playing extreme music and through that end up involved in extreme behaviours such as beating up homosexuals and elderly people, burning churches and killing people? People outside Scandinavia imagine the region as a social democratic welfare-state utopia where everyone is equal and laws provide for equal and easy access to necessary resources. Crime rates are low and social problems are dealt with promptly and efficiently by government agencies. At the same time the egalitarian values of Scandinavian societies, laudable though they are, may mask a suffocating, mean-spirited conformism known as the Jante Law in Scandinavia and the Tall Poppy syndrome in Anglophone countries. This is an unwritten set of conventions which restrict, criticise or even punish individual achievement and elevate the collective above the individual. Could it be then that the Jante Law restricted young people then and restricts young people now from finding their place in Norwegian society as is? Does Norwegian society (or any other advanced Western society for that matter) provide adequate creative outlets for youth so that when they do things that threaten to get out of control, there is an agency or a code of etiquette or conventions that can provide them with advice and guidance so they can rein in their impulses themselves? A lesson that could be learned from this documentary is missed.

Zoetrope: Kafka short story inspires a film about how science, industry, bureaucracy and politics oppress a victim

Charlie Deaux, “Zoetrope” (1999)

Based on my favourite Franz Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony”, this is a stunning-looking short piece about a man’s last hours in prison. The title refers to a toy that first appears out of smoke and which could actually be the spaceship in which the plot proceeds; after the first few minutes in which we are introduced to the unnamed protagonist (Michael Bradley), we catch glimpses of the zoetrope’s monstrous outlines popping in and out of the rest of the short. Our man is held in a prison for reasons unknown; we learn he has suffered incarceration for a long time, is clearly deranged as a result and continues to suffer humiliation and torture from his jailers of whom the main one (Nigel Bonfield) taunts him with portentous mumbo-jumbo philosophy. The chief jailer counts down slowly to the prisoner’s final punishment: the question is whether the prisoner will willingly submit to his torturers or try to escape once and for all.

The acting ranges from minimal to slightly campy as Bradley either paces his cell madly and desperately or freezes in periodic cataleptic trances and as Bonfield prowls his stage around a tattooing machine, all the while purring his threats. The film’s technical chops are its highlight: filmed in sharp B&W film-stock, it has a definite steampunk style with images of a watch’s internal operations regularly flashing up on screen. Live action and animation are blended together to give a strong sense of the victim’s desperation and fear. Editing ranges from slow to super-fast and in-between these extremes; after the halfway point, the editing becomes frenetic and lovely if minimal images flash up and down repeatedly while your mind struggles to register their presence. Hundreds of clear objects zip past your eyes until your orbs hurt but unfortunately blinking is no option, else you’ll miss a lot of very beautiful and poetic imagery.

The film’s look is crisp and the art direction and cinematography are done well. Although the victim is naked, his nudity is shown tastefully with judicious use of contrasting light and shadow. The haunting and sparse atmospheric industrial-style music, created by Brian Williams of the British one-man dark ambient band Lustmord, suits the film’s oppressive style and theme perfectly.

It’s clear that science, politics, red tape and industry have combined to destroy Bradley’s man with no pangs of conscience; that’s ultimately its horrible premise. Bradley is left with no chance of escape from a ground-level Hell. Once the shocking climax has spent itself, Bonfield turns his attention onto another prospective death-row victim. Perhaps this is the real horror of “Zoetrope”: the prisoner’s dilemma turns out to be one of many such tortures Bonfield’s jailer visits on various similar victims as he chooses. What kind of monstrous society could have given birth to such an institution in which prisoners on death row for no good reason are selected at random to be tortured and driven relentlessly to madness and existential pain before dying?

As for the “In the Penal Colony” inspiration, it’s used very sparingly though chillingly. I must admit to not feeling altogether happy about the way it was used; I did feel “Zoetrope”, good as it is, could have been even better if it had drawn on more of the themes of the original short story and its perverted black humour. I am surprised not many film-makers have taken up this short story as an inspiration for a film. As of this time of writing I had heard that a young Iranian director Narges Kalhor, the daughter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political advisor, had made a film based on the story and I am keen to see it if and when it becomes available.

A portrait of cultural fascism through one individual’s exploitation in “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story”

Todd Haynes, “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)

Using Barbie and Ken dolls to play the main characters in miniature sets specially made for this film might seem a pretty perverse way of paying homage to a beloved singer but the ploy turns out to be the master-stroke in Haynes’s loose retelling of Karen Carpenter, singer / drummer of 1970s melodic pop duo the Carpenters. The film is more than a reverent tribute to the singer: it also sneaks in a documentary on the exploitation of women and their bodies to sell a particular product or message and how the music industry co-opts artists into creating a world of bland, unseeing innocence to mask and blot out political reality and dirty tricks. Anorexia nervosa, the disease that killed Karen Carpenter (hereafter referred to as KC), is briefly revealed as a cultural phenomenon in which the physical human body becomes a battleground of control between its owner and those attempting to control the owner herself. The use of dolls to play KC, her family members and other support characters becomes a logical part of the film’s narrative: as KC’s body and talents were used by others to project their ambitions and desires through, so children’s dolls like Barbie become projections for mostly adult fantasies and desires and attempts to teach and direct children into socially appropriate play activities. In contemporary Western culture, the Barbie doll’s body has also become a site for speculation by experts in various fields ranging from health to advertising to child-rearing, often in the context as talking-heads yapping to journalists employed in the commercial media. It becomes impossible to treat Barbie as just another plastic toy.

Haynes picks particular episodes in KC’s life to illustrate the hold that anorexia nervosa had over her; he’s not particular about the exact dates when she commenced her performing career and the onset of the disease. There is in fact no chronology: the narrative plays as one flashback drama and the general direction is straightforward and concentrates almost entirely on KC’s condition. A quick look at her Wikipedia entry shows she began dieting not long after starting to play music seriously in her mid-teens but the two may not be necessarily connected. The characters in the film are very exaggerated and one-sided for effect: KC’s parents are portrayed as ambitious and controlling and Richard as obsessed with fame and sucess, abusive and violent. The film suggests that Richard might be gay but does not mention he was addicted to Quaaludes which originally were prescribed for sleeping problems. The agent at the record label that signs up the duo is Mephistophelean-creepy as he extends his hand (rendered almost claw-like) to KC to clinch the deal.

KC herself tends to be a helpless victim of other people’s manoeuvrings and any resistance on her part is answered by disturbing scenes of spanking. As KC wastes away, the doll takes on a more withered look with abraded plastic skin and her arms and legs erode and drop away.

The film has a home-made, almost shambolic look: captions bleed into images and there are many shots of black-and-white Vietnam War newsreel interspersed into the narrative to ground the biography into its historical context and make clear the suggestion that bands like the Carpenters were part of a culture propaganda offensive on the part of the music industry to inoculate the US public against the country’s extreme violence overseas. The Carpenters’ music including their most popular hits is played throughout the film (Haynes did not get copyright permission to include any music and I doubt he would have got it anyway, given the film’s subject matter) and the soundtrack becomes an ironic counterpoint and comment on parts of the narrative and the film’s agenda: it adds pathos to the pain that KC might have felt while singing the songs. One thing not mentioned in the film which Haynes could have emphasised is KC’s drumming skills; she was regarded by many musicians as a very talented percussionist but this regard didn’t translate into mainstream recognition and offers of work.

There are some live-action passages but they are restricted to actual film clips of the Carpenters and other light pop performers of the 1970s and interviews of women who talk about the influence (or not) of the Carpenters on their lives. It might have been interesting for Haynes to have taken a brief detour and surveyed what happened to some of these singers and musicians as of 1987. Did they manage to survive the 1970s and continue into the next decade with sanity and health intact? Were they still shilling for the corporate music industry or had they all been swept away by new music trends like punk, new wave, ska, reggae and industrial?

The film makes no claim to be balanced or unbiased: it is sympathetic to KC’s plight but is also a screed against the exploitation of women, their bodies and talent for profit and corporate propaganda purposes. Perhaps it could have gone deeper into the influence of the corporate music industry and media generally on popular culture and how corporate values shape thinking and the direction of cultural values but the film looks very low-budget and so is restricted in what it can cover.

The Runaways: Cherie Bomb turns out to be a fizzler

This homage to the 1970s all-female hard rock band The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, Apparition / Sony Pictures Entertainment 2010) had a lot of advance publicity due in part to the casting of US child stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as two of the band’s members, lead singer Cherie Currie and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett respectively. Internet and print reviews of the movie ranged from high praise to extreme dismissiveness so I was curious to see what the fuss was about. My interest isn’t entirely academic as I had heard of The Runaways in my childhood way back when thirty years ago and later on was glad to hear that Joan Jett and another former member, lead guitarist Lita Ford, had carved out their own successful solo careers in different music genres.

Anyway as it turns out, some of the praise and some of the criticism are justified: the acting from the two female leads Fanning and Stewart and from Michael Shannon who plays the sleazebucket manager Kim Fowley is good with Stewart all but disappearing in Jett with Jett’s swagger, mannerisms and way of speaking; but the narrative and concept of the movie are very confused and don’t seem to be well thought or worked out at all. Liberties must have been taken with the movie’s narrative as though to force it into the Hollywood rock’n’roll plot stereotype of an innocent stumbling into becoming a rock star and being seduced by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, suffering its consequences, crashing out and finding rebirth and redemption in something very different. (The plot of the movie Rockstar which starred Mark Wahlberg as a fictional pretender who becomes the lead singer of the heavy metal band he idolises is of this type.) I can understand the film’s focus on Currie and Jett to the extent that the other band members become mere walking wallpaper as it is mostly based on Currie’s autobiography Neon Angels: A Memoir of a Runaway and the film-makers didn’t get full permission from other former Runaways members to include their accounts – the bass player in the movie is a fictional construct of several bassists who played for the band – but I’d have thought that The Runaways’ history, short as it was, would have had enough drama and tragedy for a movie that could have said something significant about the period when music moved from glam rock to punk and new wave, and about how the music industry and the media at the time exploited bands and musicians for celebrity and scandal, sometimes damaging the artists along the way, and whether much has changed in the commercial music industry since that time.

If you know nothing about The Runaways’ history, you’d do better reading Currie’s autobiography or seeing Edgeplay: A Film about The Runaways, the documentary by Victory Tischler-Blue who was one of many bassists the band chewed through during its existence, than to rely on the movie: it’s a little slow on getting Jett and drummer Sandy West together, then the history lesson picks up whiz-bang speed after Currie joins and all of a sudden the band is touring Japan. Somewhere in between Currie’s audition and the girls’ adventures in Japan, they had to squeeze in a tour of the United States, a tour of the UK and recording two albums and all this must have flashed by me in the time my eyes blinked. After Currie quits the band during recording sessions for the third album, all further mention of The Runaways disappears and it’s now just Currie and Jett without her band going their separate ways. Jett cleans up her life and finds her niche in music while Currie ends up a bored shop assistant waiting for an acting break. Some redemption.

Perhaps if the movie had focussed more on Jett as the primary character than on Currie, we might have had a stronger and more complete story of The Runaways’ rise and fall. As it is, the movie tells us nothing about Jett’s  background and her motivations and reasons for forming an all-girl band; we only know from Stewart’s portrayal that she hungers for acceptance but on her own terms and that she is driven by forces she may not understand. The role could easily have been one-dimensional with Jett nothing more than a tough-talking wannabe rocker so it’s to Stewart’s credit that she makes Jett at least look as if she has thoughts and feelings she has trouble expressing. As Jett in real life stayed with The Runaways to the end, having Jett as its main focus would push the movie through the band’s dumping of manager Fowley and the disputes over musical direction that eventually led to The Runaways’ break-up; but I guess all these incidents wouldn’t have made for “compelling” viewing. At least though we would have had a “happy” ending with Jett getting the acceptance she craves in the way she wants and can control. Fanning as Currie emphasises the singer’s fragility but not much of the sassy sex-kitten insolence Currie must have had to wear the corset and suspenders that became her trademark stage costume long before Madonna and her ilk had the idea of wearing their underwear as overwear.

Mention should be made of the minor actors Scout Taylor Compton who does a competent job as Lita Ford in her few scenes – what she does hardly flatters Ford but she makes her presence felt as a guitarist and a forceful personality – and first-time actress Riley Keough who as Cherie Currie’s sister must cope with their parents’ break-up and divorce, their father’s alcoholic depression and the tedium of working in a fast-food joint while envying Cherie’s seemingly good fortune. Keough underplays her role and holds up well in scenes that are heavy in sibling jealousy and emotional tension and turmoil; she has good
potential as an actress if she chooses her roles wisely and I wish her better luck in this regard than what her grandfather Elvis Presley had as an actor.

As for the music, there’s not much of The Runaways’ original material featured here with only ‘Cherry Bomb’ performed in full by the actors during the Japanese episode and snippets of ‘Queens of Noise’ and ‘I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are’ appearing elsewhere. Other musicians of the period (Suzy Quatro, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop among others) can be heard which strikes me as a little strange: why do so many biopics about bands feature everybody else’s music but not much music of the band that is the subject of the biopic?

The Runaways might not have been a very good band or as influential on later generations of female musicians and performers as the hype surrounding the movie makes them out to be but they deserve a better movie treatment than what director and screenplay writer Floria Sigismondi has given them here. Admittedly this is Sigismondi’s first effort as a movie director and writer after having directed music videos so I presume she’s learning a lot in leaps and bounds the hard way: making mistakes, overlooking things and being told so endlessly by critics. The visual aspect is good with the choice of a grainy film that makes bright colours slightly acid and dark colours murky and through these effects you get some idea of the surreal world Fowley plunges the girls into. These days it seems that there are so many people moving from making music videos into directing movies that such a career move is becoming the standard way of getting into the movie-making business. Unfortunately a lot of the filming techniques and methods that work in music videos don’t always work quite so well in movies, especially in movies made for mass  entertainment: these still need a strong narrative and memorable characters.