Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The sublime to the ridiculous

(A post title I've used at least once before, but hey it's appropriate and I'm all for recycling.)

Where better to be on a sweltering July evening than in the smaller of Chapter's two auditoriums (auditoria?)? Well, plenty of places - but then again they weren't showing a couple of films I was keen to see before their short run came to an end.

First up was 'Offside', Jafar Panahi's award-winning film about a group of fanatical female football fans in Iran.

It's the day of the Iran v Bahrain match, crucial to the home nation's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup, and the women, banned from attending the game because of the coarse male language and behaviour they might witness, are forced to disguise themselves as boys in order to try and sneak in. Those who are detected are detained by soldiers, but do all they can to keep abreast of what is going on in the game, at one point enlisting the assistance of one soldier as a commentator (unsurprisingly he does a better a job than Clive Tyldesley).

The women's fanaticism and enthusiasm can't be stifled by the soldiers, who find those they are guarding more than a handful. They are frustrated by their inability to defend or explain the senseless and seemingly arbitrary rules and orders they have to carry out, and in the vague but incessant mantra-like allusions to "the chief" and their "responsibilities" there are echoes of the faceless and inscrutable justice system of Kafka's 'The Trial'.

It soon becomes clear that neither the women nor the soldiers want to be there. One of the latter bemoans the fact that he should be on leave helping out on the family farm (and is thus being prevented from doing something he is passionate about too), and later, in a simple yet symbolic movement, steps inside the metal barriers to join the women in their holding pen.

The film comes to a climax with a marvellous scene in a minibus as the women are taken to the Vice Squad, listening to the radio intently as the game draws to a triumphant close. Raucous celebrations break out, and amidst the chaos the soldiers are dragged from the minibus to dance and the women escape into the joyous hordes.

I couldn't help feeling that the buoyant positivity of the conclusion detracts from the political message (after all, when the next qualifying campaign comes round, will Iranian women be able to attend their nation's home games?), but in purely dramatic terms it was a fitting end to a warm-hearted, touching and often very funny film.

So that was the sublime - then for the ridiculous.

'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey' is a documentary - or rockumentary, if you will - about that much maligned of musical genres, heavy metal. The film follows Sam Dunn, a 30-year-old anthropologist and fervent metal fan, as he traces the genre's roots and sketches the culture associated with it, before reflecting on some of the more contentious issues for which it is often (he feels) wrongly stereotyped: gender, Satanism, death and violence.

Dunn doesn't actually come across particularly well - a bit of meathead fanboy who says things like "Fuckin' awesome!" a lot and comes very close to dropping to his knees and shouting "I'M NOT WORTHY!" when interviewing the likes of Bruce Dickinson. In fact, it's left to some of Dunn's many interviewees to make the most interesting points and offer the most insightful commentary - particularly Twisted Sister's Dee Snider and Rob Zombie (but very definitely not Slipknot's Corey Taylor and Mayhem's Necrobutcher, who finds it difficult to say anything other than "FUCK YOU!").

What more might I have hoped for, other than a more stomachable person to navigate me through and rather fewer sociologists stating the pretty bleedin' obvious?

Well, there is certainly scope for expanding the section on gender / sexuality. Understandable perhaps, given that Dunn is hardly neutral, but the tone is very defensive. Snider (and others) touch on the homoeroticism of what is in many ways an extraordinarily masculine genre, but the point isn't really taken anywhere. It's true that it's not so much a boys' club any more, but the issue of sexism is pretty much swept under the carpet. And getting Lemmy to speak up in defence of Girlschool on that score is a brave move indeed.

If Dunn is an unashamed apologist in that respect, he is markedly less comfortable when confronting Norwegian black metallers about their Satanism and the early 90s church burnings which some carried out (Burzum's Varg Vikernes, who later murdered his bandmate) and others fully supported. And still do - Gaahl of Gorgoroth mutters his wholehearted agreement with a barb about Semites. What's disappointing is that, even though taken aback, Dunn allows this comment to slip by unchallenged (in the film at least), explaining it away as being related to the specific cultural situation in Norway, and thus allowing the opportunity to probe the political ideology behind black metal (Nietzschean Neo-Nazism, basically) which is much more sinister than their cartoonish Satanic allegiances.

But Dunn also largely avoids dwelling upon those cartoonish dimensions of metal (presumably out of fondness and defensiveness again). Gaahl, for instance, is interviewed in near complete darkness, and replies to Dunn's first two questions with one word answers only after taking deliberately slow draughts from an enormous glass of red wine. It's left to Alice Cooper and Bruce Dickinson to acknowledge the absurdity of it all. And to a large extent, THAT's why metal has been so ridiculed - because it's so ridiculous. It's that simple, I'm afraid (and I write as someone who still considers himself something of a metal fan).

'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey' is an entertaining if shallow overview of the genre, though how many non-metalheads it's likely to convince I'm not sure. Personally, I've been convinced that I should hear some more Blue Cheer - the snippet in the film sounds like Kyuss playing The Kinks, and I'm guessing they're favourites of Dead Meadow too...

The last word has to go Black Sabbath's Tommy Iommi describing Aston, the place in Birmingham where he grew up - and where we pretty much lived until January: "A shithole, basically"...

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