Gutterdämmerung‘s white masculine power fantasy
The first feature film from an artist, photographer, and former advert director, with a great rock music score? Well, Highlander became a classic of films so bad they’re wonderful. I was fully prepared to enjoy this rock-n-roll wannabe epic. I did not.
Let’s face it, if Björn Tagemose submitted this film as a dissertation project I would return it for major corrections. Technically adept and often very beautiful, the film wears its pastiche of classic cinema like a military greatcoat of thick grey wool. At times, I wanted to play film school bingo: Zabriskie Point! White Zombie. Disney’s Silly Symphony with skeletons by Ray Harryhausen. Dune! Directors he clearly admires include Béla Tarr, Kenneth Anger, Sam Pekinpah, Jim Jarmusch, Ken Russell, Ladislas Starewicz…. He lifted imagery, scenes and technique wholesale. But let’s be blunt here, what we got, and what no-one asked for, is a white supremacist remake of Bill and Ted, as directed by Ingmar Bergman.
I was expecting a film that lauds the rock gods. I expected a large measure of macho posturing bullshit. I was prepared to be disappointed by a lack of great female rock stars and people of colour. I hoped for non-ironic homoerotic leather wearing. They’re not missing from the real history of rock and roll, but they’re always missing from the narrative white men tell. I was not prepared for racism and the glorification of war in imagery lifted straight from the worst excesses of 1930s Hollywood and German propaganda.
Bluntly, white people need to stop replaying power fantasies about battles a hundred years old that decimated an entire generation, psychologically tortured the survivors, and still didn’t teach the power elite any lessons, as judged by the subsequent 15 years of historically poor decision making. There is a lot of really good metal about just how pointless, evil, and damaging war actually is – some of it is even in the score for this show, dammit!! What the hell did you think Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ is about? (The consistent misuse of the music itself is a whole ‘nother post.) If your film title has Wagnerian overtones, you depict the voice of God in German, and your major protagonist is a blonde girl in a peasant blouse, perhaps you should be less gleeful about your big budget war scene featuring Lemmy (king of Nazi appropriation apologists) captaining a tank, and a white punk with a mohawk machine-gunning gleefully. This scene does nothing to establish who the bad guys are supposed to be.
Now, I love action movies. I watch a lot of men stride purposefully towards danger, or away from explosions, in slow motion. It does look cool. Leather trench coats also look cool, as Blade repeatedly demonstrates. A well brill-creamed side-parting, and a casually dangling cigarette, also raffishly cool. Rocket launchers, yup, ditto. Individually, all these elements should add up to epic. But this is the thing Tagemose forgets; individual elements create a bigger picture. What the hell does it say if you’re slo-mo action hero shot is Josh Homme, dressed like an SS officer, striding through a desolated no man’s land of war damage, carrying a rocket launcher? Who, exactly, was he fighting? Has he a justifiable goal? Are we, the audience, supposed to be on his side? The film is so incoherent it is impossible to tell. And frankly, I don’t think it matters to the director, or most of the audience. Because hell, yup, he looked cool.
Cool, in this film, is pretty much all about power. Tom Araya sets himself on fire, seemingly with the power of his mind. Iggy Pop literally has the ear of God as an angel/demon. Henry Rollins represents the ultimate in white male power – the church. Jesse Hughes seems to be the sheriff in town. Slash and Mark Lanegan communicate a seemingly powerless cool – they control nothing but their own image, but frankly, in a film that’s all surface, that’s all that matters. (Nina Hagen, the only female musician, is silent and disembodied. Literally just a pretty face. Uh HUH.) The exercise of white male power is performed by violence. Often, violence against women – small, young, fragile-looking white women.
When all the above leads to a ‘Mexican’ stand-off in a trench between two white women and Henry Rollins dressed as a priest, I have no idea – are we really supposed to be rooting for Nazis??? Who, exactly, is defending rock music, and why, and from what? And then Grace Jones turns up looking hella pissed, and I thought ‘finally, someone is going to sort this mess into some form of critical commentary…’
I had no idea how much worse it could get.
Jones’s character dooms the aryan chick, who I swear just stepped out from filming The Virgin Spring, to hell. Where the only other people of colour in the film do some oh my god racist ‘tribal’ dance painted like skeletons and then burn her as a witch… Oh YEAH. And who is Grace Jones, who is so over lit as to appear to have been painted off-white, in this role? She is the black woman who represents death – literally, she is death, to an all white cast.
You know what? That’s the only smart thing here. Cos I hope to Goddess that smart women of colour do represent the death of this white macho cult of superficial machismo. You know what I think cool looks like when it faces up to real power and danger? It looks like Black Lives Matter, it looks like gay Russian protesters. It doesn’t look like a wet dream Ernst Röhm had, minus the potentially disruptive queerness. This is a creepy fucking mess that tarnishes the reputation of all involved. I am disappointed in Iggy Pop, the only one I really thought was better than this. Dear Jim, sort your fucking shit out mate.