Global Metal

York University anthropologist Sam Dunn has found a communication strategy to reach a broader audience than many academics and scholars.  Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) combined Dunn’s fandom of heavy metal music, a taxonomy of subgenres, interviews with influential musicians and a field trip to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.  Dunn’s follow-up documentary Global Metal (2008) travels from Wacken to three BRIC members (Brazil, India and China), China, Israel, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Global Metal has rich insights on the coevolution of nation-states in the world system, the challenges of market design, indigenous and hybrid responses to globalisation, and new voices on old debates in heavy metal subcultures.

Anthropologists need an entry point into a new culture.  Dunn achieves this by interviewing Max Cavalera the cofounder of Brazil’s Sepultura and frontman for Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.  Cavalera explains that Sepultura emerged in the mid-1980s as Brazil evolved from a military dictatorship to a neoliberal market society.  For many heavy metal fans Sepultura’s album Roots (1996) was their first encounter with an indigenous worldview as the band included field recordings with the Xavante Indians and Brazilian percussion.  Dunn’s interview with Cavalera uses Roots to tacitly bring the anthropological models and theories of Clifford Geertz, David Horowitz, Stanley Tambiah and others to fans who are unfamiliar with these influential scholars.  In contrast to this immersive approach Global Metal ends with a more familiar event: Iron Maiden‘s concert on 1st February 2008 the first time that a major Western heavy metal band has played Mumbia, India.

A second entry point for fans is when Dunn revisits past controversies and debates in heavy metal media to include new voices and perspectives.  Does Slayer‘s song ‘Angel of Death’ about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele promote Holocaust denial and racism?  Dunn turns to the Israeli band Orphaned Land who note that although the song was written for shock value it has been used by politicians to inform Israeli youth about the Holocaust.  Orphaned Land then talk about Jerusalem as a global city and the past religious conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Far scarier than Middle Ages imagery and occult demons is Orphaned Land’s reality of having to live daily with potential suicide bombers in crowded urban areas.

Dunn returns to this debate throughout Global Metal to show how different individuals and groups reinterpret a meme or symbol and how this can have unforseeable outcomes.  Orphaned Land recount how after playing ‘Angel of Death’ live for Israeli audiences they were sent a mail bomb by Varg Vikernes a notorious Norwegian black metal musician and Holocaust denier.  Iranian fans who are photographed next to Slayer graffiti face possible arrest and torture by religious police – which provokes Slayer’s frontman Tom Araya to comment that the fans seek a death sentence.

More disturbingly, Dunn interviews the Indonesian band Tengkorak whose song ‘Jihad Soldiers’ embraces a militant Islamist worldview.  When Tengorak’s lead singer quotes conspiracy theories from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Dunn observes his jacket has a crossed out Nazi swastika.  “We’re not against Jews,” the singer explains, “just the Jewish system.”  Dunn then visits a Muslim mosque with another Indonesian musician.  Tengorak’s context is the 1997 Asian currency crisis which sparked a wave of conspiracy theories within Indonesia due to macroeconomic destabilisation.

Many of the interviewees give examples of how heavy metal music is reinterpreted differently to Western narratives.  Japanese fans reject Western alienation as an existential motivation and instead create a more emotional and direct identity that is an alternative to their conformist work identity.  KISS had an immediate impact in Japan as the band’s makeup is comparable to Kabuki theatre.  The live improvisation which closed Deep Purple‘s first concert at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1972 has sparked a subculture of ageing salarymen who reform their teenage bands to play ‘Highway Star’.  Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman explains how X-Japan and Death Panda have fused heavy metal with Japanese game shows like Rock Fujiyama and pop music to create rifts within and between subcultures.  In China heavy metal music is used as part of a Confucian state policy to give youth an outlet for aggression, even though the music is officially frowned upon.  Whilst visiting Mumbai, Dunn intercuts scenes of Indian bands playing a local bar with the Hindu wedding playing Bollywood music next door: two alternative cultures coexist.

The heavy metal subcultures that Dunn visits serve as barometers for nation-state development; freedom for religious and political views; and in a nod to Ulrich Beck, P.R. Sarkar and Amy Chua, the relationship of subcultural groups to mainstream society and sociopolitical power.  Japan has a Janus-faced subculture which has Western and indigenous elements.  India and the United Arab Emirates’ subcultures are at an infancy stage which Dunn links explicitly to democratic political institutions and modernisation: UAE hosts a festival with bands and fans who cannot perform in their home countries due to restrictions.  China, Iran and Turkey have subcultures that are underground due to religious authorities who perceive them as antinomian youth subcultures.  Beck’s concept of subpolitics from below and Sarkar’s Law of the Social Cycle provide theoretical insights here: if the fans are shudra (workers) they have coopted insights from vaeshya (entrepreneurs, merchants) and vipra (intellectuals) to create soft power which counteracts the influence of ksatriya (military).

Brazil and Indonesia are two test cases of this hypothesis.  Cavalera’s narrative of Brazil’s transition to democracy st
ands in contrast to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which warned of the gap between rapid sociopolitical change and lagging political institutions.  Instead, Cavalera argues that Sepultura’s music signified a subpolitics response by the shudra underclass to poverty and the lack of macroeconomic and sociopolitical reforms by social elites.  The flashpoint is Metallica’s concert on 11th April 1993 at Lebak Bulus Stadiam in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich explains that in order to protect a middle class area Indonesian police prevent fans from entering the stadium.  Fans retaliate by setting fire to the surrounding buildings; the smoke is visible on a bootleg concert tape.  Indonesian authorites then banned all heavy metal bands and live tours until the Suharto regime ended in 1998.  Indonesia’s heavy metal subculture have since gained greater visibility although Tengorak gives voice to subcultural fears of Western geoeconomic, cultural and religious domination.

The consensus of most fans in Global Metal is that heavy metal’s ‘identity politics’ is evolving into a transnational network with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Almost everyone in the documentary wars an Iron Maiden t-shirt – the power of Chinese sweatshops, marketing and passionbrands.  The major facilitator is the heavy metal entrepreneur, such as the cofounder of China’s Tang Dynasty who imported Western heavy metal in the late 1980s and then evolved into an indigenous worldview.  The major barrier to this cosmopolitan ideal and diffusion process is when subcultural identities are caught in Muzafer Sherif‘s assimilation-contrast effect of social judgment: Japanese purist fans who decry the fusion of pop-metal or Indian fans who are caught in a power struggle with authority figures and family traditions.

Failures in market design are one source of these infra-subcultural battles.  In order to change their financial account reporting Western conglomerates dumped their excess back catalogue such as Extreme‘s 1989 debut album as cheap CDs into India and other countries.  Third World countries were the beneficiaries of bootlegs, MP3s and illegal downloads.  Dunn coaxs an admission from Ulrich that this is a positive trend, a reversal of Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster in 2000.  Black markets emerge where demand exists yet there are no official agents and major price differentials exist.  Ironically,  Global Metal is a victim of this trend: the documentary and a soundtrack of featured bands now circulates on illegal BitTorrent networks.  Turn up the distortion to 11.

The Debt

Assaf Bernstein’s The Debt (2007) portrays the breakdown of accountability during a fictional operation by Israel’s Mossad agency to capture a Nazi war criminal.

The film opens with the Mossad team of Rachel Brenner (Gila Almagor, Neta Garty), Zvi and Ehud arriving home triumphantly in April 1965: a scene reminiscent of Beatles mania.  Flashforward 30 years later and Rachel explains to Israeli intelligence trainees what it was like to kill the Nazi war criminal Maximilian Rainer (Edgar Selge) in a safehouse shootout: ‘I didn’t think of anything, I just closed my eyes, thought of my mother and what she had been through.’  The trainees joke about the Surgeon of Burkenau as a symbol of evil.

At a launch party for her memoir My Mission we hear an account of Rachel’s bravery and see her signing books like a celebrity.  As the party ends Zvi arrives with a newspaper story that will shatter the bubble: an old man in a nursing home 40 minutes outside of the Ukrainian industrial city Kiev now claims to be Rainer.  Rachel, Zvi and Ehud all know the truth that has been hidden for 30 years: Rainer escaped from the safehouse and they created the cover-story to hide the truth about the Surgeon of Burkenau’s fate that would have shocked Israel. 

The team is being reactived before Mossad and the Israeli public find out the truth.  Ehud is already in Kiev whilst Zvi cannot go due to wounds from an Israeli embassy bombing 10 years earlier.  Zvi convinces Rachel to go to Kiev armed with poison to confirm Rainer’s identity and to kill him.  She is unsure about the newspaper photograph.  ‘People change a lot in 30 years’, Zvi tells her.  ‘We were different then, weren’t we?’, Rachel wonders.

The Debt‘s narrative cuts back and forth between the 1964 Berlin operation and Rachel’s 1994 visit to Kiev.  Bernstein thus creates a cause-effect relationship between the team’s initial decisions and their consequences.

Mossad tracks Rainer to Berlin in 1964 after a 15-year search.  The night before the team’s operation begins Rachel examines photographs of Rainer’s atrocities in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Rainer now works as a gynecologist so Rachel poses as Mrs. Roget and gets several appointments for an infertility examination.  These scenes have a starkness similar to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) as Rainer attempts to discover Rachel’s true identity.  Eventually the team resorts to an extraction operation: Rachel injects Rainer with a serum whilst Zvi and Ehud arrive with a fake ambulance.

Holed up in a safehouse with Rainer imprisoned the team begins to fall apart.  The cover operation to use an embassy party is delayed several times.  The team starts infighting over their motives: Rachel has unrequited love for Zvi, Ehud’s tough personal masks his fears and Zvi is hauned by the deaths of his entire family at Auschwitz.

Rainer emotionally manipulates Rachel and Ehud when they break Zvi’s rule not to speak to their prisoner.  He offers several rationalisations: his work was done for ‘scientific progress’, ‘hundreds of deaths’ were necessary to save millions, and that ‘we could do anything we wanted with the Jews’.  Rachel taunts Rainer that he will endure a public trial similar to Adolf Eichmann
in Jerusalem in 1961.  Rainer explains to Rachel and Ehud that only four guards were needed to send entire families to their deaths: Jewish ‘egoists’ meant that individuals only thought for themselves.  ‘Jews only knew how to die, they didn’t know how to kill,’ Rainer concludes.  The exchanges are a misdirection ploy: with Ehud and Zvi now out of the room Rainer attacks the sleeping Rachel with a razor that she has dropped and escapes.  ‘It took 15 years to find him, we aren’t going to find him in 10 minutes,’ Ehud and Zvi argue.  The truth that happened in Berlin is not the truth that Israel must know.

30 years later Zvi, Ehud and Rachel are each haunted by their lie.  When Rachel arrives in Kiev she meets Ehud who is now an arms dealer to both sides in Sierra Leone: ‘rebel against them’ he explains over a double malt whiskey.  Ehud and Rachel are unable to get into the Kiev nursing home which is a high security facility for former Soviet military.  The next morning Rachel discovers that Ehud has committed suicide because he is a coward.  Zvi asks her to return but Rachel wants to finish what should have been done in Berlin.

After several cat-and-mouse attempts Rachel disguises herself as a nurse to infiltrate the nursing home.  She sees the old man on a balcony.  A Berliner Zeitung reporter also wants to interview the old man and phones his editor in advance to claim a double-spread cover story.  In these scenes Rachel seems cautious to conduct a field operation, unsure of the old man’s true identity and out-of-place in a life after espionage.  Both she and the reporter discover the truth: the old man has Alzheimers and started the story a month ago to the concern of his son.  The reporter leaves in disgust.

Only then does Rachel discover the deeper truth underneath the surface truth and by accident:  she follows the old man’s grandson and his remote controlled car to discover an elderly Rainer playing cards in the dining room.  ‘I should never have confessed to him,’ he tells Rachel, ‘I should have taken this secret to my grave.’  Rachel and Rainer’s bathroom knife fight leave both fatall wounded, and Rachel dies on a train platform, remembering the team’s triumphant return to Israel, the black and white news footage now in colour.

The Debt explores the ethical challenges of intelligence fieldwork, coming face to face with ontological evil, and the cost of living with a lie.  However two other dimensions are only hinted at.  The team’s lie is necessary to maintain Mossad’s invincibility and as a counter-myth against the Nazi postwar survival myths of Adolf Hitler, Martin Bormann and the Odessa in South America.  More cryptic is Rainer’s explanation to Rachel about World War II’s intergenerational trauma: ‘The war changed a lot of people.’

Dealmaker With The Dead

Randy Nails‘ documentary Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero (2008) screened as a ‘work in progress’ at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival.  The documentary charts Romero‘s evolution as a director and how his films are responsible for a 40-year-old ‘zombie economy’ worth over US$2 billion.

Three themes are central to Nails’ documentary: how psychopolitics such as Cold War nuclear fears and Vietnam War social activism influenced Romero’s personal vision, why Romero has fought to retain his independence against Hollywood studios, and how the zombie meme has in turn influenced contemporary ‘indie’ directors, subcultures, and musucians such as Glen Danzig and Rob Zombie.

The documentary begins with a nuclear fear montage: stark black-and-white footage of the Trinity nuclear test on 16th July 1945, ‘duck and cover’ safety drills and simulations of the impact on targeted cities.  From this dystopian beginning Nails explores Romero’s early work for the Pittsburgh-based company Latent Image which tapped the market for advertising and industrial films in the ‘go go’ 1960s.  Latent Image would be the nucleus for the team that produced the influential zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968): Romero used handheld cameras to capture the feeling of newsreels on Vietnam War combat and civil rights protests.  Latent Image cofounders liken their production approach to jamming in jazz and small teams.  However after the follow-up There’s Always Vanilla (1971) the Latent Image team fell apart and Romero continued as an auteur to create films where the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction is the backdrop to dark and apocalyptic forces which threaten to overwhelm individuals.

Latent Image’s DIY ethic was a formative experience for Romero.  He cites Martin (1977) as the film that captures best Romero’s work ethic and small team approach, with Diary of the Dead (2007) as a return to this independence.  Its cast believe Knightriders (1981) was his most personal film, which Romero explains is about the extremes and limits of personal ideologies, and that he was able to maintain a strong team despite the production difficulties due to his respectful way of dealing with the cast and crew (which Ed Harris and Dennis Hopper also attest to in Romero’s later films for major studios).  Romero and special effects wizard Ted Savini worked quickly on the location shoot in a shopping mall for Dawn of the Dead (1978) due to a 3-4 hour time limit: a precursor to the ‘sprints’ in agile software development.  Romero’s DIY approach and his ability to combine multiple roles (scriptwriter, cinematographer, director, producer, editor) appeals to John Landis, John Carpenter, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Danny Boyle, who Nails interviews.

Pigeonholed as a horror director Romero points out why many of his films have a satirical dimension that the Hollywood major studios often choose to ignore or minimise.  Jack’s Wife (1972) explored a neo-feminist vision of personal empowerment through Wicca symbolism, although the US distributor retitled the film as Hungry Wives to appeal to the softcore porn market.  The Crazies (1973) satirised military contingency planning to prevent a chemical warfare disaster.  Martin (1977) uses vampirism as a metaphor for industrial decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry: Romero surmises people need vampires as a modern mythology to combat the ‘death of magic’ caused by downsizing and hypercompetitive globalisation.  Spurred on by giallo director Dario Argento, Romero overcomes his desire not to revisit zombie films by turning Dawn of the Dead (1978) into a satire on consumer lifestyles.  Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005) respectively target the Reagan Administration’s revival of Cold War brinkmanship and nuclear fears, and the second Bush Administration’s widening social gap between the haves and have-nots.  Romero’s personal vision emerges collectively in this body of work as a concern with personal autonomy and class politics.

Why Romero despises Hollywood studios is illustrated through the many anecdotes about his production battles and mistakes.  Night of the Living Dead relied initially on 10 personal investors who lost their money when the film was released with the copyright symbol on its title credits rather than in the correct position, which immediately made NoTLD public domain.  Despite a successful lawsuit Latent Image lost money and the followup There’s Always Vanilla broke up several friendships.  Knightriders, Land of the Dead and Creepshow all had studio distribution problems.  During the preview screenings of Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993) the test audiences demanded the downbeat endings be changed, a Hollywood practice that reviewer Roger Ebert condemns.  The film studio Orion was almost bankrupt during The Dark Half and was unable to finance a score for the film’s third act, which led to director-producer tensions.  Bruiser (2000) was a straight to video release which Romero was relieved to complete.  In a lesson on ‘decision rights’ Romero worked on 8 redrafts over a two-year period for Resident Evil (2002) to ensure the film reflected the first two videogames, before he discovered that the studio executive did not have the decision-making power as he had claimed.  Whilst Romero admits to not being very good at business his criticisms of Hollywood are supported by illusionist Penn Jillette and writer Stephen King.

Despite the wealth of archival footage and interviews Nails’ ‘work in progress’ suffers from a nonlinear narrative.  I had just as much fun sitting just behind Romero and his daughter Tina in the cinema, watching him deal with zombie fans and autograph hunters.  Romero might not have the financial rewards of the ‘zombie economy’ he inadvertently created but Dead On has plenty of lessons on cultivating a personal vision and the mindlessness of the Hollywood zombies known as mid-level studio executives.