Indie DIY, as cobbled together into a series by New York’s IFC Center a few years back, is having a bit of a stuttering, awkward second wind after seemingly falling out of fashion. New films from Swanberg, Bujalski, and others will see U.S. premieres at this weekend’s SXSW Film Festival, and the “movement,” such as it was or is, is being argued over by the likes of David Denby, Glenn Kenny, and Richard Brody. Never mind that some critics are revealing themselves as ignorant of film history by comparing Joe Swanberg to Maurice Pialat or Philippe Garrel—when the old guard picks up the banner for a new trend, it’s a sign that the novelty party’s over and mumblecore has now seeped into “the culture.” Look for Alexander the Last (Swanberg) or Beeswax (Bujalski) in New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix any day now.
As with any nominal grouping, some of the films are good, some are bad, most are god-awful, so it’s a pity this lot’s making all the waves as I much prefer the full-bore DIY ethics of Tony Stone, who not only took paltry funds and turned out a viking epic called Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, but did so by ditching out of NYC and living the Norse lifestyle in Vermont for long stretches over a couple of years. Stone stars as one of the pair of lost vikings, directs, kills and cooks a chicken, terrorizes a monk, burns a church (that he built himself), and even has a healthy bowel movement on camera. Do it yourself, indeed.
A chest-thumping, head-pounding, axe-wielding tromp through the wilderness, Severed Ways is the unexpected, frankly unsolicited cinematic spawn of Werner Herzog and heavy-metal album cover art. But rather than parody, the film is a sincere valentine to leaden dramatics and brute manliness, a paean for a simpler, sillier, hairier historical moment. Director Tony Stone’s stroke of strange genius is to conflate metal culture with its favored pagan iconography, asserting a continuum between unkempt warmongers and sweaty head-bangers. As a Norse duo marooned in the New World, Stone and Fiore Tedesco (irrelevantly named Orn and Volnard) are the Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield of the eleventh century, brooding blonde and brunette archetypes destined to break up, make up and rock hard.
Opening with a long expository scroll about the Vikings’ ill-fated North American adventures, the film proceeds with seven numbered chapters (plus an epilogue) given succinct titles like “Stranded,” “Conquest,” and “Encounters,” backed by amped-up guitars and Goth synth. Scouts Orn and Volnard return to the coastline to find slain corpses and themselves abandoned. To hide from the Skraeling (Native Americans) they journey deep into the woods, set up camp, then accost a pair of monks. Volnard gets curious about God (think of George Harrison circa “My Sweet Lord”) while Orn gets drugged and molested by a horny Skraeling (groupies!), the Norse equivalents of side projects and solo albums. They get jealous, they get lonely, they axe people in the back, and they search for a way back home.