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Clyde Petersen knows his movie isn’t for everyone. Even Hell Has Its Heroes is an almost two-hour documentary shot exclusively on Super 8 mm film to celebrate a band that made a name for themselves in the early 1990s by writing 30-minute drone metal songs.
“This is a slow-ass film,” Petersen wrote in an email when sending along the screener link. “Prepare yourself.”
Slow, yes, but the pacing has a purpose. Even Hell is a deep dive into the history of Earth, a band founded by Dylan Carlson in 1989 in the damp, depressing trenches of the Pacific Northwest. At times they sound like what you might hear if you could amplify the noises of a decaying animal. Thick, wooly, unrelenting—reaching to the heavens but at an indeterminable pace. Again, not for everyone.
But with a couple of releases on Sub Pop—an EP in 1991 and their debut full-length, Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, in 1993—Earth cultivated a small but ardent fan base and earned somewhat of a reputation for being your favorite band’s favorite band. Kurt Cobain, one of Carlson’s closest friends, was a fan, and Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon credits Carlson for grunge’s accidental aesthetic.
“I felt like Kurt was really influenced by Dylan, [he] loved his provocative ‘fuck off ’ kind of attitude and his fashion sense,” Moon is heard saying over grainy, handheld footage of Cobain-related landmarks. “Dylan and Mark Arm were the first two dudes that I knew of that wore flannel all the time. When I met Kurt, he was more of a denim jacket kind of guy. To me, if you trace it all back, it was really Dylan’s fault that the world wore flannel.”
It’s those revelatory moments, those slight rewrites of long-believed history, that make watching Even Hell Has Its Heroes feel less like the exhaustive slog Petersen warned it would be and more like the slow unraveling of one of those crepe-paper surprise balls. As you unroll the layers, little treasures reveal themselves one at a time.
Earth has had a revolving door of band members and supporters over the years, and Petersen introduces us to nearly two dozen of them. We first meet Earth’s drummer, Adrienne Davies, who joined the band in 2000 and has been an anchor ever since, when she and Carlson pose outside of the tiny Wayside Chapel in Sultan, WA. We ride the ferry to Orcas Island to visit Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt. We stop at goofy landmarks, including the giant cowboy hat and boots in Georgetown’s Oxbow Park and the Stonehenge replica at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Eastern Washington. The Northwest had a hand in Earth’s creation, too.
Jonas Haskins, who played baritone bass for Earth from 2006 to 2008, recalls his time with the band while rowing a boat around Rattlesnake Lake using guitars as oars. Wait, what?
“There is absolutely an element of magical realism in the film,” Petersen explained. “Jonas Haskins and I traveled to Rattlesnake Lake in the wintertime. I did not consider the fact that the lake would be much lower than it is in the summertime. The adventure that ensued involved dragging a heavy dinghy across deep mud for what felt like an hour to arrive at the lake shore. At which point Jonas still had to row the boat across the lake with these incredibly heavy electric guitar-oars, which were getting waterlogged and heavier by the moment. He was a real good sport about the whole thing. I think it’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the film. Also, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they row a boat.”
It’s a beautiful scene and the perfect encapsulation of Earth’s existence. The trudging, the persevering, the compelling of instruments to bend to an artist’s esoteric will. Even so, the film’s most poignant moments come when Carlson himself speaks.
In 1994, Carlson purchased the gun Cobain used to take his own life. Carlson has never said much about it publicly, and his name is still mentioned in conspiracy theories that continue to captivate hardcore Nirvana fans across the internet. In Even Hell, Petersen makes room for Carlson to finally respond.
“For better or for worse, something I’ve had to carry around and deal with over the course of Earth’s history was my personal friendship with Kurt Cobain, and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his death,” he’s heard saying over black-and-white Earth concert footage. “I’ve never really talked about it. As a musician and someone in the public eye, there’s still certain things in your life you keep private, and grief, to me, is one of them.”
The rest is best heard from Carlson himself, in his own words, at his own pace. It’s a moment Petersen could’ve easily turned into a headline-grabbing spectacle, “content” that soldiers in the streaming wars would’ve paid a pretty penny for. “Cobain’s Gun-Buying Best Friend Finally Speaks!” But Even Hell Has Its Heroes isn’t that kind of documentary. It’s a rebellion against that kind of documentary.
“It is not uncommon in documentary filmmaking to encounter a predatory nature in the relationship between filmmaker and subject,” Petersen explained. “There seems to be a mentality that you can’t be friends with your subject, but I disagree. … For [Carlson] to be able to share his grief was a powerful thing to be a part of. This particular situation was discussed as an opportunity to share their experience in the really hard loss of a best friend, to say their piece, and to maybe be able to set some of that grief down. We already had a basis of trust from working together, but he also had to trust that I would care for him more as a friend than for his story.
“In many ways, this film was a deep collaboration with the members of Earth,” Petersen added. “It was an honor to be trusted in helping tell their story. Documentary is a strange activity. You can work with what you are given, you can bend it to your own will to create false narratives, or you can just acknowledge that there is no real objectivity to be found and move forward together making something that is artful and creative and that, in the end, is hopefully more than the sum of its original parts. Embracing weirdness as normalcy. That was the approach we took.”
The film’s not for everyone. All the more reason everyone should watch it anyway.
Visit evenhellhasitsheroes.com for the latest screening information.