Tribeca 2011: Iceland Goes for the Protest Vote in Gnarr

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04/22/2011 1:19 PM |

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You know how most documentaries frame their subjects with excessive expository talking-head and recent-historical recap montages? Gnarr is the exact, dizzy-making opposite: a behind-the-scenes look at an election held last spring, from a country where the phone book is alphabetized by first name. Director Gaukur Úlfarsson cuts scenes short and jumps about as if filling in the negative space around public appearances everybody in the audience remembers—many of the jokes seem to rely on shorthand for either the setup or the punchline, and it takes a while to figure out that the candidate’s flightily sane handler isn’t his wife. But with a hook like this, very little is lost in translation: the film’s subject is Jon Gnarr, the Icelandic professional comedian who formed his own political party, filed the necessary papers to run for Mayor of Reykjavik because “you can get a salary and use the city’s summer house,” and then, almost inexorably, began to win.

Jon Gnarr, with a braying laugh and spit-combed blond hair, is, we gather from his chummy-adversarial TV appearance, reasonably well-known (a brief reintroduction to his 90s heyday feature a fake infomercial for Adolf Hitler’s comeback album, No Regrets, featuring a cover of “Ebony und Ivory”). He forms The Best Party: “Hooray for All Kinds of Things!” is the slogan on blue-and-white buttons and t-shirts. His campaign promises are as ludicrous as his rationale—a Disney theme park in Iceland, so “the unemployed can have their picture taken with Mickey Mouse”—but his parody of campaign stagecraft comes as compellingly close to the real thing as Robert Redford’s Candidate stump speech when he and his cohorts, including a former Sugarcube, record a glossy-parodic campaign anthem to the tune of “Simply the Best.”

As his poll numbers climb, and the floundering incumbent and candidates from other establishment parties keep citing the number of public schools under the mayor’s jurisdiction (all with perfect Nordic politeness, though Gnarr at least rants plenty in private), Gnarr stays resolutely in character. “Politics is boring” is his way of phrasing disgust with the Icelandic government, but it’s easy to read boredom as code for disillusionment—certainly in voters’ minds, and also in Gnarr’s, as his riffs on ugly modern architecture and Ikea furniture open the scars from his tiny socialist country’s recent, disastrous and humiliating foray into the global economic marketplace (its newly privatized, overleveraged banks were precursor to Greece and Ireland, and were the tidy prologue of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job). Holding forth on Iceland’s historic disrespect for its artists is as close as Gnarr gets to serious—a rant, delivered from the passenger seat of his herky-jerky campaign ride, on the government’s slighting of Nobel Prize-winning author Hallador Laxness is perhaps the most illuminating revelation from a probably very familiar documentary. It suggests that Icelanders knew exactly what they were doing when the voted for the guy who spent his entire segment at a candidate forum describing the Moomin family.

Gnarr screens tonight at 8:30pm, and again at 9:30pm on Sunday and 4pm on Monday.