Gnarr (Gaukur Ulfarsson, 2010)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Gnarr.

criterion logoPopular Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr, having witnessed his country’s all-out economic collapse in 2009 and being fed up with the political status quo, invented a new political party and became a candidate for mayor of Reykjavik in the capital city’s 2010 municipal election. With no political experience at all and aiming to make a satirical statement on the political process, Gnarr’s campaign gains unexpected momentum despite his absurd promises of mandatory viewings of HBO’s The Wire, a drug-free parliament by 2020, and “all kinds of things for weaklings.” What starts as a stunt aimed at mocking both sides of the political spectrum turns into a hilariously incisive take-down of shallow party politics and a welcome antidote to political apathy.

Disc Features:

  • High-definition digital transfer with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring director Gaukur Úlfarsson and star Jón Gnarr
  • Hooray for All Kinds of Things, new interviews with Gnarr and campaign manager Heida Helgadóttir
  • New interview with political scientist Gunnar Kristinsson on Iceland’s economic crisis, Gnarr, and the Best Party
  • Deleted and extended scenes
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Andrew Pendakis

We kick off our salute to politics and campaigning with Gaukur Úlfarsson’s documentary Gnarr, a film I had the chance to see at a film festival at the time of its initial release. Gnarr proved to be a favourite of that festival, both for me and the audience generally. (Additional screenings were scheduled to capitalize on the goodwill that surrounded the doc following its initial viewing at the fest.) Still, Úlfarsson’s film is unfortunately little known, making it an unlikely candidate for a Criterion treatment, but the Collection can surprise and Gnarr has the benefit of achieving what so few documentaries manage – to produce a film that lives up to the novelty of its premise.

Úlfarsson’s film concerns Jón Gnarr, a popular Icelandic comedian and television star. In the wake of Iceland’s spectacular financial collapse in 2009, Gnarr founded the modestly named Best Party, a political party made up of artists, musicians, and various comedic props, and ran it in the 2010 Reykjavik municipal election with himself as leader and candidate for mayor (a major political office given that Iceland’s capital is home to more than half of the country’s population). The documentary follows Gnarr satirizing the political process that facilitated Iceland’s economic flameout, finding popular fascination with the electorate, and steadily increasing in the polls and overtaking long-entrenched political parties until actual victory appears achievable.

gnarr-profileGnarr’s Best Party manages to resist advancing a legitimate policy platform throughout its campaign. Because corruption is standard operating procedure for politicians, Gnarr vows not to carry through on any campaign promises, and is therefore able to make the grandest, least reasonable commitments possible. These include free gifts to single mothers on Mother’s Day (using Facebook to confirm relationship statuses), a polar bear in the Reykjavik zoo, free towels at public pools, a drug-free Parliament by 2020, importing Jews to help solve Iceland’s economic problems, and a Disneyland constructed in Iceland (as per the rights of every citizen). Gnarr’s proposed approach to governance is no less outlandish. He promotes inter-party collaboration, but only if those individuals have seen HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008) as Gnarr sees no need to work with people who don’t appreciate the series. He boasts of the Best Party’s inclusion of a “crippled” candidate, and vows to listen to more “broads” (particularly “the older ones”). The Best Party re-records Tina Turner’s “The Best” as a parody anthem after Gnarr purportedly obtained Tina’s consent following a message sent to Ike Turner’s gmail account. And Gnarr’s antics go on and on throughout the campaign, all the while steadily increasing in popular support at the expense of established and earnestly serious political parties.

Criticisms of Úlfarsson’s documentary generally relate to his very limited point of view. Gnarr attends solely to the comedian in the activity of his campaigning. Precious little information is given of Gnarr’s upbringing, his background as a punk and juvenile delinquent, his lack of formal education, or of his work as a comedian, and no perspective is offered of his home or personal life. There is little background offered on Iceland’s financial crisis, and no context for the state of its political process or landscape, of the place of Reykjavik in Iceland at large, or of the significance of the mayor’s office to the issues of the day. There are no talking heads to provide an outside view on Gnarr from the position of the voter, of political opponents, of colleagues, or of relevant experts. These are notable omissions, at least in the sense that Gnarr’s comedy is decontextualized and that it is therefore stripped of its political insight. For example, Gnarr’s focus on polar bears addresses the rescission of arctic ice that has increased the presence and danger of the animals in Iceland. Similarly, Gnarr’s focus on free towels at public pools is a joking proposal to have them certified as “spas” under elaborate and overly-complex EU regulations.

gnarr-and-heidaHearing Úlfarrson speak about his film at the festival, he identified his limited perspective as an intended choice, remarking that he could have shown Gnarr making dinner with his family or could have dropped a camera in front of him (or anyone else) and asked how he felt, but dismissing such approaches as being “all fake anyways.” It’s unlikely that Úlfarsson would claim authenticity entirely, as he acknowledged making constant efforts to keep Gnarr’s campaign manager, Heida Helgadóttir, present to ensure the comedian had someone to banter with instead of speaking directly to the camera, but at least those moments occur organically and spontaneously, without the self-consciousness that comes by looking into the black void of a camera lens.

Úlfarsson’s observational and decontextualized approach is rarely commented upon, being tacitly treated as a demonstrating no contributing form, but it is an ethical choice entirely in keeping with Gnarr’s campaign, the unspoken point of which is that issues are not fake, just the processes for dealing with them. By this view, campaigns and politics are mechanisms for spinning, for preserving control, and they distract from and inhibit the ingenuity necessary to solve actual problems. Thus, Gnarr’s walking out on panels in mid-discussion or addressing the nuances of The Moomins during town halls characterize him as the only sane person in an insane system, as someone showing the process the respect it deserves. More importantly, Gnarr’s actions force voters to make decisions about him personally and not about campaign positions that will ultimately not get carried out by any of the stumping politicians. Gnarr’s campaign resonates as the only authentic one because it is the only one that is explicitly fake, and Úlfarsson’s filmmaking attempts to convey Gnarr’s honesty in its most direct and effective form. In its closing days, Gnarr offers the public a brief glimpse at his sincerity when, at a radio show with his political opponents, he rejects being characterized as a joke, pointing out that he is not a comedian when he pays his taxes or enrolls his children in kindergarten. This moment represents an interesting glimpse at the subtle shift in Gnarr from no-risk shit-disturber to viable candidate, from someone protesting the system to someone on the brink of actually getting the keys to the castle. For the leader of a self-described “anarcho-surrealist” political party, it is in these small moments, not the election results themselves, that show life at its most surreal.

gnarrI have no illusions that Gnarr could be part of the Criterion Collection or that anyone may enjoy this film as much as I do, but Gnarr is an excellent document of a singular political moment and it is deserving of a much better edition than the made-on-demand DVD offered by Focus Features. (It doesn’t even have a menu screen!) This imagined Criterion edition fills in some of the background issues that might make Gnarr a difficult film to access, presumably adding to the effectiveness and entertainment value of the documentary. For a cover treatment, we’re fond of this poster for the film and can imagine a cleaned up image that only includes Gnarr’s face and the film’s title. A yellow “C” in the top left corner and some yellow boxes on the lower left side would complete the design.

Credits: We’ve imagined an edition of Gnarr that includes interviews and commentaries to provide background on Gnarr, the Best Party, Iceland’s financial crisis, and the making of the documentary. Political scientist Gunnar Kristinsson of the University of Iceland was chosen to provide some outside context to Gnarr and Iceland’s political economy based on his contribution to Jennifer Yang’s profile on Gnarr for the Toronto Star. We assume that Úlfarsson likely has a bounty of unused footage to include in addition to the commentaries and interviews, and we selected Andrew Pendakis to provide an essay based on his interview of Heida Helgadóttir.

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