February 19, 2012

Convenient Truths -- GNARR!

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friend Jason were sent a copy of 2010's GNARR! directed by Gaukur Ulfarsson.

Elkin: GNARR! is a documentary following the 2010 Reykjavik, Iceland Municipal elections and, more specifically, the candidacy of The Best Party's Jon Gnarr for Mayor of Reykjavik.

There are a few things you need to know before we go any further in our discussion of the film.

First: In 2008, Iceland suffered a complete economic meltdown thanks to the collapse of all three of the country's major commercial banks. This led to Iceland teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy. Heretofore, Iceland was seen as an economic superhero and the envy of the world as the populace was living high on the hog off the fat of the land while they rubbed their swollen bellies and feasted on the riches they had amassed. Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under them as everything went tits up in the financial sector.

On top of all this, in 2010 Iceland was covered in volcanic ash thanks to the eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull.

Needless to say, the fine people of Reykjavik became awful grumpy and less than pleased with their elected officials at the time, and, as elections approached, they began to look for an alternative to pull them forth from this miasma.

Enter Jon Gnarr, Iceland's most cynical and controversial comedian. Taking the pulse of the situation, Gnarr created The Best Party, a comedic performance art piece focused on “the power of silly thinking.”

Gnarr said, “After the collapse and its aftermath, I started reading the local news websites and watching the news and political talk shows – and it filled me with so much frustration. Eww! So I wanted to do something, to fuck the system. To change it around and impact it in some way.”

Announcing his candidacy by saying that he wanted a secure, comfortable, and highly paid job with the absolute power to hire his close friends, Gnarr then began to formulate a platform based on absurdity and surrealism highlighted by promises of bringing a Polar Bear to the zoo, Disneyland to Iceland, free towels at the swimming pools, and free bus rides for students and cripples (“We can offer more free things than any other party because we aren't going to follow through with it. We could say whatever we want. For example, free flights for women or free cars for people who live in rural areas. It's all the same.”). He also promised that, if he were to win, he would not talk to members of any other political party until they had watched all five seasons of The Wire.

Unlike Dead Kennedys front-man Jello Biafra's failed San Francisco Mayoral campaign in 1979 (whose platform included such things as requiring businessmen to wear clown suits while they conducted business within city limits), Gnarr's candidacy started to gain a lot of traction as the campaign went on.

The documentary GNARR! is a “fly-on-the-wall” style film which chronicles the event. Director Gaukur Ulfarsson started filming Gnarr on the first day of his campaign. There are no interviews, it is just a chronological compilation of what happened along the way as Jon Gnarr's joke suddenly places him in the front running for Mayor of Reykjavik.

Ulfarsson says of his film, “At first, I had a certain idea how the story would develop, but as time passed I saw it in a totally new light. I started seeing it as being an incredibly inspirational story of a man, so fed up with all the negativity and hopelessness in his countrymen, as well as being tired of not being able to trust any politician or believe anything that they said, that he found it necessary to stand up and take matters in his own hands. This is the movie that proves that anything is possible, if you just believe!”

The film's press release says this even better: “The message of the film is simple and positive. The deeper the shit you are in the more you should laugh, because out of disaster, heroes can come from unlikely places.”

This is a highly engaging film and really speaks to some fundamental issues about politics in general.

Sacks: I gotta tell you, Daniel, I have totally mixed feelings about this movie. On the surface I loved this story. Gnarr is a really fun figure to watch. He's funny, he seems to be having a lot of fun throughout the movie, and he seems honestly shocked when his campaign catches fire. He's obviously very comfortable in front of crowds, and as viewers we're constantly aware of how different he feels from other politicians – how fresh, how honest, how… well, interesting he is. He's exciting to watch while being very human as well. The scene where his car breaks down on the way to a speech is totally warm and human and makes me like the man even more.

Anybody who starts a campaign whose slogan is "Hooray for All Kinds of Things!" has to be someone that we pull for and root for.

My mixed feelings come from the fact that this movie is very subjective. We very little information about Gnarr's life from outside what the camera shows us. Apparently he has 5 kids and is widowed at least according to one article about him. Why don't we find out things like that about Gnarr during the movie? It would have humanized him even more and could have made me like him more.

And the movie really doesn't do much to let us know about Iceland's financial situation other than a blurb at the beginning. Gnarr's campaign is a bit of a lark, but a little more context might have made the lark into something even more compelling. We see the whole world through Jon's actions, but we don't get a ton of context on what he's acting against.

Elkin: I agree that there are some huge holes in the film regarding Gnarr's life and the situation in Iceland at the time of his Mayoral run. I think it presupposes a certain amount of background knowledge (which is why I provided it for our readers).

But I think the film stands on its feet regardless of these gaps, and, in a way, this absence of drudgery enhances the viewing. Instead of being a film about Jon Gnarr, the man, what happens is that the viewer gets to go along for the ride and see the situation for what it is: a joke that a downtrodden nation accepts as a viable alternative to the political business-as-usual that has wreaked so much destruction in their lives. By doing so, the film allows for a more universal appeal and ends up speaking to a wider audience.

I really enjoyed this movie, and I think it is a perfect film to be out there as our own two-party political system tries to shine its turd and pimp itself to America.

Sacks: I watched this movie before work one day, when the cat woke me up way too early and I couldn't fall back to sleep. I was only able to get 80% of the way through the movie before I had to head out, and I was on a bit of a high all day from the movie. Jon Gnarr was such a compelling, interesting and attractive figure that I really found myself wishing we had someone like him running for office here in the US.

Oh sure we've had third party candidates ranging from Stephen Colbert to Jesse Ventura to Ross Perot over the years, but the spectacle of a man like Gnarr, who states outright that his campaign is just a joke, makes me yearn to have him come along. He really is the metaphorical voice of fresh air that our current constipated system needs.

Not to get too heavy here, but American politics since the economic collapse of 2008 (or arguably since the horrors of 9/11) have been filled with negativity and hopelessness, or certainly two craven parties battling each other incessantly to please amorphous special interest groups. Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum you can choose your own list of people you blame for this situation, but whether you're a Tea Party member or you were part of Occupy Wall Street, much of what you've complained about has been a feeling that our political elites are no longer listening to the common man, to our daily concerns. And whether you like John Boehner, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or Nancy Pelosi, you have to admit that government is filled with a lot of very serious, very downbeat, very unexciting people who are running our government.

Jon Gnarr is the opposite of those men. He represents the way that we all wish that politicians would talk or act, cracking jokes, having fun, and making a party out of everything. We all know that Mitt Romney would make any sort of outlandish promise to be elected President (and change his mind on that promise a day later), but he doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor and seems to be just as downbeat as any other politician (though he's a hilariously bad singer).

It really does feel like there's a hunger for a man like Jon Gnarr, who comes across as far more of an everyman than a goof, and who is all about providing an alternative to the elites who have wreaked so much destruction.

Elkin: "Hooray for All Kinds of Things!" is certainly the slogan of the ultimate outsider, something we are truly lacking in the American political process.

It seems that in America, currently, the two party system continues to foist these insipid and vacuous caricatures of men upon the voting public who pander for the dollar and the sound-bite, but are ultimately devoid of any real substance. The only ones running for office who are saying anything that they may honestly believe are either shackled tightly to frighteningly extremist stances (both left and right), or are just mean-spirited, spittle-encrusted, corpulent bullies whose latest wives wear storm trooper helmets for hairstyles and pen xenophobic hate screeds masked as patriotic children's books about elephants (which I would still love to review for the site one day, Morgan!).

And this sort of seemingly heart-felt and passionate shit won't fly for a media who feels it is their duty to create the narrative, so these people of conviction are relegated to the afterthoughts of history (oftentimes for the best).

A man like Jon Gnarr would be a welcome relief from the plasticine pushers of political poppycock we, as the voting public, ultimately are left with from which to “choose” (as Michael Moore calls it, “The evil of two lessers”). Gnarr is a man who tells you straight up that the whole thing is a joke and that he will, of course, pander as much as he can and promise you things he could never deliver. Here is a man totally at odds with the entrenched system and who openly laughs at business-as-usual.

Could someone like Jon Gnarr ever become President of the United States? I don't think so, but the popularity of Steven Colbert's South Carolina shenanigans proves that there is a hunger for something like this in the process. Had Zappa or Howard the Duck had more intestinal mettle to handle the pressure, they may have found themselves in serious running. Jesse Ventura was Governor of Minnesota. Al Franken is in Congress.

Now we get to choose between a “please vote for me as I will tell you anything you want to hear” Mitt Romney and a “suddenly effective now that it is an election year” Barack Obama, and somehow we expect things in this country to change?

Fuck the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party – bring on The Best Party.

Can a guy like Gnarr actually be effective once he takes office? One of the first things that Gnarr did after becoming Mayor was to dress up in drag for the Reykjavik Gay Pride parade. He has announced that he wants someone to make him an Obi Wan Kenobi costume so he can go around “practicing Jedi-tricks.”

Has Reykjavik collapsed upon itself because of his ineffectual leadership and his desire to make everything “beautiful and funny”? No. It hasn't. Are people happier now that Gnarr is in power? Icelandic Media did a poll about who should replace the current President of Iceland, and Gnarr's name was in the top four.

I think that speaks for itself.

As a film, GNARR! does a fantastic job in terms of documenting what it purports to be about. While watching the film, I was captivated by Gnarr's ability to stick to his sense of self and purpose, and not be drawn into the political games his rivals were attempting to play. The film could have easily become incredibly preachy, but its detachment was what made it so enjoyable. As a documentary about Jon Gnaar's campaign to be Mayor of Reykjavik, it succeeds beautifully, and I would joyfully recommend this film to anyone, even someone who could give two-squirts from a cow's udder about politics.

Trailer for the Film:

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