24 February 2010

White Whales

[Note: Because this is a film so little seen and hard to find, and because I want to discuss its plot and themes, I have summarized much of the film in the following post. If you intend to watch it sometime and don’t want the end spoiled, you might want to read much passed the paragraph starting with "The story begins with..."]

Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s directorial career began in the realm of documentary. When Icelandic national cinema came to into its own in the ‘80s after the founding of the Icelandic Film Fund (IFF), Friðrik Þór was chiefly known for his controversial short Brennu-Njals saga (1980) which takes the saga’s name of “Burnt-Njal’s saga” to heart by literally dousing a copy of the national treasure with gasoline and setting it aflame to music by Icelandic punk legends Þeyr. Two years later, he became arguably the most popular director among young Icelanders with his documentary Rock in Reykjavík (1982, Rokk í Reykjavík) about the Icelandic (post-)punk movement. Of course, Þeyr took part in this film as well, and Friðrik Þór has commented on his fondness for this group, enough so to single them out when interviewed about his work for the later documentary Screaming Masterpiece (2005, Gargandi snilld). Obviously, punk played heavily into his earliest works, and so it’s not surprising that 5 years after his punk rock documentary, his debut feature film tells an essentially “punk” story.

White Whales (1987, Skytturnar) is ostensibly the story of two whale fishers, the cynical Grímur and his his overweight yet optimistic fishing mate Bubbi, who return to Reykjavík after a fishing trip only to find rejection, misery, and existential ennui—like “whales out of water.” English viewers will find this metaphor, reflected in the title, rather easily. Everywhere they go, no one seems to really accept them or welcome them. One bar patron gives us out titular line when he ridicules the overweight Bubbi as a “white whale.”

It’s interesting, then, that the word “skytturnar” does not mean “white whales” but rather “the riflemen” or “the sharpshooters.” This is an interesting point, as I feel it shows a shift in audience expectations.

The de facto lead of this film is the bitter Grímur (Þórarinn Óskar Þórarinsson), not the softie Bubbi (Eggert Guðmundsson). Despite our initial impressions of the two on the boat, where Grímur reads literature as Bubbi looks at pornographic magazines, we are quickly lead to find the former as cynical and bitter compared to the perhaps foolishly optimistic and friendly Bubbi.

The story begins with the capture of a whale and the ships arrival on shore, where Grímur and Bubbi watch the beginning of the slaughter process. We are greeted into the world of White Whales through the literally destruction of the title’s most obvious character. As long blades strip the blubber off the carcass, Grímur convinces one of the workers to give me a hunk of whale meat so that he can take it to his grandmother. While hitchhiking into the city, the two are first kicked out when Grímur tells a man who has been complaining about the rudeness of people these days to change the fucking radio station. Then, while hitching their second ride, they see a horse that has been hit by another car, and Grímur borrows the trucker’s rifle to perform a “mercy killing.” These early moments give Grímur a darker caste. Not evil, mind you, as we can see his sense of mercy in putting the horse out of its misery. Still, there is something undeniably pessimistic to his character. When Bubbi becomes sad and distraught over the horse, the rift in the viewer’s attitudes grows wider. We are upset over the horse’s death, and when Grímur explains himself, his attempt to remind Bubbi that they have killed many fish and whales as well does little to improve his image. We see something in the more emotional open and thereby vulnerable Bubbi, in his timid awkwardness.

The next section of the story is essentially a chronicle of Grímur’s failures, with Bubbi as his hopeful companion. They meet Grímur’s grandmother, who welcomes the two with nagging and backhanded insults. Despite Bubbi’s claim that Grímur’s wife will gladly take him back when they appear with a box of chocolates for the kids and smiles on their faces, they are violently kicked out and threatened. Even the drunk girl who invites them both back to their place for more drinks and music crosses them when the police arrive about a noise complaint, saying she did not invite them over and that they are intruders. All this builds up to the film’s climax when, immediately released from the prison after brief questioning, Grímur steals a cop car and the two go careening into the front of a sporting goods store. Grímur gets out the rifles from the display case, loads two up with bullets, and hands one to Bubbi. In a moment of desperate desire to release the built up tension, the two begin to blast the store apart, pumping lead into the chests of Adidas-wearing mannequins and picking items of the wall.

When the cops inevitably appear, they quite expectedly assume the worst and try to gas the two frustrated characters out. Bubbi makes the first run for it and is gunned down, and in the resulting confusion, Grímur makes his break for it. Despite his initial success at eluding the police (due primarily to their own incompetence), they eventually catch up to him at a deserted swimming pool. It is there, at the bottom of the drained pool, where he too is finally gunned down. In his dying moments, we see what is presumably Grímur’s first “killing”—a goldfish struggling frantically next to his bowl. The connection to the death of the horse at the beginning is emphasized when we remember him mentioning how they have also killed whales and fish. It’s hard not to view Grímur’s death as another “mercy killing,” putting him out of the misery that drove him to such depths and the death of Bubbi, the only person sympathetic to his character throughout the film.

Of course, the two titles give us different takes on this story. Grímur is more the “rifleman” while Bubbi is more the “white whale.” One title makes us think more of Grímur, of his decent into nihilism and death, and his inevitably “mercy killing.” The other makes us sympathise with Bubbi, who is lost in the modern world and ultimately destroyed by it. Yet the two titles imply that both are of the same kind, and the meaning of the film may be more closely tied to the interaction of both these titles. Both characters, to greater or lesser degree, are out of place in the city’s modernity—“white whales”—but they also both play their part in their own decent into rebellion against this world and thus death—“the riflemen.” In this way, Bubbi plays an unusual role, in that Grímur’s treatment of him makes us like Grímur less, and yet the similarity between the two make us more likely to sympathise with both. Despite the fact that Grímur’s death can easily be seen as justified, we still feel sad over it. In this way, the film does an excellent job at relating it to the “mercy killing” of the horse. On one hand, we sort of know it had to be done. On the other hand, we wish it didn’t have to be like that. We wish that we could somehow cure them.

I mentioned at the beginning that I consider this film related to punk, and I will now clarify. On one level, Icelandic rock music figures heavily in much of the film, but that is hardly a reason to call a movie “punk.” Rather, it is the overall theme of the film that captures that same mentality. In punk, there is a sense of anger that something is wrong, that the world should be different, and yet there is no real way to fix it. Both this film and punk rebel against modern life while still remaining within the realm of modernity. Neither suggests that we live on farms and raise our own food. They merely shout, “This modern life is alienating!” White Whales precedes films like SLC Punk! (1998) in its portrayal of the ultimately self-destroying nature of the punk mindset. Rage and anarchy destroy itself, and then what remains? Yet like SLC Punk! It also does so without discrediting that mindset for what it is. There is some usefulness in being angry over injustice, but if it does not lead to anything productive or creative, then it can only lead to destruction. It becomes purposeless and misunderstood, like bullets into mannequins.

1 comment:

  1. As a last note, the two names are indicative of their characters. Grímur means something like "fierce one" while Bubbi is a pet name for Ásbjörn, which means something like "bear god" or "bear of the gods."