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Takk Takk: Warming Up to Iceland

Fake Orgasm.

It felt strange to board a plane to Iceland for the Reykjavik Film Festival last week with our own prestige New York fest in progress, but it’s a safe bet that Lincoln Center wouldn’t be sponsoring a “fake orgasm” contest at a nearby watering hole, and the come-on, so to speak, was hard to resist. The late-night moan-a-thon was connected to a documentary called Fake Orgasm, in which the American director-narrator interviews contestants at a Spanish club renowned for shows in which men and women simulate coming before large, indulgent crowds. He also chats with supposed experts in gender politics — like Lydia Lunch (!). The film raises some discomfiting issues — among them the idea that women fake orgasms more than ever nowadays, since their solicitous lovers are apt to be wounded (or angry) if the gals aren’t driven mad with pleasure. But Fake Orgasm is ultimately more about the director’s own (singular) gender problems than anyone else’s. I’m glad it was screening, though: It brought me to the Naesti Bar to watch Viking descendants get ... nasty.

After a fashion, anyway. The seven contestants I saw — four men, three women — did a lot of talking before they climaxed, all of it in Icelandic. Even without a translator, though, it was pretty funny. One guy screamed “Eyjafjallajökull!” — the big volcano — when he fake-came. I was pretty sure I heard another guy babble “Jack Bauer” as part of an erotic litany, but that might have been my imagination. One very tall blonde raised her arms at the moment of truth like an ancient bird of prey about to dive for the kill, confirming my own evolutionary instinct to stick with small, dark women. The winner, a young lady in glasses and a short dress, lay down in the lap of the handsome blond vote counter, chattered incessantly (to much mirth), writhed, bucked, and fake-came with arms and legs akimbo. I’d pay a lot to know what she said. They’re not the most demonstrative people, Icelanders, but when they let go they’re very cute.

The government of Iceland paid my way in return for a talk (or, as they dauntingly called it, a “master class”) and some (unspecified) coverage of the ten-day festival. This is part of a campaign that has also put “You Could Be in Iceland” (or words to that effect) posters all over New York subways. It seems that citizens of this country (which has fewer than 350 thousand people, 75 thousand in Reykjavik) have pulled together to reach out to foreign tourists and investors following the country’s virtual bankruptcy and the consequent plunge of the kroner. They also think Eyjafjallajökull has put a damper on tourism, although the volcano is quiet now and almost all the ash blew east and fell on Western Europe. (It probably didn’t win them many fans in Western Europe.)

My talk (sorry, master class) was meant to set the table for their guest of honor, Jim Jarmusch, due to receive a medal from the president (who’s extremely unpopular, by the way, having been palsy-walsy with the investors who lost so much of the country’s money). Said master class was misleadingly billed as, “Jim Jarmusch and the Second Wave of New American Filmmaking” — misleading because Jarmusch is an indie among indies and thumbs his nose at waves, New or Old. It’s telling that Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures cites the 1984 premiere of Stranger Than Paradise as the start of independent movement — then devotes a scant three lines to it. Biskind’s only in-depth passage about Jarmusch centers on his revisionist Western (and near-masterpiece) Dead Man, which Harvey Weinstein bought sight unseen for $4 million after losing his bid for the nutty-pianist picture Shine — and then held for year (and bad-mouthed it) when Jarmusch wouldn’t make cuts. (Jarmusch always gets final cut — another reason he stays independent.)

Jarmusch arrived the day after I left, which was just as well, since I’d called his last film, The Limits of Control, “among the most boring ever made” and the small talk would likely have been awkward. But rewatching all his movies deepened my appreciation for his body of work, for his allusive narratives, for his characters who lack ambition and locate themselves (as he has put it) “outside the zombie mainstream.” He has joked that his style (influenced by everyone from Buster Keaton to Nick Ray to Ozu) is neither American nor European, but puts him on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Well, here he was!

I did hang out with other filmmakers, among them Judith Ehrlich, who screened her exhilarating documentary, The Most Dangerous Man Alive: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers while in Iceland to shoot a thematically related film about Julian Assange of Wikileaks (rumored to be nearby). She told me there are at least 120 people — a coalition of State Department, FBI, and sundry other agents — working full time monitoring Assange. Did they know about her project? She’d been contacted. Did she think her cell phone was tapped? “Oh, I assume.” I glanced up at people sitting at other restaurant tables, passersby. Icelanders respect your privacy, even if you’re Björk (who was reportedly in town) or somebody in Sigur Rós, so no one was obviously staring. But I had a feeling someone was waaaaatching me …

Movies? There were tons, along with sidebars on Icelandic and Swedish filmmakers and a retrospective of the work of 36-year-old Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf, whose new English-language feature, Womb, centers on a woman who tracks down her long-lost brother (as children, they contrived a “fairy-tale romance”) and, when he’s killed, arranges to have him regrown in her womb under the auspices of the “Department of Genetic Replication.” (I’d have been so there if it hadn’t overlapped with my Jarmusch talk.) There were also films in competition, midnight movies, environmental docs from all over the world, a “Food on Film” section (The Hunt for Nordic Taste, anyone?) and Iceland premieres of American films like Life During Wartime and Winter’s Bone (still my favorite of 2010 by a long stretch).

In the day and a half I had after my master class, I caught — in addition to the fake-orgasm picture — a handful of films, among them a much-ballyhooed Finnish doc, Steam of Life, which consists of multiple stories told by naked men to one another as they sit in saunas around the country, each vignette broken up by contemplative shots of mountains, fjords, etc. It had a lot of buzz (and reduced many audience members to tears) and I can see why: The filmmakers are pretty savvy (or shameless) in choosing people who’ve had traumatic experiences and stripping away their defenses along with their clothes. I resisted it, but the film has something: Any culture centered on confessions in the nude at temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit gives you a warm, tingly feeling … All that was lacking were fake orgasms. Less tricky and far more troubling was Jawad Taiman’s doc Addicted in Afghanistan, part of the Palestine-Afghanistan sidebar. The heroin problem in Afghanistan has mushroomed since the fall of the Taliban, and here we see whole families sitting around smoking the stuff — little kids, too, who curl up hollow-eyed and don’t much move. Mission accomplished! Since I’d trudged from a fest dinner to watch fake orgasms alongside the superb Swedish actor Jakob Cedergren, I decided to see him in Submarino, the entrancing new movie from Thomas Vinterberg, who had a crossover hit in 1998 with Festen (The Celebration) but has since tried to put some distance between himself and the Dogma aesthetic. This is a tortured, melancholy, difficult portrait of two brothers — sons of an alcoholic woman — separated by a childhood tragedy who meet years later, one an ex-con, the other fighting a battle with heroin. (Addiction was big at Reykjavik.) There’s no American distributor, which is a shame since Cedergren is strikingly good. He also has an excellent fake orgasm but was too modest to mention that at the Naesti Bar. My last sight of him was trudging off to another, I hope even nastier bar, with one of those tall, blonde Icelandic film-school graduates. (For the record, "Naesti Bar" is Icelandic for "The Next Bar." It never did get that nasty.)

My last morning was spent taking a private tour for which I’d have paid thousands had I not been a distinguished international critic and teacher of master classes — a long, exhilarating, occasionally terrifying drive through the Icelandic north with festival coordinator, esteemed costume designer, and speed demon Dora Einarsdottir. (She organized the opening Some Like It Hot gala in which people could watch the Billy Wilder classic while swimming in one of Iceland’s most famous pools.) The air, which had been chill and damp, began to warm and brighten as we motored out of Reykjavik to the floating chords of Jónsi & Alex’s ambient CD Riceboy Sleeps (which incorporates natural Icelandic noises) and into the countryside, where the island’s volcanic origins are everywhere manifest. The landscape, in which few trees grow higher than your waist, truly looks as if it hardened in place following one after another glacial shift and/or violent eruption; you can easily envision it heaving and gurgling. In places it still does—gurgle, I mean, in the form of geysers that keep the ground warm, wet, and inhospitable to cellars and cemeteries. Out of nowhere come incongruous stretches of green farmland, on which the sleekest, most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen range free. (When it’s cold, Dora says, you can tell which way the wind is blowing because the horses stand with their arses into it.) Also out of nowhere, behind some hills and hidden in a cleft, sits the spectacular Gulfoss Falls, two-tiered and almost as wide as it is tall. Then it’s back to the volcanic hills, looking to this American like mile after mile of broken-up black asphalt. Staring down at the primeval coastline, I could see why Clint Eastwood came here to film parts of the attack on Iwo Jima: This place could stand in for anywhere meant to be the end of the earth.

My stay ended with a dunk in the Blue Lagoon, a giant hot spring in the middle of nowhere about fifteen or twenty kilometers from the airport. You could rub yourself in the healing silt under your feet and float for hours — there's even a bar in the middle of the spring. I wondered: Must I really leave?

From Peter Knegt’s account in Indiewire, I find I missed all the honored entries: "the Golden Puffin winner The Four Times, an intensely moving film which features essentially no dialogue; Mike Ott’s Audience Award winner Littlerock, a tight, clever little film about the Japanese experience in contemporary California; Athina Rachel Tsangari’s stylish and original Venice Film Festival favorite Attenberg; and Aardvark, a strong neo-noir film from newcomer Kitao Sakurai.” Nor did I have a chance to eat sheep heads (split down the middle and smoked), puffin, or hakarl, the legendary rotted shark preparation that can’t be exported because cans that contain it tend to blow up inside ships and planes. And what about those Northern Lights? Next year. I’m already planning my second master class.

Incidentally, I’ll be in the Hamptons this weekend, where I’m rumored to be doing two onstage interviews: one with Stanley Tucci, the other with the director and star of Three Backyards (also in Reykjavik), Eric Mendelsohn and Edie Falco. What are the natives like there, I wonder?

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Photo: RIFF