Virgin Mountain Icelandic Film

virginmountain

The Vic theatre was packed. Extra chairs were lined up at the rear. A quick trailer for the movie, Rams, was shown. There was no need for the trailer to encourage people to go to Rams. Both Virgin Mountain and Rams had been sold out for days. The audience for the annual Victoria Film Festival know their films and were aware that Virgin Mountain, the Icelandic-Danish film by Dagur Kári, had won not only the top prize at Tribeca, but also an acting award for lead Gunnar Jonsson. As well, Icelandic films have steadily developed a reputation for excellence.

Helga Thorson, the head of German-Slavic Studies, and the new head of The Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures on Icelandic Literature, greeted the packed house, mentioned that anyone who might be interested in the ongoing lectures could pick up a pamphlet in the lobby and that the Beck was financially sponsoring Virgin Mountain.

The film began brilliantly with nothing but images, no dialogue. It was obvious that this was going to be a film in which we were going to be shown the story, not told about it, and with its quiet beginning that is was going to be a film of subtext that would demand the audiences’ attention. There is no dialogue to break the audience’s focus on images and the need to interpret them. The film creates an intimacy between the main character, Fusi, and the audience, beginning the process of creating an understanding of the silence in which Fusi lives.

Gradually, his life at work, at home and beyond are revealed. At work, he is bullied, at home, he lives with his mother and her boyfriend, and beyond is limited to every Friday going to the same Asian restaurant and ordering the same meal. Often, he sits in his truck and calls a local radio station to ask for the disc jockey to play heavy metal. At home, he entertains himself by reconstructing historic battles with toy soldiers.

At forty-three, his life is settled, determined. He is socially inept and unpracticed. His huge body (the mountain in the title) makes him an unlikely object of an woman’s romantic fantasy. Into this predictable life, a precipitating incident occurs in the person of his mother’s boyfriend who is determined to get Fusi out of the house. He gives Fusi a certificate for line dancing lessons for his birthday. His mother gives him a cowboy hat. Protesting all the while, Fusi does go to the first lesson but before it begins, he retreats to sit in his truck in the falling snow.

He sits in the dark watching the light from the door that leads to the dance lessons. It’s a wicked winter night out. Nearly everyone has left when a figure we can only obscurely see through the falling snow appears, comes up to the truck window, and asks if Fusi would mind giving her a ride. Fusi is taken aback but agrees. And so, as in much good narrative, the repetitious, unbreakable, known present is disrupted.

New possibilities arise as he agrees to give Sjöfn a ride. It is a pattern we have all seen and experienced in both life and drama. What makes this film brilliant is the way Fusi’s the new possibilities are played out.

When learning to write narrative, whether fiction or drama, one of the hardest lessons is to understand and master the relationship between text and subtext. Many students deny subtext exists, that is, until asked if they ever flirt. A discussion of flirting with its subtle suggestions of desire and possibility begins to open an understanding of how to create unstated possibilities. Dagur Kári is someone who understands subtext and uses it to great effect to create both sorrow and laughter.

In an early scene, Fusi goes for his usual Friday pad thai at the same Asian restaurant and the proprietor says, “The usual?” Later, when Fusi takes Sjöfn to the restaurant, not only is her presence such a change filled with hope that the proprietor gives them a complimentary appetizer. The scene is filled with information for the viewer. The delight of the proprietor says something about the fact that Fusi, in spite of his seldom speaking, being a genuinely likeable person.

Sjöfn says to Fusi, you come here every Friday, you must be an expert on the menu and he has to admit that he always orders the same thing. Not only is the scene humorous as she asks her questions and is taken aback by Fusi’s answers, but Fusi’s short confessions reveal how small is the world he has created for himself. The scene is brilliant but it is only one of many that is brilliant.

The restrained dialogue works very well. Life is filled up with silences. But actions can be filled with meaning and dialogue can counter point it.

When Fusi first gives Sjhön a ride, their conversation is both crazy and funny. “You’re not weird are you? You aren’t going to rape me?,” she asks. Fusi has to think about the question before replying with his rather puzzled no. She asks him a number of questions and his answer is always no, but it isn’t a defensive no or an angry no. It’s a no that says what she is asking is inconceivable. In a scene with his mother, he’s cooking in his mother’s kitchen, his mother comments on how his cooking has improved and asks about Sjhön. The dialogue is common, ordinary but filled with his mother’s fears.

This is a movie of deft moves by the director, by right on performances by the actors, major and minor. It is not a big movie with a large landscape, a cast of thousands, a pounding musical score, violent action. It is like a delicately constructed box filled with surprising compartments. Some of the compartments contain tears, some laughter, some deep thought, some hope, some compassion, some disappointment. It creates individuals and scenes that will stay etched on the viewer’s memory for a very long time.

In a film with so little dialogue, every word is important. Every word must move the plot forward and, doing triple duty, reveal character while developing theme. Gunnar Jónsson is known in Iceland as a TV comedian. He understands the importance of words, their pacing, and the way they are said. His (Fusi’s) repeated, not quite comprehending no’s do more than a speech would from someone else. Playing against him is Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and she, wracked by euphoria and depression, has a voice filled with emotion. She brings possibilities, not just of sex (as some of Fusi‘s coworker baggage handlers at the airport would see it) and love, but of Fusi escaping the small, insulated life he has created for himself.

After watching Virgin Mountain, I thought of the magic casket that Steinar of Hliöar made for the king of Denmark. “It was divided into several compartments of different sizes. Under the largest compartments, which were detachable, was the bottom; but there was more to that than met the eye, because under it there lay three, some say four, secret compartments which no one could open except by an ingenious special device”. And so does Dagur build his film, scene by scene, each one so there is much more than meets the eye, each one creating the layered reality of what looks on the surface like a simple life.

Gimli Film Festival: Bloodflowers2

Most film makers spend more time raising money than they do making films. Budget looms over their heads in development, pre-production, production and post-production. The less money they have to raise, the better chance of getting the film made. That’s one of the reasons that so many bad films are made. The producers who can raise the money get to produce films. Their ability to raise money isn’t necessarily connected to their ability to make good films.

From the writer’s perspective, none of this really matters. There’s a general rule that the writer of the book won’t be hired to adapt it for film. That comes from long experience in which writers were found to be too difficult to work with in adapting. They wanted to stay with the original purpose, the integrity of the story or novel. The film people just want to buy the “property” and use it to raise funds to make a film. They don’t necessarily care about the original work. In any case, film is a different medium and, to be successful, has other demands.

Sometimes, if the producer has some extra money and really wants the property, he’ll buy off the writer by agreeing to his/her writing the first draft. It’s usually a meaningless exercise. A film script may end up going through fifty drafts and six or seven writers. The one still standing at the end gets the credit. Or, the producer will include a clause saying the writer will be consulted on the artistic integrity of the adaptation. It’s nonsense, of course. “Here’s a thousand bucks so we can consult you. Take the money and get lost.”

The truth is that most fiction writers don’t have the training or experience to adapt their work to film. They also bring with them a lot of problems. However, hiring someone else is no guarantee that the film is going to be adapted by someone else who is competent. It’s not unknown for the script writer’s job to go to whomever the producer is currently sleeping with. Even if someone competent is hired, the adaptive process involves many people. It’s collaborative. That is completely unlike what the fiction writer is used to. The fiction writer works alone, perhaps  for years, on a novel, then gets a contract for a book and will work in an uneasy alliance with an editor. Script writing is a team effort and, often, the members of the team change during the process.

So, unless the writer of the original work has experience adapting scripts for film, it’s better to have an agent (yes, you have to have an agent in dealing with film makers, otherwise, they’ll skin you alive) get as big a payment as possible up front. Have her make sure that the writer’s name actually gets onto the screen credits. Film makers won’t just take all the money they can, they’ll take all the credit they can. It’s called building a career. Once the original work, “the property” is sold, the writer should go write another novel. When the film comes out, if it does, go to it just to see if your name is actually in the credits.