Of snowstorms and Icelandic horses

In January, a friend from the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation contacted me to let me know an Icelandic film would be playing in Portland as part of the 37th Annual Portland International Film Festival.  SHF often sponsors Nordic films showing at the festival, and they were interested in doing so for this film if they could get a couple co-sponsors.  So I set about using my best persuasive writing skills, and soon found out that the Icelandic National League of North America had generously agreed to co-sponsor the film.

PIFF has featured a number of Icelandic films over the years, including Nóí Albinóí, Reykjavík-Rotterdam, and Jar City.  This year’s selection was Benedikt Erlingsson’s Hróss í oss (Of Horses and Men), Iceland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

I worked with SHF to plan and promote a reception to be held before the film’s first showing on Saturday, February 8.  There was going to be vínarterta and kleinur and good fellowship.  Alas, it was not meant to be; Snowpocalypse* paralyzed the metro area and we were forced to cancel the reception.  Sadly, we were unable to reschedule.  However, the snow melted and I made it out to Portland to see the second showing of the film the next week.  I met my new Icelandic friend Edda and her daughter-in-law Vanessa at CineMagic, a historic single-screen theater on Hawthorne.  I admit I was a little surprised to see that the showing was sold out. Every single extremely uncomfortable vintage chair was filled.

The film is in Icelandic with English subtitles.  There is so little dialogue, though, and the images are so striking, that I think the effect would be almost the same with no subtitles or even as a silent film.

Anyway, what did I think of the film?  Consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

The Icelandic landscape?  Just as beautiful as I expected.

The body count? Much higher than I expected.

I know it is typical of non-American films to have a more ambiguous tone and defy easy labels such as “comedy” and “drama.”  And I know the official description of Hross í oss says, “Love and death become interlaced and with immense consequences.”  But I didn’t expect quite so much death.  I didn’t expect to go from laughter at a scene of ridiculous comedy one minute to horror at the sudden murder of a horse the next.  I didn’t go to the theater expecting to see someone’s eyes bloodied by a barbed wire fence.  And I definitely didn’t expect to see a man (who for no apparent reason became separated from a group of riders) get stuck in a snowstorm and forced to kill his horse, pull out its intestines by the fistful onto the snowy ground, and crawl inside the warm body cavity to survive.

I was telling a friend about the film’s bewildering tonal shifts and he remarked, “well, isn’t that more like real life?”  Perhaps it is.  I realize comedy and tragedy coexist in real life, and it’s not that I don’t think they should in art as well.  Maybe if my expectations aligned more closely with the reality of the film, I would not have been so disappointed.  But unfortunately, the film left a sour taste in my mouth.

I think I will stick with Brúðguminn.

Really, though, I am glad an Icelandic film was featured at the festival this year, and I am very thankful for the INL’s generous support.  I wish Snowpocalypse hadn’t interfered with our reception plans, but I suppose that is just real life (minus the equine innards, thank goodness).

If you’re interested in judging the film for yourself, you can start by watching the trailer here.  I believe the film is slated for wider release outside of Iceland this spring, but I’m guessing it will still be limited to major cities.  Check Fandango or your local listings to see if it’s playing near you.

*Snowpocalypse (noun) – an occurrence of snow and/or other forms of frozen precipitation in the greater Portland area that results in widespread panic, closed schools, cessation of everyday activities, and near paralysis of local infrastructure.  Alternate definition: Something that makes Canadians laugh.

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Þorrablót 2014

Well hello there, blog!  Long time no see.  We have a lot to catch up on, but I figured I would start with the most recent happenings and work my way backward.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my first Þorrablót celebration.  Þorrablót, for the uninitiated, is not just a really odd-sounding word, but also an Icelandic mid-winter feast usually celebrated with large quantities of traditional (and mostly disgusting) Icelandic foods, drink, dancing, and general merriment.  The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle hosted this year’s event at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.

I drove up to Seattle on Saturday afternoon, and despite my GPS system’s best efforts to thwart me, safely arrived at the museum with plenty of time to spare.  I sat at a table you could call “Snorris and Friends,” if you felt the need to give the table a dorky name (which I kind of do).  Our company included myself; my fellow 2012 Snorri Amanda and her mom, who was visiting from Hawaii; my Snorri Plus friend David; Greg, an Iceland Airwaves enthusiast/addict and KEXP volunteer; Crys, aspiring 2014 Snorri, and her friend Annea; and Rúnar and Guðrún, an Icelandic couple visiting Seattle for the first time.  Greg and I chatted about Icelandic music and discovered we had been at a couple of the same concerts last year (Sigur Rós in Bend and Ólafur Arnalds in PDX).  I also spent a lot of time talking to Rúnar, who is an author, translator, and professor of creative writing at the University of Iceland.  He and Guðrún are both from the Westfjords.  Áfram Vestfirðir!

As mentioned previously, the vast Þorramatur spread included a number of foods that are really best described as disgusting, many of which I tried in Iceland, including hrútspungar (those tasty soured ram’s testicles), hákarl (the infamous fermented shark), and sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam).  Having tried these foods once, and having a distinct memory of walking up and down Óðinsgata after our Taste of Iceland dinner feeling extremely unwell, I felt no inclination to partake in the soured-meat-eating portion of the evening.  I maintained a vegetarian (read: safe and non-stinky) plate, including salad, veggies, potatoes, mashed rutabagas, rúgbrauð með smjör, and pickled red cabbage.

Those who tried the hákarl reported that it really wasn’t bad at all.  This leads me to conclude that all rotten sharks are not rotted alike, because I am still a bit haunted by the sheer strength of the smell that emanated from our little container of hákarl cubes in Iceland.

Dessert was much safer – pönnukökur með rjóma and skyr with blueberries.  And coffee – of course, coffee.

But the part of the evening I was most excited about was the music.  Several months ago, I got an email from David telling me about some of the plans for Þorrablót.  I was reading this email in my car (I was at a red light, promise!) and I just barely glanced at a sentence that said something about a hip Icelandic band coming to play at Þorrablót.  The thought immediately flashed into my mind – wouldn’t that be crazy if it was Ylja coming to Seattle?  Ylja is the band I saw play at my beloved kaffihús in Patreksfjörður.  After I returned from Iceland, they released an album and rapidly gained popularity.  Well, what do you know, when I had safely parked my car and could finish reading the email, I was surprised and excited to see that it really was Ylja coming to play at Þorrablót!

The first song Ylja played was my very favorite song (Á Rauðum Sandi) about one of my very favorite places in Iceland (Rauðasandur).  It took me right back to July 2012 and made me so incredibly homesick for that time and place.

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Ylja played a great (if a bit short) set of songs from their album, plus a cover and one or two new tunes.  Then they led the crowd in a singalong of a few traditional Icelandic songs (only one of which I vaguely knew – Ó María, Mig Langar Heim, which one of the locals sang at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós).

After that, the DJ started spinning some classic dance tunes (Billie Jean, Love Shack, Dancing Queen – you get the picture) and a couple dozen attendees, inhibitions loosened by the Brennivín, perhaps, took the action to the dance floor.  What surprised and entertained me the most was that the dancing crowd was not exactly composed of the younger adults in attendance.  Hey, more power to them!

Anyway, it is always a joy to spend time with my Icelandic family, friends new and old who love Iceland as much as I do.  Big thanks to the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle for throwing a great event, to my tablemates for the great conversation, to Chef Kristín Ósk Gestsdóttir for the food, and to Ylja for a beautiful glimpse back at a time and place I miss so much and cherish so dearly.