The ‘90s were another country. The late ‘80s had given us malls, pizza delivery, even more TV and, most important, beer. One could smoke indoors and comfortably wear leather jackets. All of this made it a good time to be young. And yet, as much as things had changed just before then, they have perhaps changed more since.
Probably the ultimate ‘90s literary statement in these parts was ‘101 Reykjavík,’ Hallgrímur Helgason’s breakthrough novel. It details the life of Hlynur, a 33-year old who lives with his mother and scours the flea market for porn and the K-bar for girls, but mostly gets high on the twin drugs of VHS and cable TV. A lovable rascal at the time of publication in 1996, some of his habits, such as instantly giving a price tag to every woman he encounters, looks rather less savoury today. There is even a price list at the end of the book. Top marks go to Pamela Anderson (4,700,000 ISK). It was, after all, the ‘90s. There are also allusions to underage sex, animal sex, papal sex. Everything becomes more shocking as time goes by.
Slackers ain’t what they used to be
Almost. Same sex unions were legally recognized in 1996 and, in a remarkably short space of time, being gay went from warranting beatings in bars to Pride being one of the biggest festivals of the year. It was as if gay people were being noticed for the first time and here it was still okay to make jokes, as long as you had a few gay acquaintances. In fact, the lesbian relationship between the protagonist’s mother and another woman forms the centrepiece of the book. Hlynur is fine with it, his sister less so.
Even slackers ain’t what they used to be.
In the film adaptation of 101 Reykjavík, which trailed the book by just four years, the VHS has been exchanged for an Apple Mac and Lolla, Hlynur’s mother’s girlfriend from out of town, has become Lola, a Spanish flamenco teacher. This was partly to get some arthouse cred by enlisting the services of Almodovar stalwart Victoria Abril, but it was also an accurate reflection of the internationalisation of Reykjavík. The novel seems to depict a place isolated from the world except via satellite TV. The movie less so—even if it is always snowing.
And as intended the film version was one of the few Icelandic films at the time to attract attention on the international scene and launched the directing career of Baltasar Kormákur, who later scaled the heights of Hollywood with ‘Everest.’ Baltasar, himself a frequent resident and part-owner of K-Bar, co-stars in the film and fellow barman Damon Albarn delivers the music.
The film succeeds quite well in rendering Hallgrímur’s verbal gymnastics as cinema. There is a voice-over, but thankfully no speaking to the camera or price tags. Hlynur’s trek to a mountain to kill himself is beautifully shot and the whole colour palette is a bit Kaurismäkian. Some of Hlynur’s more unsavoury moments, such as getting his sister pregnant by stealing her contraception or poisoning his brother-in-law with ecstasy, are left out of the film. In some ways the film ages better than the book, although Baltasar’s recital of tired ‘90s jokes not from the source might have been left out.
We’ll always have K-bar
‘101 Reykjavík’ launched the career of two of Iceland’s most notable artists of the past decades in their respective fields and made the postal code into a byword for bohemia. This may have changed too, since it is now becoming the domain of puffin stores, hotels and Airbnbs. But Kaffibarinn is still bopping. We will always have K-Bar.