The Last Knit: dealing with a personal inner hell of addiction and compulsion

Laura Neuvonen, “The Last Knit” (2005)

Technically this digital animated short is well done but the very simple plot of a woman addicted to knitting a long, long scarf that ends up pulling her over a cliff doesn’t really justify the effort put into the cartoon. The short’s theme on addiction and on how individuals risk their lives and health to satisfy that hunger or need that can never be satisfied become obvious early on. The problem though is that once the theme and the sole character are established, the plot seems at a loss as to what to do with the woman so it keeps digging around in its own groove, the woman knitting and knitting and knitting until the wool runs out so she has to use her hair … all while the scarf grows longer and longer, runs over the cliff’s edge and threatens to pull her into a literal as well as existential void. Come to think of it, all this repetition might be part of the theme of addiction as well … the film is just as addicted to keeping the woman on a one-track journey to her own hell.

Just when you think all is lost for the character, she manages to break her addiction to knitting, only to fall for another … Unfortunately the film does not supply any more information about how the woman came to be addicted to knitting in the first place and whether that addiction replaced still another compulsion. Viewers aren’t likely to feel much connection with or sympathy for the character. The cliff-side setting is attractive and important for the plot but again we learn nothing about why the woman must be there in the first place. The whole scene looks set up for a suicide and perhaps as the short comes to a close and the woman shows signs of developing another uncontrollable obsession, the prospect of suicide as a release from a personal inner hell becomes a possibility.

At the time of its release, the film was popular in film festivals around the world but its theme and the implications of that theme, along with the shortcomings of the plot and the character design, seem to have made sure that the film would be forgotten.

Tom of Finland: a film of hope, sympathy for underdogs and inspiration to others suffering hardship and oppression

Dome Karukoski, “Tom of Finland” (2017)

As a general introduction to the life of gay icon Tom of Finland, real name Touko Laaksonen, for a general viewing audience, this film is adequate enough. Spanning roughly four decades, it follows Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) from his youth when he was conscripted into the Finnish army to fight the Russian enemy in the late 1930s / early 1940s, to his eventual fame as an artist specialising in drawing hyper-sexualised erotic gay pornography. Early on, Laaksonen kills a Russian pilot and this incident haunts him on and off throughout the rest of his life. After being decorated for heroism during World War II, Laaksonen finds himself isolated and marginalised socially because of his homosexuality, in a period when homosexuality was illegal and couples engaging in furtive sexual activity in parks and public toilets at night were hunted down and beaten up by police. Frustrated, Laaksonen pours his troubles out into homoerotic drawings of hyper-masculine beefcake fellows in skin-tight leather biker outfits and lumberjack clothing. In the meantime, Laaksonen’s sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) helps him get a job at her advertising agency employer and also invites a young male dancer Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen) to be their tenant to help pay the rent: Laaksonen realises he has met Nipa before and that Nipa is also gay.

Kaija had hoped Nipa would be the love of her life and for a while the two do act like a couple. Eventually though – the film does not make this too clear – Nipa and Touko become the couple and Kaija accepts and tolerates the relationship. The two men conduct their relationship clandestinely at secret underground clubs and a diplomat’s home until one evening when police raid the diplomat’s mansion and make arrests. The diplomat himself is exposed as gay, loses his job and is forced to undergo treatment to “cure” him of his homosexual tendencies.

After seeing Touko’s drawings, Nipa convinces him to send the drawings to a publisher in the United States. After publication, Touko’s work (under the Tom of Finland name) becomes popular with the gay community in California whose members use the sketches as part of their code to signal to other gay men who they are and if they are sexually available. In due time, Touko earns enough money from the drawings that he and Nipa can buy their own apartment, furnish it how they want (with yellow curtains that Touko calls “sissy”) and live fairly openly as a gay couple. Touko no longer needs to work at the advertising agency and can devote his time to drawing homoerotic pictures. He is brought to the US by two fans where he is introduced to the gay biker sub-culture which his pictures helped to inspire. By this time though, Nipa has been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and his ailment is the precursor to the HIV – AIDS crisis that hits gay communities around the world hard. Touko is anguished that his drawings may have encouraged the promiscuity associated with the disease and with the help of his American friends resolves to help fight the disease and the politically conservative backlash against gay people.

As a film espousing hope and sympathy for the hardships that gay people have had to suffer, “Tom of Finland” probably has few equals. Unfortunately though the film gives little information about how society in Finland changes over the decades from one hostile and repressive towards homosexuality and homosexual people into one more tolerant and relaxed enough to make a film celebrating Laaksonen as a significant cultural icon. We do not learn when homosexuality was decriminalised in Finland (the year was 1971 when the law was changed) and when it was declassified as an illness (1981). The film’s narrow focus on Touko’s personal life and relationships to the exclusion of the changing social context around him robs it of a definite linear structure that would have given it more direction and made the film more relevant to a non-Finnish audience.

For a film with not much plot to work with, “Tom of Finland” is surprisingly absorbing, perhaps because its central characters are stoic yet sensitive, and need to be pushed by other people to get what is due to them. Touko needs Kaija to get him out of his post-war depression and needs Nipa to prod him to send his artwork to a publisher, setting in train the distribution of the drawings that will make his reputation. Kaija herself needs pushing but tragically rejects opinions that her own artwork is good and worthy of exhibiting. Seeing Kaija being left behind as an artist whose potential remains unrealised, and as a lonely spinster figure heavily dependent on mainstream approval and scornful of her brother’s “dick drawings”, I could not help but feel pity for her.

The film’s style for the most part is low-key and subtle: Touko’s liaisons are treated over-cautiously and even the scenes of gay life in California tend towards the tasteful side. The only exposed male genitalia are those of Touko’s drawings: even the fantasy figure Kake who sometimes appears in Touko’s dreams is always covered up. On the whole, the film is enjoyable to watch as a work of historical drama fiction portraying an individual and a subculture navigating their way through mainstream society’s limitations and testing its boundaries over the years.

The film provides no explanation as to why Touko was drawn to sketching and illustrating pictures of gay male beefcake types in working class fashions, or how and why motorcycles and the biker leather fashions that grew up around them after World War II should have become associated with gay subcultures.

Le Havre: emotionally deep and heartwarming film about the value of community, love and friendships

Aki Kaurismäki, “Le Havre” (2011)

A heartwarming comedy drama that focusses on deception and the plight of illegal migrants, “Le Havre” features characters, a plot and a deadpan style that masks deep emotion and warmth typical of Kaurismäki’s films. Failed bohemian writer Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) live in a tiny house in a down-and-out neighbourhood in the French port of Le Havre; Marcel ekes out a living cleaning customers’ shoes at the town’s main train station together with his friend Chang. One day Arletty falls sick with a stomach tumour and must be rushed to hospital. At the same time, French police intercept a shipping container in which several illegal migrants from Africa are hiding; while the cops and the Red Cross workers are interviewing the migrants, one of them, a young boy called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), manages to run away. He meets Marcel at the town’s harbour and Marcel, left alone with pet dog Laika, gladly takes the boy in and shields him from the police. From then on, Marcel juggles the task of finding Idrissa’s grandfather and obtaining the London address of the youngster’s mother while keeping him out of trouble and away from Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who has been tasked with the job of flushing out Idrissa and taking him into custody.

The plot is highly improbable and Marcel manages to bluff his way through situations that ordinary mortals would simply fail at: he convinces a detective that he is a lawyer; he reconciles an estranged couple so that his charity concert, intended to raise money for Idrissa’s journey across the English Channel, can go ahead; he and Idrissa have several close escapes from the police. The characters’ dialogue is deadpan comic and doesn’t express any emotion at all; the actors themselves express feeling through eye contact and body language. Obviously the more experienced and older actors do a better job of conveying feeling through gestures and looks than Miguel does as Idrissa but since the young actor is portraying a shy and quiet boy, the one-dimensional character of Idrissa can be overlooked; the emotional centre of the film is Marcel and Arletty, stoic and resigned at the hand life has dealt them both but faithful and loving to each other and able to appreciate small gestures of love and care from each other and their neighbours. Everyone in Marcel’s neighbourhood has suffered hardship but bears up with good-humoured resilience and looks out for one another when the heavy hand of authority invades the street with brutality and bureaucratic indifference.

The comedy addresses in small ways some serious issues in modern French society: the fear and paranoia people feel towards illegal African and specifically Muslim migrants who are imagined to be linked to terrorist groups; the plight of these migrants and poor people like the Marxes, forced to survive in an underground economy disowned by the larger society, itself beset by financial crisis and uncertainty; the thuggishness of the police of whom only Monet proves to possess any humanity in spite of his avowed dislike for people (his character simply underlines the indifference and brutish nature of the police – and by extension, the French government authorities – towards ordinary people; the need for people to dissemble or fake their identities or life stories in order to survive or to maintain relationships. In the end, faith in themselves and hope that life can allow miracles to happen in an otherwise uncaring world are all that Marcel, Idrissa and those who help them rely on to remain and feel alive.

The film’s eccentric style and characters are reinforced by the eclectic choice of music and an enjoyable diversion into a rock’n’roll performance by an ageing Elvis wannabe rock star Little Bob (Robert Piazza aka Little Bob) at Marcel’s charity gig. No-one can say that French people can’t rock after this movie!

Very similar to a previous film “The Man with no Past” which also starred Kati Outinen and with many of the same plot devices, “Le Havre” is a warm and compassionate film about the value of community, love and friendships that cross social barriers and bureaucracy.

 

 

The Sampo: good-looking film with a moral let down by watered-down story and wooden acting

Risto Orko and Alexander Ptushko, “The Sampo” (1959)

A joint Finnish-Soviet fantasy production aimed at a family audience, “The Sampo” is a very loose retelling of some of the tales in the Finnish national epic Kalevala. In the original stories, the aged bard and poet Väinämöinen is the major character but here becomes a support character with scattered screen time here and there. The film’s focus falls on the fortunes of the hunter Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin) and the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) as they battle the evil witch Louhi of the North Country (Pohjola). The trouble starts when Louhi (Anna Oroshko), greedy for personal wealth, decides she wants a sampo made. The only person in the world with the knowledge and skill to make a sampo, a magical object that can dispense endless riches, is Ilmarinen so Louhi contrives a scheme to force him to come to her. She kidnaps his beautiful young sister Annikki (Eve Kivi) and holds her prisoner; the news soon reaches Ilmarinen. Lemminkäinen has been wooing Annikki so he and Ilmarinen leave their community Kaleva and travel together to Pohjola to rescue Annikki. Louhi demands ransom in the form of the sampo and another arduous task from both men so they oblige and eventually Annikki is released to go back home with them.

Sounds all very straightforward but some complications arise: Lemminkäinen decides Louhi can’t be allowed to keep the sampo all to herself so he swims back to the witch’s cave hideout while Ilmarinen and Annikki continue home. Lemminkäine ‘s rash actions endanger himself and his entire community in Kaleva as Louhi swears vengeance on him and tries to destroy his people by stealing the sun. Väinämöinen (Urho Somersalmi), portrayed as the community’s leader, leads his people in a cooperative effort to fight Louhi and her army of sorcerers. Unfortunately for everyone, the sampo itself ends up destroyed, its parts scattered throughout the world, and Lemminkainen is only able to retrieve a small part for Kaleva.

Viewers may quibble that a TV series with hour-long episodes would have better suited Kalevala with its different stories and their subplots: the great Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were successfully televised as ongoing TV series by India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan in the 1980’s at a time when that country was much less wealthy than it is now and the special effects needed for both shows must have been a massive and hugely expensive undertaking. As it is, “The Sampo” is a series of little episodes in an overarching story about ambition and greed and the disasters they cause along with the value of cooperative effort in overcoming a great enemy. There is some redemption as well. At least the moral messages that appear compensate for the patchy good-versus-evil plot which doesn’t do justice to the epic’s complexity and dark characters. Some original Kalevala stories are worked into the movie but in a way that drains them of their power and prevents them from enriching the plot and its characters: to take one example, the subplot in which Lemminkäinen’s mother (Ada Voitsik) rescues her son and brings him back to life is so whitewashed from its original that a lesson about effort and sacrifice is precluded and so the subplot becomes unnecessary. One story that unfortunately didn’t find its way into the film is Louhi’s all-out showdown with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen in the boat carrying the sampo; the script-writers substituted two weak episodes separating the fight and the sampo’s destruction.

The film’s main asset is its special effects: they may look cheap and some are cheesy but they’re right for the job and aren’t excessive for their scenes. (Now that would be cheesy!) Ilmarinen’s separate creations of a horse and boat from fire and metal are suitably awe-inspiring and his sampo, a slightly hokey creation of coloured crystal, actually gains credibility as a wealth generator and then as a good luck charm once in pieces. Scenes in which Kaleva is cursed with everlasting blizzard and winter and in which some unfortunate people are covered over with snow are commendable. On the other hand some effects are quite comic and probably unnecessary: the twirling bear shot merely looks weird and creepy and the scenes with a talking birch tree are laughable.

Speaking of trees, yours truly finds the main characters Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen as solid, expressive and unyielding as wood: they don’t so much talk to each other and to others as declaim their sentences. Lemminkäinen dares just about anything and everything to knock him over – his face is frozen into expressions of resolution of varying degrees – and even death doesn’t wipe that mask off his visage. Annikki is just a McGuffin figure to get Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen up and running to Pohjola to meet the witch. The only worthy acting (maybe over-acting) comes from Oroshko who clearly relishes playing Louhi. Believe it or not, Oroshko is female in spite of her character’s very mannish appearance with overgrown eyebrows. Some of Louhi’s sorcerers offer performances to match Oroshko in overdone drama, especially when they think of the sampo and say in wonder: “…. sampo! …” and get that dazed faraway look in their eyes, but the camera doesn’t pay much attention to these individuals.

The film looks very beautiful and colourful in a way that might remind viewers of a certain age of Walt Disney nature documentaries of the 1950s – 60s; wherever the opportunity beckons, the camera lavishes its gaze on the silvery forests, the lakes and rivers, and general Finnish countryside scenery. The impression is of serenity and tranquillity in the dark and still birch trees. Opening scenes in the movie show rural people at work cutting down trees to clear the land for planting crops. Once the focus is on Lemminkainen and Ilmarinen journeying to Pohjala to save Annikki, the film pays no more attention to portraying rural Finnish life other than showing how men and women dress and how the interiors of their houses might appear. Unfortunately being a good-looking fantasy film isn’t enough: a strong plot, lots of adventure, memorable characters tested and matured by adversity, and interactions with conflict – and the original Kalevala has plenty of these! – are just lacking here.

The Man without a Past: heart-warming comedy about need for “identity” to survive in modern society

Aki Kaurismäki, “The Man without a Past” (2002)

A heart-warming comedy about a man who is beaten up and left for dead but survives only to find he has no memory of his name or of his previous life, “The Man without a Past” is a showcase of Finnish stoicism, wry deadpan humour and eccentricity beneath an apparently conformist veneer. The unnamed everyman hero, played by Markku Peltola, has just got off a train with a large case and goes to sit in a city park. He dozes off and while asleep, is attacked and viciously beaten by thugs who take his wallet. The victim, whom we’ll call M, is taken to hospital where the medical staff pronounce him dead and leave him alone in bed. At that point, M springs up and leaves the hospital, bandaged face and all, and ventures out into the city streets and along the harbour front where he is found by two boys. They take him home which turns out to be an old shipping container where they and their parents have had to live while waiting to join the queue for public housing. So begins the new life of M among a community of homeless city people in a world that operates under the radar of mainstream society and visited only by charities like the Salvation Army, one of whose members, Irma (Kati Ouitnen), forms a romantic relationship with M.

The visual style of the film looks very clear and clean, almost innocent even; it shows a world where everything is taken at face value and any search for meaning or logic to the things that destiny dishes out to you is fruitless. The absurdism of M’s world is reflected in his encounters with representatives of mainstream society: the office manager at the construction site where M tries to apply for work tells him he can’t be paid in cash but must have a bank account so the banks can keep tabs on his spending; the bank clerk tells him he can have a Swiss bank account with just a number but he must still give his name and address details; the bank robber shoots out the CCTV camera (which wasn’t working anyway) but steals money only from his own account; and the police inspector and the lawyer appointed to defend M pull out large tomes, flip thin pages and argue over detailed technical aspects and exemptions to the law that requires M to be detained as a vagrant or possible trouble-maker. The comedy arising from these incidents is very dry and poker-faced, slightly sinister and satirical, and may say something pointed and terse about the nature of bureaucracy in Finland or bureaucracy generally.

Characters as directed have a calm, even slightly robotic, nature to them with deadpan voices and facial expressions. People accept disappointment and disaster stoically and if and when good luck comes to them, their reaction is hardly more expressive. What dialogue there is, is in the form of speeches or statements of fact; rarely do people express what and how they feel. Even in intimate scenes between M and Irma, the emotion tends to be sensed in the mood of the scene and in the characters’ very minimal body language; there is a kissing scene but the camera doesn’t hold it for long and the actions are very matter-of-fact. The scene in which M is reunited with his wife, who informs him of the divorce while he was missing, and meets her new beau is amazingly (though logical given the kind of universe the film operates in) calm and civilised; the two men debate whether they should get upset and punch each other’s lights out, then make their decision, shake hands and depart on friendly terms. Perhaps the measure of acting skill lies in actors’ ability not to crack up or smirk while delivering funny lines in comic situations and in this, the whole cast including two small boys and a dog passes the test with ease.

Some viewers might see a strong if pedantic Christian message in the film: among other things, Irma persuades M to go back to his wife even though M doesn’t remember the woman and Irma herself would become a lonely singleton again. Those passages in the movie that deal with Salvation Army characters fall in line with the absurdist nature of the universe presented: the SA members on the whole act very much like the secular characters in the film, winking at ideas and practices that possibly conflict with SA ideals and beliefs but which do no harm to others or bring non-believers into the SA fold. Scenes in which M persuades the SA musicians to update their repertoire of songs to include more rock and pop standards and to use electric guitars and a full drum-kit are droll and touching. The music in “The Man …” is very eclectic and whimsical, going from Christian hymns to rockabilly, and though the eclecticism of music choice and the result might seem weird to people outside Finland, as a proud owner of a stack of Finnish rock and pop albums ranging from electronic folk pop to black metal, I can vouch for the music soundtrack being the kind of creature Finnish society and culture accept as within the range of normal music.

The message that most viewers will go away with is that life continually goes forward and you do what you can to keep going in the face of official indifference but there is a deeper, perhaps more sinister theme. In a way, “The Man …” is a sad film: it emphasises that without an official identity, people don’t exist. M is forced by circumstances to make a new life for himself in an underground community that accepts him with no hesitation and whose values make it more alive than mainstream society where you are “alive” only because you have a name, a social security number or ongoing credit card transactions that your bank can trace. In the film, everything becomes inverted to reflect the contrast between the two societies: cold becomes warm, lack of outward emotion demonstrates inner warmth and Hannibal the fierce guardian dog is really just a friendly pooch. By the same token, outward warmth and expressiveness mask inner cold and inhumanity. Venturing into mainstream society in order to get a job and earn money to pay his rent for his own shipping container home, M falls into a world more completely Kafkaesque than anything the famous Czech writer wrote.

Perhaps not a film for everyone, and not very realistic, but in its modest way this is a very optimistic film of hope and salvation in which a character undergoes a major change and rediscovers life and humanity.