Friday, 6 December 2013

Finnish Cult Movies IV: Working Class Heroes (and Zeroes)

Happy First of May Independence Day! This day marks one of the biggest festivities of the year in Finland. It used to mark the day for the worker's, unions and students veterans, and while they have their share of partying, nowadays Mayday Independence Day is just a basic binge-drinking go-nuts hand-shakes and watch a war movie first day of Spring Christmas. So much so that it usually starts out way ahead of time. I'm actually a bit hung-over myself now so you'll excuse me as to why this post runs so late. Anyway, here are several films that celebrate the finnish working-class citizens by their own rights.

The Classic (Klassikko, 2001)
Director: Kari Väänänen

This classic by name already got a reputation back when it first came out and only grew in respect when it was broadcast on TV a while later. As such, I have fond memories of reciting lines with friends in my teens. But does the film hold up even today? Well, yes and no.

The movie is based on the cult novel by Kari Hotakainen, itself a comedic, exaggerated vision of the author's own bohemian life. A newspaper editor hints at Hotakainen (Martti Suosalo) that he should write autobiographical texts about real-world subjects. The lonely and quiet writer is confused since he has little life of which to write about. So he decides to buy a used car and write about the experience. But he has to meet some strange people such as the nihilistic salesman Kartio (Matti Onnismaa) and the jobless layabout Pera (Janne Hyytiäinen), in order to do so. Pera in particular will stop at nothing to get his hands on the same car Hotakainen has been viewing, which sparks up a huge rivalry. These flabby machos drive the disgruntled small guy over the edge.

Today, some aspects, such as the increasingly important role given to the (now retired) news anchor Arvi Lind are a bit old-fashioned. Likewise the ending isn't as sharp nor farcical as it attempts to be. Yet the film does uncover some universal truths from the behavior of Finnish men, particularly when automobiles are concerned. The men are all alcoholic sad sacks, failures in every aspect, yet they wish to have one field in which they shine and that is with cars.

The film has good characterization of its male leads, they are well-acted and spout on-the-nose dialogue straight from the pen of Hotakainen. The film is a bit more down-to-earth approach of the depressing rural Finland of yesteryear than that from the films of the Kaurismäki brothers. But there are clear similarities, since the cinematographer, editor and sound mixer are veterans of Kaurismäki productions. And of course the director Kari Väänänen is remembered from sleazy roles from many of the brothers' classic films.


The Diary of a Worker (Työmiehen päiväkirja, 1967)
Director: Risto Jarva

From back when the division between the political Left and Right was the most important aspect in the Finnish culture, comes the classic Risto Jarva film, which takes three viewpoints into the subject; a worker, his middle-class wife and the bourgeoise father of the bride.

Juhani (Pauli Osipow) marries Ritva (Elina Salo), considered to be above his class. He works as a welder in a factory, while she is an office worker. The film follows the pair as they attempt to start their life anew and come to terms of the differences between their daily lives and all the aspects that come along with it. The relationship is strained by various problems, monetary, political and sexual alike. At one point infidelity also comes to the picture.

It's a rather realistic (and more than a bit depressing) image of a time when it was so hard to connect to anyone, even those closest to you. The passing of time is both deteministic and heartbreaking, as old ambitions and values slowly die out. Jarva's bleak black-and-white photography is sidelined by the inner monologues of its central characters.


The Last Gig (Viimeinen keikka, 1984)
Director: Matti Ijäs

Matti Ijäs is another bleak humorist who has insight on how the melancholic Finnish male mind works. As anothe rof his TV films, The Last Gig isn't quite on par with Katsastus, but rather good anyway. It concerns a group of older gentlemen, who, much like The Blues Brothers (or rather, Blues Brothers 2000, but don't hold that against this film), plan to put their old band together. The last gig is to play at the funeral of one among their ranks.

Of course it is never that simple and the crew runs into hijinks and trouble. They also come to terms with their age and mortality and wrap up issues, relationships and loves, started decades ago. The melancholic film does have healthy amounts of gallows humour, but it also preaches about taking the most out of life while it still lasts. Plenty of good actors all around, and good funny dialogue.


The Painting Sellers (Taulukauppiaat)
Director: Juho Kuosmanen

Can this 58-minute film from 2010 be said to be a cult film? Well, since almost nobody saw it at the time, but everyone who did, raved about it, it certainly fringes on the limit. In this one, the small-town salesmen come from one family, where the mother paints the pictures, the son drives the family around and the dad works as a manager, screwing everything up as best he can.

The film is set on Christmastime, which is the darkest and bleakest time of the year in all of Finland, particularly the more north you go. The sells of the paintings have been low, and in order to survive, the family needs money and fast. Not only the landscape is freezing, also the resentment met by the family and harbor towards each other comes through from time to time. The desperation seethes through every frame of the movie. There's a big amount of humor, but it is as pitch black as winter nights.

The film won first price at the Cannes Cinéfoundation young filmmakes's series. The major gripe with is is actually that it's so short and the characters would seem interesting enough to carry 30 more minutes of film easily. Kuosmanen's style is very naturalistic and at times one could almost mistake the film for a documentary. In fact there have been several work documents made through the years that are similar to this film on several levels. I will look into them next.


"The Faces of Finland" Trilogy:
These three trilogies following up workers searching for their lost fortunes aren't connected per se, but since critic Antti Tohka reviewed them together in a legendary text 10 years ago, they have been labeled together. All of them are tragi-comedic stories of bubbly personalities who appear surprisingly honest and earnest in front of the cameras are filming them. Just because they aren't the sort that can or will put on an act, it all adds up to the shared sense of shame.

Suckers (a.k.a. Vacuum-Cleaner Salesmen, Pölynimurikauppiaat, 1993)
Director: John Webster

During the miserable days of the Finnish Recession of 1991-93 a lot of people were left without a job and had to take on new careers. And since work was scarce, many took on any opportunities they found. I find it hard to believe anyone would choose to be a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman otherwise. It's one of the sleaziest jobs there is, next to tax auditors, meter maids and petty bureaucrats.

So, we follow three new salesmen (and -women) who try to come to terms with their jobs and rise back to success. One is a hapless, uneducated chump, the woman a slimy neoliberal rogue, and the last one a countryside bachelor that's all about cheery moods and backstabbing. The whole trio consists of quite miserable people, but they are still not quite sympathetic, since they are willing to cheat and lie their way to profit. The items they are selling are inferior in quality, but their company feeds them bullshit to pass on to unsuspecting customers. The most horrible of all is their red-faced boss who will want better profits at any costs, shouting like a police chief in a buddy cop movie if enough cleaners aren't sold.


Bussikavaljeeri (1996)
Director: Eeva Vuorenpää

A documentary about a cheerful bus driver from Savo is master-class in making the viewer cringe. The curly-haired Pentti Hartikainen wants to make his passengers to feel welcome and happy. He does so by using the intercom to chat about current affairs and singing songs. The unease of the passengers is well-earned, since people who take the bus in Finland generally don't want to socialize but to be left alone.

The film follows Hartikainen around and he's clowning around even when doing the most mundane, ordinary things. That's not to say that director can't find a more tragic side of the man, his separation from his past wife and leaving his child Matti clearly pains him. Pentti has met a nice woman while out on a cheap cruise, but since he forgot to get her contact info, he has to resort to futile newspaper advertisements. This film has a very Finnish message of no matter how much you try to appear positive and happy, life will screw you in the end anyway. This is a bit comforting thought to those of us who can't be bothered to fake.

Pentti tries to keep a close relationship to his son Matti, while at times it would seem to the viewer that even a little less closeness would suffice. Pentti doesn't seem to leave his son alone in a room once with his weekends with him. Amazingly, Matti does seem to like his father, as much of a clown he is. In the film's climax, the father and son get to visit Paris together. Of course, Pentti sees fit to sing out a traditional Finnish song out loud so that other tourists can glance at him disapprovingly.


Car Bonus (Autobonus, 2001)
Director: Mika Ronkainen

If vacuum cleaner salesmen and passenger-bothering annoying servicemen are horrible people, they have nothing on pyramid schemers, particularly when their scheme revolves around selling useless vitamins and health products for children.

To be fair, the people the movie follows, Viljo and Kaisu Mikkonen, do live in desperate times. At the time of the Great Finnish Recession, plenty of people lost their jobs, and it's only natural for a middle class couple to try to think outside the box to try to keep up with their cost of living. They used to own an electric company, but lost it when banks came crashing down. Now the Mikkonens try to sell as much bullshit products to earn a "car bonus" from their employer, a new car as a thanks for spreading their products around.

Of coruse, this ambition makes them ruin every friendship and connections to family members they have left. If they are invited to a summer cottage, the first thing Viljo and Kaisu do is get out their box of vitamins and start preaching about their usefulness. They also attend a sleazy conference when predatory salesmen and slimy frauds teach their pyramid ideas to gullible people.

Thus there's sympathy for Kaisu and Viljo as well, since they have been cheated at the time where they have been the most vunerable. The film does have some insight on what makes bad people in the world. The world of marketing in general doesn't seem too good after viewing this film. Director Ronkainen uses the cheesy music from informercials well on the soundtrack, giving everything a bit more farcical nature.


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