04 January 2014

No Explosions No Sex No Supernatural Just Great Cinema Aki Kaurismaki's Proletariat Triology

When I taught middle school I would occasionally meet my father for lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Once he brought my older brother along. All meals there started with soup. It was hot. Both my father and brother loudly slurped their soup. They weren't doing it in unison. Father slurp brother slurp father slurp brother slurp. Somehow it was more piquant than annoying. Both my father and brother are dead now and I no longer teach at the middle school. 

Who knows why we do anything. Sometimes the more we think about things before taking action the worse our decision is. This is especially true when things happen to us. The unexpected. We are often reflexive. Not always wrong. Or right. Just are. We also don't necessarily need to engage in long discussions. There's ultimately very little that needs to be picked over. It's done or being done or will be done and that should be that. Talk is cheap.

I got what is called the Aki Kaurismaki Proletariat Triology  DVD set for Christmas. I just finishing watching the three films. Two today. The set consists of Shadows in Paradise (1986) Ariel (1988) and Match Factory Girl (1990).

In these films people do a lot more smoking than talking. What's to talk about anyway?

I am Finnish so these films resonate with me in a particular way. I haven't been to the old country in many years but it is in my blood. The stoicism. Blank faces. Hidden emotions. Understatement. Silence. Irony. Even perhaps ironic silence -- that I can't say for sure.

I grew up in an extended Finnish family. We didn't hug but we loved the hell out of each other. We didn't talk about everything. Like no one discussed my mother's insanity. But we did things. We were honest.

The films that make up the proletariat set are all short. Clocking in at just under 80 minutes each. Tell the story and get out. No reason to hang around. They all involve people who make changes. Fairly sudden ones and pretty big ones. Murder spree marriage new career. This is a kind of just do it but not Nike style charge into the breach more with a shrug of the shoulders. Its the next thing in front of the character the logical move what you have to do. Or so it seems. It'll probably work out. We'll see. No need to worry about it.

These are working class people. A miner. A garbage collector. A factory worker. They don't feel trapped in their lives they are of them. If there is something better they'll take it. If adversity strikes then deal and move on. Adversity does strike. Hard. A father's suicide and then life's savings stolen then a prison sentence. Or how about a friend and partner's death or an unwanted pregnancy? Shit happens is the existential observation  about the nature of how ya never know and ya often have to deal. No one in Kaurismaki's films folds up. One character sheds a few tears but there's neither weeping nor wailing and no one throws fits. Anger is not expressed it is used to continue forward momentum. One clearly bitter character just calmly exacts revenge.

Most scenes takes place in Finland's capital Helsinki. These are not attractive depictions of what is in fact a beautiful city. Kaurismaki was not working for the tourist industry. The environs were selected and shot in such a way as to add to the mood.

If all sounds too bleak its not. Characters get what they want whether they want it or not. Whether freedom love or revenge it is served. It is all done with passion. Nothing you can see but there it is. Passion is not always a fiery speech or even any speech at all. It isn't just broad strokes or loud chords. It's just as likely keeping a head up and pushing on.

I don't recall a single character in any of the films bursting into laughter or for that matter laughing at  all. There may have been a titter but I doubt it. There's cuss words mixed into dialogue but there is no profane tirades. Sex is strongly implied but not seen. We get a kiss or two but not for very long. There are no flourishes no exclamation points no goddamned explosions.

Characters. We get characters. They drive the story. They are why all of Kaurismaki's films are so compelling. There is nothing more interesting in this world than watching what we do -- that is our fellow travelers in this life. This is what Kaurismaki understands. Shine a light -- but not a super bright one -- on a person. A person without extraordinary powers save perhaps the ability to be.

To be.

I love the hell out of these movies.

There is a Finnish parable. A man is being chased by a bear. He finally gets to a river where he can swim to safety. Half way across the river he sees a bear standing on the other side. The man laughs. What are you gonna do? Am I right?


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