A rare opportunity to see a nice part of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s work in a revival art house setting is underway in— of all places— Miami Beach, Florida. In a bold move of programming, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is presenting select pictures by Kaurismäki throughout the month of November under the banner of “Helsinki Cowboy.” So far, I have caught the career-defining Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and his latest, 2011’s Le Havre. Both distributed by Janus Films, the label behind the Criterion Collection home video series. As can be expected from Janus/Criterion the films indeed justify a theatrical setting, as the images are impeccable from the hi-def projector of the MBC.
Beyond the wonderful images, the films reveal a heartfelt yet serious director with a droll comedic bent. Later films to be screened during this retrospective include The Man Without a Past (2002). It was a breakthrough work that saw distribution in the US by Sony Pictures Classics and earned the director an Oscar nomination in the foreign film category. His follow-up, Lights in the Dusk (2006), will also screen. That film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival upon its release. Also screening before the movies are several Kaurismäki-directed music videos featuring the Leningrad Cowboys, the stars of Leningrad Cowboys Go America.
Thanks to my family in Finland, I had heard of Kaurismäki, especially his fictionalized band of “musicians,” the Leningrad Cowboys, who apparently were a regular fixture on the MTV of that part of the world in the early nineties. Because of Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the band that played the titular group was eclipsed in popularity by the fictional band of the movie. The Sleepy Sleepers would then carry on as the Leningrad Cowboys, thanks to the notoriety of that film. Below, see a clip of the Sleepy Sleepers only a year before the theatrical release of Leningrad Cowboys Go America, at a music festival:
Their look would become more uniform for the Kaurismäki film. Defined by a style that seemed to parody that of classic fifties-era American rock ‘n’ rollers, with exaggerated pompadours, pointy shoes and sunglasses, the “group” played over-the-top rock, that would fit comfortably in the rockabilly resurrection and ska sounds that were part of the late seventies and early eighties. It was fitting that their sound was 10 years behind the trend yet still fit in well with then modern, western acts like Fishbone and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who also resurrected the sound in the nineties alternative rock era.
Though Finland is Scandinavian and democratic, the implication was that this fictitious act came from the backwoods of Siberia. Kaurismäki introduced the “band” as some strange crossover vessel of cold war eastern European culture adapting to the growing pop culture of the West, as the iron curtain began to crumble in the late eighties. The film where this group made its debut offers a hint of the director’s quirky cinematic style as it was blossoming. He has an amazing deadpan sensibility, like a bitter, old Wes Anderson who still has a vague sense of what it was to be young and naïve.
The movie opens with the group of musicians, who seem to be the only inhabitants of some odd Siberian village, where the locals are defined by conical pompadours and pointy shoes (even a baby has a tall, triangular tuft of hair sticking up from out of the top of a crib). The band performs oompah-like music in a ramshackle shed to someone who appears to be a record label executive. After the music comes to a screaming halt, the band members stare in anticipation at the A&R rep who pauses to puff from a cigarette. “Shit,” he states. “No commercial potential. Go to America. They like all kinds of shit there.”
The band indeed head to America, rolling out of their village on tractors, dragging their frozen stiff bass player in a poor man’s coffin, his pointy shoes and pointy hair sticking up through the planks of wood. Following false promises of playing Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium by their shifty manager, they hit the road for a fantasy trip across the music landscape of the USA with Jim Jarmusch handing them the keys to their banged up wheels (two musicians need to sit in chairs in the open trunk of the old sedan in order to fit in the car, the bassist in his coffin strapped to the roof).
These characters arrived at the final warming of the cold war. Though Finnish, they clearly reference the chilly, stark distance of Mother Russia. With mostly deadpan presence, they crunch out driving rock tunes at an array of dive bars for change. It’s decades of repression taking its first baby steps to find a way to express itself. Though the Leningrad Cowboys find some love in New Orleans, the band only seems to reach some level of success after playing a wedding in Mexico. Leningrad Cowboys Go America was an odd introduction to what would turn out to be a seminal work by Finland’s auteur. A love of old time rock ‘n’ roll and the driest, drollest sense of humor clash in an almost surreal way.
Though the Cowboys was a breakthrough movie for Kaurismäki, Le Havre reveals a more refined, focused director who has not compromised his sensibilities. The film contains many a breathtaking scene, like the starkly lit stacks of containers at the harbor where we meet the young African migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted elderly shoe-shiner, will invest all he has to help the boy get to his mother in London. He will find karmic reward at film’s end, represented by a the neatly framed shot of the cherry blossom tree in his front yard. It’s a delicate, charming film that recalls the best of efficient world cinema. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes but lost out to the more bombastic Tree of Life.
Throughout Le Havre, characters have both colorful personalities and colorful attire that make them pop in the chiaroscuro lighting that defines the movie. Kaurismäki maintains the signature stagey feel of Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Often characters stare before taking action, giving the film a quietly unfolding, oddly-paced but charming feel, again recalling Anderson. And, look, there is Jean-Pierre Léaud playing the nosy, curmudgeonly neighbor who cannot abide “those immigrants.” Léaud’s appearance is fitting, seeing as the film owes a debt to the director that made him a famous actor in France as the star of 1959’s the 400 Blows: François Truffaut— also a touchstone for Anderson. The film flows with the ease and charm for the joie de vivre of both adventurous youth and aging with grace. At the film’s heart is the boy embarking on a new life, daunted by this new alien land where police are on the hunt and an old man happy in his groove of life, scraping together the few Euros needed to stay afloat and support his wife, home and dog.
When one thinks of world cinema, the thought of what Finland may have contributed does not often come to mind. Therefore I had not got around to checking out the output of Kaurismäki. I still have some catching up to do on Bergman and Kurosawa, but an opportunity to see this distinctive filmmaker on the big screen should not be passed up. As November’s choice in MBC’s monthly “Great Directors” series, Kaurismäki rewards a big screen presentation. Seeing the disparity of his early career-defining work, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and the culmination of his refinement as a director, Le Havre, is a revelation. In these two films alone, Kaurismäki has proven a delight to watch. His quirky cinematic sensibilities, and the growth and refinement between the two films, also prove his movies still to come during this month’s series will offer interesting viewing.
Le Havre continues its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, tonight through Tuesday only. This Thursday, the Man Without a Past will screen for one night only, at 8 p.m. The series concludes Wednesday, Nov. 23, with the one-night only screening of Lights In the Dusk, also at 8 p.m.