Films by Aki Kaurismäki

We sat down, my wife and I, during a quiet period that could otherwise have been a little gloomy, to watch as many feature films directed by Aki Kaurismäki as we could lay hands on.

We watched them in chronological order, so this could have been an interesting article about the director’s development from his earliest days. But we were geeky enough to mark them out of ten, so what we’ve actually made is a list ranked from our least to most favourite.

These aren’t our first impressions, in most cases – we’ve seen many of these before, some three or four times, but watching them in order with a vaguely critical eye was new and pretty good fun. I should say that we don’t know any Finnish (other than words like raha and miksi? which come up all the time in these films) and watched with English subtitles. We got all of these from the Curzon DVD box set, except for I Hired A Contract Killer which isn’t in it for some reason.

A constant in these films is the cinematographer Timo Salminen who seems to have worked on every one of them. A few more than half are in colour, the rest black-and-white, all analogue film. They’re all beautiful to look at, and since Kaurismäki spends a lot of time just looking at things, that’s certainly fortunate.

I have placed a useful star * next to the names of the films in which the male hero is violently attacked for no reason other than to set up the rest of the film. This Kaurismäki trope is so common that one might as well mark it. I have not specially marked the films in which a cute dog plays a sympathetic role, the films in which the heroes drive around in a car much older than any of the others on the streets, the films that cut away to a complete live performance of a song by a folk or rock ‘n roll band, or the films in which someone impulsively performs an act of great kindness without expecting or receiving any acknowledgement for it.

17. Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994)

Leningrad Cowboys, the worst band in the world, return from the Americas to Europe on the instigation of a man who strangely resembles both their manager and the Biblical Moses.

16. Juha (1999)

An adaptation of an apparently noted Finnish novel from 1911 in the form of a black-and-white silent movie (with music soundtrack) with film noir stylings and references.

I like its confusion about its era, as when the silly, soon-to-be-tragic couple (“they were as happy as children”) suddenly switch from serving and eating porridge out of a big pot to heating up a microwave meal, as a symbol of their fall.

I very much like that Marja packs a rubber duck when she moves out.

But the story, setting, and ending felt a bit too miserable for us. Its silence felt as if we’d been left on our own to digest it, which made it feel gloomier.

15. Hamlet Goes Business (1987)

A straight-ish Hamlet, considering it’s a contemporary film about the rubber-duck industry, filmed in super-crisp black-and-white with a terrific ending. Not bad at all.

14. Calamari Union (1985)

This film can’t possibly live up to the summary of its plot: Fifteen desperate men, all called Frank, try to cross Helsinki to reach the fabled Eira district. Most don’t make it.

Their journey is a terrible struggle that takes… months? years? – whereas maps of the real world suggest that Eira is maybe an hour’s walk from where they began.

This was the second Kaurismäki film I ever saw, after Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatjana!. It’s messy and puzzling in comparison and some of the jokes are a bit too in-joke for my head, but it has a similarly glorious commitment to its idea. We’ve made a note to watch it again soon.

13. Crime and Punishment (1983)

Much more fun than might be expected from an adaptation of a grim Russian novel as the début work by a famously downbeat Finnish director.

12. La Vie de Bohème (1992)

Sparkling, then it hits the wall. This adaptation of the book that also spawned the opera La Bohème is set in Paris and acted in French, even though some of the main actors apparently didn’t speak French. Since those people are portrayed as both foreign and, more importantly, bonkers fabulists, this actually works ok for me, though I might not think so if French was my first language. This was Kaurismäki’s first film with delightful antihero André Wilms, and its first half-hour is as overtly comical as anything here.

When things start to get real, it drags a little, perhaps because by that point we are not really in the mood for realism. So although the ending should be moving, and for better people than us it probably is, we found ourselves thinking this was the first time one of his films had run longer than it should have.

11. The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Sent to divide us.

This is the only film by Kaurismäki to appear in the TSPDT Top 1000, which I understand to be a crowd-sourced list of the 1000 best films in the world. The director has apparently said this was the first film of his that he found good enough to watch. Reviews call it “devastating” and “a sobering parable”. Kati Outinen says she didn’t know she was expected to play the lead until she turned up for filming. It’s about a woman who is misused by her family, abused by a lover, and seeks revenge.

It’s a beautifully posed and filmed study of people, relationships, and work, a grotesque story about sexism and class, and also a potentially funny comedy, if you are not a child. It is very good, but it’s bleak, rather linear, a bit slight, and I don’t think I could ever be persuaded that it’s the best thing Kaurismäki has made. I wonder whether the high rankings come from people thinking it must be important because it’s grim, or that they ought to include Kaurismäki on their list and this looks like the least foolish option. I’d love to hear opposing views.

10. * Lights in the Dusk (2006)

This is an odd one. It’s in a more realistic style than the films that came before and after it (The Man Without A Past and Le Havre). Helsinki is modern, shiny, and unfriendly, and there is, unusually, no ambiguity about when the film is set. It’s a film about a man who ignores the world: he is picked up and used in a heist, and takes the fall for it with no indication that he recognises what is happening. The idea is not unfamiliar, but it’s unusually concrete and blunt. Perhaps the world is not as good as some of these other films suggest it can be. Kaurismäki’s previous film had been almost a fairytale. Was he sickened by it?

This is surely the most macho of Kaurismäki’s films. It has taciturn mob bosses and bullet-headed thugs, the female lead is a classic femme fatale, and other women get merely a line or two. It has what appears, to ignorant outsider me, to be a slightly laboured red vs white class divide (poor honest folk with Finnish names, rich gangsters with Swedish ones). There’s little warmth to the film, though there are certainly mysteries, of which the prime one is why the hero refuses to acknowledge Aila the hot-dog seller.

It is funny, sometimes, and definitely compelling to look at, and has a fine soundtrack, but it left me feeling uneasy. Is it me? Am I misunderstanding? I fear that my response to this film might be something like the response an English-speaking viewer ought to have to Kaurismäki in general.

9. I Hired A Contract Killer (1990)

This film is in English, set in London. If you happen to know London, it’s well worth watching just for the amazing adaptations of London scenery.

For the English-speaking viewer, it also offers an opportunity to test the theory that we only like these films because they’re in a foreign language, set in foreign places, and subtitled.

We just about passed that test. London looks splendidly grubby, there are some amazing tableaux and great dialogue, and I enjoyed the either dispassionate or dismissive delivery, and it’s charming in a satisfyingly bleak way. It does feel a little bit arbitrary and discontinuous in comparison with the best here, but (unlike most of these) we’ve only seen this film once, and would happily see it again.

8. Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

Definitely our kids’ favourite Kaurismäki film: the only one they find truly acceptable. This is the tale of the worst band in the world, who are too awful for their home country and must go to America to be tolerated.

Part of the fun, besides plenty of low comedy, is that the Cowboys are portrayed as dreadful while being in fact pretty good. They may have to subsist on onions but they can definitely play, and the audiences, which are apparently real, generally seem to think so too. (The band now has an extensive performing history outside of the movies.)

A brilliant film in its stupid way.

7. * The Other Side of Hope (2017)

The story of an emigrant from wartime Syria arriving in Helsinki and then trying to find his sister. More realistic than Le Havre, the film that it is temporally and thematically following, and less hopeful. Its bleaker outlook is curiously reflected in the soundtrack, which is much sparser than usual. Although the film does have comic moments, they don’t always work for me. The Japanese restaurant sequence here is the only scene in any of Kaurismäki’s films that feels as if it’s making fun of the protagonists, although it’s redeemed a little by the gravity with which the restaurant owner responds to the humiliation.

That aside, this film is full of tender and generous acts. It feels like a handbook for behaviour in difficult times. I’m oddly reminded of Robin Sloan’s wordy but conceptually neat Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson, the thrust of which is that The Rock will inevitably be US President at some point, so we should prepare by placing him into a dramatic situation which enacts the compassion and empathy that we expect a US President to have. This film immerses us in a specific situation, like an aeroplane emergency instruction sequence, to give us an overdue preparation for a crisis we are already in.

6. * Ariel (1989)

Everything in this film is terrific. The opening, the drive across Finland, the scene where the couple meet, the breakfast with the kid and the gun, the scene with the cake, that scene at the end whose punchline has been set up from the start. It’s glorious, and by some measure it’s as brilliant as any film ever was, but by our measure it’s a little too much a series of great set-pieces, so it’s not allowed to be the best here.

5. * The Man Without A Past (2002)

I wasn’t keen on this the first time I saw it. I think that was because: it has a Hollywood plot (man wakes up with no idea who he is, learns to live among people he would have previously overlooked); it starts with an unpleasant act of violence that is hard to forget; and the lead actor is fairly hard-looking and doesn’t give us a lot to go on.

I changed my mind completely the second time around. That may be because in the meantime I’d seen its hero Markku Peltola in Drifting Clouds, and I felt warmer toward the man whose hands could no longer whip up a porridge. Or I had become a more sympathetic person myself, perhaps because of the times, and I realised how beatific The Man Without A Past is. It’s the first of a series of recent Kaurismäki films that are essentially richly coloured fairytales, illustrations of how we all could be, if we admitted our better selves. Despite the brutal act that sets up the plot, this is a peaceful film.

It also now seems to me like a wonderful showcase for Markku Peltola, the men who embraces the difficult life and looks just gently humorous at just the right moments, and for Kati Outinen in the most uncompromising and uncommunicative of her leading roles.

There are problems with it I think. Life in difficult places is made to seem rather easy, and we have a not entirely workable dichotomy between the happy poor and everyone else. But having seen this film twice, I look forward to watching it again.

4. Take Care of your Scarf, Tatjana! (1994)

This ludicrously-titled black-and-white road movie is for me the ur-Kaurismäki, in that it was the first of his films I ever saw. I taped it from a late-night TV broadcast in the 90s (no way I was staying up for something so random) and still have the VHS tape somewhere. It looks much better on DVD though, because the photography throughout is just gorgeous. I mean really gorgeous.

It’s sort of a loser-buddy comedy, filmed in stark monochrome as if it’s a gritty exposé. The (male) heroes are a silent idiot and a violent alcoholic braggart who have no depth and, in principle, nothing much to like about them. That makes them sound like action figures, but they have no action going on either. They are totally outshone by Tatjana and Klavdia, the friendly but unsentimental women they meet.

The film is full of lugubrious gags and comic ideas, and those are what I generally remember about it. A celebratory quarter-of-a-sandwich with tea to cement the friendship between nations, repairing a car by pulling bits out of the engine and throwing them away, Valto’s in-car coffee maker, Reino’s worryingly excitable monologue about punching someone.

But when watching it, it’s the spaces between those moments that make the film what it is. I found that I love this film much more when I’m actually watching it than I do in my memory.

And it’s only an hour long.

3. * Shadows in Paradise (1986)

Bone-dry and beautiful. This provokingly slow film spends a lot of rich colour film looking at its lead actors, Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen, who are everything that matters in it. It’s only 80 minutes long, but feels a little longer even if you’re enjoying it. I like that. It’s funny and just sufficiently kind.

It’s no accident that Kati Outinen has a leading role in all the films at the top of this list. I love her later, more reserved middle-aged figures, but in this earlier one her slightly shifty character, on the edge, suspicious, always ready to abscond is a delight.

2. Le Havre (2011)

A boy escapes when a migrant family is stopped by the police in France, and the people around try to help him. A fairytale, a romance about human beings that pretends to be a police story or thriller. Such a clean and beautiful film, and I think better when you’ve seen it once already, know what happens, and can stop worrying about the plot.

This film is supposedly a sequel to La Vie de Bohème and has a lot in common with it, including being in French, but it is built the other way up. La Vie de Bohème spends a lot of time on everyday transactions, which are satisfying and entertaining, but becomes harder work when it goes ethereal later on. In Le Havre it’s the other way around: the transcendent is normal, and the rest of life is just telegraphed there to be the context for it. And this one has a slightly higher proportion of actors who actually speak French.

Kaurismäki goes to exceptional lengths to blur when this film is set. Taxis and police cars are from the 80s, some of the locations are set up to look much older, photographers use manual-winding film cameras, phones have rotary dials, nobody has a mobile phone, but the plot is precisely contemporary for the date the film was made. This film was comparatively well-funded I think, which made me wonder whether he would have gone this far every time if he could have afforded it. The result is a highly personal feeling in which the world around us is subjective and dream-like, and only the people in it are real.

1. * Drifting Clouds (1996)

A glorious love story that, in my alternate world, is a Christmas film that the family gathers to watch, a bit like It’s A Wonderful Life is supposed to be.

Drifting Clouds is a film about a middle-aged couple facing financial disaster, deep in debt, having lost their jobs, with a tragedy in their past, in the bleak economic climate of mid-90s Finland. It’s also a comedy, one that doesn’t demean its characters, who are proud, admirable, and committed to one another. Kati Outinen is excellent again but the solidity and good humour of Kari Väänänen is essential to prop things up and there’s a compelling supporting cast. The staging is beautiful, the photography cautious and sympathetic, and there’s a po-faced joke in every other line. Although slow-moving, it’s never slow.

Hayao Miyazaki and work

I see it’s the 80th birthday of the noted animator Hayao Miyazaki.

I once read his book of essays Starting Point: 1979–1996 and was seized by a desire to do something well, with vigour and clarity, instead of tiredly poking around. At the time this made me a little miserable, and I wondered why.

* * *

The book contains essays, interviews, and documents from Miyazaki during a period in his 30s and 40s in which he directed six highly-regarded anime feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. This is an excellent run, and history tells us that the two films he made immediately afterwards would be even more celebrated.

The book contains planning documents, interviews, and some essays written between films. The planning documents describe a film before it has been made, and the interviews talk about it afterwards, when in every case it had been a success.

This structure, no doubt accidentally, gives a sense of a narrative like this: Miyazaki thinks of an idea and writes it up with in clear and forceful terms; he starts drawing without a script or storyboard and develops the plot as he goes; he works solidly for three years; the film is finished; it’s a wonderful piece of work that is just as he had envisioned; the process repeats.

Reinforcing this impression is some of the content of the interviews. For example, when talking about My Neighbour Totoro — a glorious film whose origin seems to speak of as pure a work of art as ever appeared in a cinema — Miyazaki remarks that he felt “tremendous happiness” while working on the film, that he knew throughout how it was going to work, that he could avoid any directorial tricks and keep the plot as simple as possible, that he could almost have made the entire film be just about the excitement and fear of a typhoon passing near a house at night; and that if he were to make the film again, given the same technical constraints, the only thing he would change would be to allow more time with the main characters, two small children, while they live their lives, ignoring the plot.

* * *

This is very lovely to read, but also a little daunting. There is something there, real or imagined, that I found I longed for in my work.

What is that longing? It isn’t about talent. I’m delighted by the talent of Miyazaki, but I don’t yearn for it, probably because I can’t imagine having it. It also isn’t about whether my work is worthwhile — I have doubts, but those are long-standing, unchanging doubts. I think it is about focus and application.

I believe that we all have the ability to create work that satisfies our own critical judgement as a coherent artistic effort, but that we don’t do it, because we can’t find the clarity of mind and the conviction to complete an idea with the quality that we first imagine for it.

As a mere programmer, I’m aware that much of the software I write will never be used, or not in the way I imagined it. I believe this is the unspoken experience of all programmers. Software that is made with care but not used is obviously unsatisfying. But the other side of it is software that is not made well enough to merit users at all. If it hasn’t been made well enough, then the more popular it is, the more people might be damaged by mistakes in it, and so the worse it is. Experience seems to consist partly in learning to suppress the fear of this, and to find sufficient trade-offs to ensure that anything useful ever gets published.

* * *

The perceived narrative I referred to above is not the whole story. There is plenty in the book about team work, and it hints at the vast amount of manual labour going on, with stories about overworked colour artists, slipping schedules, and the continually unmet expectation that everything will be easier next time. And at the end of the book is a retrospective timeline, from which we can see that the narrative doesn’t flow linearly either — the team must often have been working on more than one Miyazaki-directed film at once, and some films were based on ideas that had been sketched decades before.

Focusing on team effort does change the picture. You need a lot of people to make a film, and I suppose before you animate the film, you need to animate the people. If the impulse is enough to carry everyone along, then a team can maintain a direction even if their director isn’t certain where they will end up. Perhaps the sense of purpose that seems so desirable is something that one person can’t readily sustain on their own.

* * *

My reverence for the film artifact might not be shared by its makers either. Throughout this book, as well as in more recent interviews I’ve seen, Miyazaki is actively grumpy about the value of anime: there’s too much animation being made already, this is all a waste of time, we contribute nothing to the world, I only want the industry to continue because I know too many people who are animators and I don’t want them to lose their jobs. It’s only when he is sunk deep into a project that he appears to be happy about it.

A few pictures from 2020: 4. Deepest black

(Previously: A few pictures from 2020: 3. The living)

I started developing my own black-and-white films at home a couple of years ago. There’s nothing quite like toiling through the process before emerging with a strip of negatives which you have to hang up and let dry, knowing there are pictures on them but being unable to tell what they actually are.

I’ve tried a few different types of film, and I’m most fond of Ilford FP4+. It’s relatively low-contrast, grainy (the accompanying text describes it as fine-grain but I think it must have been written in 1935), very attractive in sunlight due to a bit of sympathetic halation. I like a black-and-white photo with almost no solid black in it. I like it light, airy, and otherworldly. I haven’t ever been keen on reportage-y gritty, contrasty films like Kodak T-Max.

But this post is about the opposite of FP4+. Film Washi “Film S” is a film originally intended, apparently, for optical recording of film soundtracks. It’s not gritty or grainy. It’s a slow film, very smooth, high contrast, tricky to expose properly. The result is a fabulous texture in things like reflections and water surfaces as well as remarkable contrast and deepest blacks.

This is the view below the Westway at Paddington Basin. (All the photos here are from September to November 2020.) The bundles, the stains, the footprints, the textures on the uprights, the terrifying precision, the shiny car.

Under the Westway at Paddington

The building site at Whiteley’s, on Queensway, London W2.

Whiteley's building site

A pedestrian corridor under the Westway.

Under the Westway

The Thames, from the south bank at Nine Elms, looking toward Battersea. With a mudlarker searching on the beach.

Toward Battersea from Nine Elms

A new, not-yet-filled retail unit at Paddington Basin.

Empty unit, Paddington Basin

A rubble disposal barge on the Thames outside the MI6 building. (This looks like quite a small boat, until you check the scale against the railings over to the right.)

From Vauxhall Bridge

A few pictures from 2020: 3. The living

(Previously: A few pictures from 2020: 2. Cinefilm. Following: A few pictures from 2020: 4. Deepest black)

Mandarin duck, Kensington Gardens
In March I discovered that the jammed Minolta Auto-Rokkor 55mm lens I’d just cleaned and lubricated was lovely for portrait-distance shots. But I didn’t use it as much as I should have, because I also discovered I’d reassembled it with the wrong focus at infinity, so it was only good for portrait-distance shots. I never did fix that. Anyway, the nice duck above was one of those shots.

In May I discovered that, if you walked along the sketchy bit of land between the Westbourne Bridge and Royal Oak tube stations just beyond Paddington and peered down over the wall toward the tracks at the right time of day, you would find a family of foxes playing. I came back with a long lens (cheap Soviet Jupiter-11) and took these, a sequence of photos I really love. This was such a joy during a pretty bleak time.

Foxes
Foxes
Foxes

I took the Jupiter lens again to the park in September to try to get a photo of magpies in flight. I do like magpies: they’re beautiful and they move in a very interesting way. They’re quick and sudden, they hop a lot, and they never exactly take off — they just hop and hop and, at the moment they want to take flight, suddenly the last hop turns out to have been liftoff.

There’s a superstition that it’s bad luck to see a lone magpie, but I decided a few years ago that I would always look at a magpie, and appreciate it.

But they’re really hard to photograph in motion, because they move in such unexpected ways. Here’s as good as I managed, a group giving way to an approaching dog:

Magpies scattering as a dog approaches

A crow is simpler in motion. Here’s a crow taking off from the ground. Um, or I think it might actually be a raven. I am not very good at this. It’s much bigger than a magpie and takes a relatively long time to get airborne – but isn’t it fantastic!

Crow

A few pictures from 2020: 2. Cinefilm

(Previously: A few pictures from 2020: 1. Keep Going. Following: A few pictures from 2020: 3. The living)

A company called Silbersalz35 sells 35mm cartridges loaded with various sorts of motion-picture film, at a price including processing and scanning. The films have to be developed with the ECN-2 chemical process, so the inclusion of processing matters, as most still film processing labs don’t have ECN-2 facilities.

The Silbersalz 200T film is (I believe) Kodak Vision3 200T cinefilm. The T stands for tungsten: it’s colour-balanced for studio use and has a cold colour if used in natural light without filters, as I did.

I really like the look of these, but they are hard to display online next to digital photos. The typical bright, contrasty, heavily sharpened modern digital image makes these naturalistic images almost invisible when seen on the same page.

* * *

A tennis court next to the West Cross Route in west London. Closed when I took this in May. The buildings in the background are, I think, halls of residence for Imperial College under construction.

White City across the West Cross Route tennis court

Scaffolding on Craven Road, near Paddington station.

Craven Road

Here’s the Bakerloo Line station entrance at Paddington in February. A couple of days later it will be closed permanently, to be replaced by something fancy at an unspecified later date.

Paddington Bakerloo Line entrance

This film is really nice for photographing people – I take a lot of photos of family but I’m reluctant to make them public online, so here’s one of me (taken by my wife) on the 15th of March, very close to the official UK it’s-all-over pandemic date.

Me

Smithfield Market, in May, with construction for the Museum of London at the back.

At Smithfield

Paddington Station in May. I felt very conspicuous taking this.

Paddington station

A few pictures from 2020: 1. Keep Going

(Following: A few pictures from 2020: 2. Cinefilm)

At the start of January 2020, I hopped on a bus to the North Circular to take a couple of photos of bleak, slightly alarming empty urban scenes. Had I known how redundant that would seem later in the year, I might not have bothered. Though it may have been the last time I took a bus for fun.

A distinctive disused storage company in Neasden. Prominent from the North Circular, I’ve always rather liked it.

Storguard

A rotting board path along the back of the industrial estate in Neasden Recreation Ground ultimately leads to a small pier in the reservoir. I used to go for walks by the reservoir here when I lived near Brent Cross, but I had no recollection of this path. Is the text sinister or welcoming? On the 5th of January I thought sinister, but from this end of the year it feels like an encouraging message from the future.

Keep Going

* * *

Just over two months later, we’re in west London in late March. The weather is bright and the shops are colourful and shiny. But this is bustling Portobello Road and it isn’t really supposed to look like this.

Portobello Road

Other streets nearby are equally peaceful.

Queensway (Key Workers)

Devonshire Terrace

* * *

Getting photos in the park without lots of people in them is a trickier prospect. I’m very fond of the cluster of small oak trees in the bit of Hyde Park known as “the cockpit”, where a roundish ramped area slopes down to the Serpentine. This is a damp June day.

Path and oak, Hyde Park

Or a sunny one in October.

Oaks, Hyde Park

* * *

One industry that seems to have been at least at normal levels all year is construction; here a worker adjusts some fencing on the “cube” building site next to Paddington station.

Building site, Paddington