Thursday, February 16, 2017

Tom of Finlands

Please note: I was invited to see the premiere of Tom of Finland the movie. I worked in Turun kaupunginteatteri during the production and the premiere of Tom of Finland the musical.

This Monday, I was invited to a very special event: the grand premiere of Tom of Finland the movie in Helsinki!

Coincidentally, as of late, I've been living a rather Tom of Finland infused life. My contract in Turun kaupunginteatteri (a Finnish theatre, Turku City Theatre in English) has just finished, but while working there, I did PR for Tom of Finland the musical – a brand-new Finnish musical based on the iconic artist and his homoerotic drawings.

Personally, I'm not into Tom of Finland, but because of my work involving the musical, I've become somewhat familiar with the artist and his work. So, after having seen the show three times, I was feeling rather curious about the movie. Based on the same person's life, how would the adaptations compare?

Touko Laaksonen. Photo by Philip Stuart,
courtesy of Tom of Finland Foundation Inc.

In case you're as unfamiliar with Tom of Finland as I was a few years ago, here's him in a nutshell: Touko Laaksonen, 1920–1991, was a Finnish war veteran, musician, advertising artist, and – first and foremost – a homoerotic artist known for his depictions of masculine, muscular and mustachioed gay men.

Here in Finland, we have really started celebrating Tom of Finland's drawings during the past few years. During his life, Tom of Finland was not known in his home country – but now, there are exhibitions and bags and shirts and curtains and sheets and postcards and even stamps featuring Tom's muscular men.

And now, just in time for the 100th birthday of independent Finland, we have the two fictional retellings of the artist's life. The movie is directed by Dome Karukoski and written by Aleksi Bardy, while the musical has book and lyrics by Tuomas Parkkinen, is composed by Jussi Vahvaselkä and Jori Sjöroos and directed by Reija Wäre.

Pekka Strang plays Touko Laaksonen in the movie.
Photo by Josef Persson
Olli Rahkonen plays Touko Laaksonen in the musical.
Photo by Otto-Ville Väätäinen

It's interesting to look at the similarities in between these two works of fiction.

Both feature decades of Touko Laaksonen's life. The musical tells his story from childhood all the way to heaven, while the movie begins with Touko as a young man fighting in World War II and stops a little before his death.

Both adaptations present life partner Veli and sister Kaija as the most important people of Touko's life. Both suggest that Kaija, who works as an advertising artist, is jealous of her brother's artistic success. While the theme is explored further in the musical, both also hint at Kaija having romantic feelings for Veli. To my knowledge, neither of these things can be substantiated, so it's intriguing that both adaptations have arrived to similar conclusions.

Touko's 28-year-long relationship with Veli, then, is shown as rather romantic and sweet in the film. I suppose the musical captures the real-life couple's sometimes stormy story a little more accurately. Both versions choose to move on from Veli's death rather quickly, not showing us the pain one assumes Touko must have gone through.

Both versions also feature Kake, Tom of Finland's most iconic character, coming to life. In the musical, he's featured throughout the second act and has his own song, while in the movie he makes a couple of brief appearances as a manifestation of Touko's imagination.

What's more, both adaptations highlight the way society has treated members of the LGBTA+ community throughout the years. Both offer some chilling insights into the not-too-distant past where being gay was a crime. The musical has a stronger focus on survival, letting us in on a secret code gay men used to communicate with each other in wartime Helsinki, while the movie has multiple scenes showing violence towards gay men.

One of the sweeter scenes from the movie: Touko and Veli (Lauri Tilkanen).
A still from the movie

To me, the key difference in between these two adaptations is that overall, the musical focuses more on Tom of Finland's art and his sources of inspiration, while the movie is about Touko Laaksonen's life and his private struggles. Despite telling the story of an erotic artist, the film hardly touches upon why Touko started drawing or how his art evolved throughout his career.

I knew it's first and foremost a biopic, but even so, I was suprised by how the movie never really stops and takes a long look at Tom of Finland's drawings. In the musical, they're continuously present, projected on walls and brought alive by choreography. There's even a scene centered around a piece of art featuring an orgy. But in the movie... With quick pans and blurry focus, it almost feels like the camera is a little ashamed of the pictures!

In the recent years, Tom of Finland's drawings have become mainstream in Finland, but that only applies to a part of them – namely, the part where the men have their pants on. Not all of Tom's pictures are palatable to general audiences, but just for that reason, I appreciate the musical for bringing some of the X-rated art front and center. No matter if you're a fan of the art or only there to experience the story of a famous Finn, you have to take a look and form your own opinion.

The musical cast admiring Tom's art, with Ville Erola as Kake in the middle.
Photo by Otto-Ville Väätäinen

In the musical, it feels like our hero gets ahead in life rather easily, and the show is an optimistic celebration of his life and his drawings. It makes you cry (to be honest, it makes me cry as hard as that awful letter scene from Billy Elliot – in other words, really hard and repeatedly), but the audience also gets to laugh out loud together, and leave the theatre humming catchy showtunes.

The movie, then, left me feeling melancholy. To me, it's a story of a man who struggled a lot and had few moments of happiness. It ends on a positive note about Tom of Finland living on even when Touko Laaksonen has passed away, but to me, the film is no celebration. It's a remembrance.

Which way is the right one, or closer to the truth? I don't know, and I don't know if you can know.

Personally, I prefer the musical's optimistic touch, but I can see where the movie is coming from. It cannot have been easy being gay and drawing homoerotic art in a time when society doesn't only frown upon that but beats you up for it. It must have been hard never introducing the love of your life to your family as your partner, only as your roommate. The world of Tom's drawings is full of smiles and pride. The movie argues that for Touko, life was something quite different.

Trying to squeeze a real person's whole life into two hours, I guess it's as valid to focus on the sadness as it is to highlight the good stuff.

But remembering the out-and-proud, unabashed and smiling men of the drawings... Sad is just not the way I expected Tom of Finland the movie would make me feel.

Trailer for the movie (Finnish only)

The song "Glad to Be Gay" from the musical

Lue myös: Tämän kylän homopoika -blogin näkemys elokuvasta, One Night in Theatre -blogin näkemys musikaalista

1 comment:

  1. A really interesting blog! I'm looking forward to seeing the movie, even though I've heard it's sad and shows more violence against gay men than love between gay men.