Saturday, February 9, 2008

Land of the Midnight Sauna: Part Two

EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS,Ae(R)/ Kahdeksan surmanluotia
(Mikko Niskanen, 1972, Finland, 35mm, 145 mins.)


Click here for part one

Eight Deadly Shots is perhaps the most nuanced picture of the working of the
economic system in the history of our cinema: a close-up of a man up against
the wall, at the most basic level of breathing.

-- Peter von Bagh, Kansan Uutiset


Whereas Mikko Niskanen's Skin, Skin was light, Eight Deadly Shots is the essence of dark. Born in 1929, the actor/director made 14 features before his death in 1990. The British Film Institute, in 1972's New Cinema in Finland, describes this black and white effort as his "most important film so far." One of filmmaker Aki Kaurism/Ski's favorites, it remains Niskanen's most important-even if it isn't really a "film." A powerful work of social protest, it's among the finest Finnish pictures ever produced.

Originally commissioned for television, Eight Deadly Shots was broadcast
in four installments, totaling five hours and 16 minutes. Like the abridged
edition of Ingmar Bergman's small-screen series Scenes from a Marriage (19-
73), this theatrical version plays as if it were always meant to be a movie.
The BFI proclaims the production "a triumph" and a "minor masterpiece."

By way of comparison, they pronounce 1966's Skin, Skin "smooth, lively, and unpretentious"-qualifying that it's a "somewhat overrated youth picture"-while 1971's Song of the Scarlet Flower (which screens on Saturday) is "a disaster."

The BFI also raves about Niskanen's first feature, 1962's Boys, made after two
years of study at Moscow's State Institute of Cinematography, but it isn't screening as part of the Northwest Film Forum's Sisu Cinema: Nine from the Finnish New Wave.
After one week of showings, including J/drn Donner's charmingly titled Fuck Off! Images of Finland (1971), the event represents an unqualified success, and those
who missed the opening week still have two left in which to get caught up (Summer Rebellion, Diary of a Worker, and Poor Maria brings things to a close next weekend).
Inspired by a 1969 incident concerning Tauno Veikko Pasanen (with whom Niskanen consulted), Eight Deadly Shots examines the rigors of rural life from the inside out. It's one thing to live off the fat of the land; it's another when that land ceases to yield produce of any value, especially when there are no other options available.
Farmer Pas/<> (Niskanen, looking every inch the Bressonian anti-hero) lives with
his wife (Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala) and children in the isolated mountain village of Konginkangas. There's plenty of love to go around, but times are tight. To sup-
plement their meager income, Pas/<> distills liquor. It's stronger than the stuff the government provides. So, after a hard day's work, he gets together with his bud-
dies, brews up a batch, sells a few bottles, and drinks himself into oblivion.
His perceptive wife, who isn't named, understands the situation all too clearly.
The money is a boon, but the operation creates a serious liability. The authorit-
ies have been keeping tabs on their community, and the penalties for bootleg-
ging are stiff. Worse yet, Pas/<>'s drinking is taking its toll. Not only is it destroy-
ing his family-through distribution, his handiwork is infecting the entire town.
As the BFI notes, "The illegal distilling of spirits, an important part of the
film's action, becomes a social protest, the last trial of strength for a power-
less small farmer, an illusory flame of freedom and life but which, accord-
ing to the class laws of society, irrevocably destroys the protester himself."
Like Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers (1966), which blames a repressive
regime for stunted sexual maturity, Eight Deadly Shots eschews speechify-
ing to make its point. The focus is always on the farmer, but where are the government subsidies and programs that could help re-train such workers
for non-agricultural trades? Where are the substance abuse counselors?
Eventually, the police catch the distillers in the act, and Pas/<>'s downward spiral accelerates until a desperate act of violence seals his fate. Nobody makes him
pull the trigger, but nor does anyone help him when he's down. About the neo-
realist thriller, the BFI adds, "One of the great achievements of Niskanen is that
he is able to portray the basic positiveness of the leading character of this grim story-also his belief in the possibilities of nature and work-and all this without the wrong kind of romanticism, without traditional poetic cliches of film humanism-and without pity, since pity would have meant placing oneself outside the situation."
Aside from the carefully observed writing and direction, Niskanen's deeply felt
performance makes Eight Deadly Shots impossible to resist. It may not sound
like a fun night at the movies, but the film is so attentive to time and place that
it becomes universal (Niskanen grew up in the same part of Central Finland).
Whether or not there's a history of alcoholism in his family, Pas/<>'s reasons for drinking are always understandable. And his efforts to deny his problem recall
Ray Milland's wily prevaricator in The Lost Weekend (1945). As in Billy Wilder's
more stylized feature, Niskanen doesn't waste time with Freudian psychobab-
ble-dad was withholding, mom was controlling-but gets in under Pas/<>'s skin,
allowing the audience access to his feelings of hopelessness and despair.
In the annals of film criticism, there are three words that serve as disincentives
like no others. Those words are: long, slow, and dark (bad and boring don't count
as they're so subjective as to be meaningless). At 145 minutes, Eight Deadly Shots may take a walk on the long side, but it's hardly epic, and compared to the cinema of, say, Andrei Tarkovsky, the pace is practically brisk. The darkness, however, is undeniable. And Niskanen doesn't use comedy to brighten the corners. Like Char-
les Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977), which also depicts decency under trying con-
ditions, the director uses the humanity of his characters and the pitiless beauty
of their surroundings to craft a timeless work of carefully controlled rage.
Sisu Cinema: Nine From the Finnish New Wave continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 2/17. Eight Deadly Shots plays on Sun., 2/10. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from Festival News, Film Goer, and the NWFF.


  1. Because of its origins as a multi-part television program, it also reminded me of the Roddy Doyle / Michael Winterbottom film, Family. It was a four-hour program, condensed to two hours for theatrical release. It also deals with the effect of alcohol on a family, although its focus is much more narrow than that of Eight Deadly Shots. Doyle later adapted his screenplay into a book, The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

  2. I had no idea, while watching "Eight Deadly Shots," that it had originated as a TV series. In fact, I knew nothing about it at all-" was the only person at the press screening--but felt I was watching a lost classic as it unfolded (the scene with the overburdened horse had me at the edge of my seat). Turns out it's long been considered one of Finland's finest productions. A must for anyone interested in Scandinavian cinema and/or neo-realism in general.

  3. Just came from seeing this movie, and loved it. I was particularly impressed with the way that it seamlessly blended scripted scenes with documentary footage and improvisation.
    The non-actors added a palpable reality, particularly the children, who seemed to have very few scripted lines, instead simply responding to the events around them in a natural way that was touching and convincing.
    There were also amazingly serendipitous documentary moments.

  4. Thank you for your comment. Definitely agree about the children and non-professionals. By contrast, Niskanen's performance seems expressionistic at times--a little like Spencer Tracy in "Fury"--but in a way that always rings true, never seems flashy.

  5. The eyes of the littlest boy when "Santa Claus" comes to visit--that wasn't acting. You know that nobody told that kid that Santa was going to walk through the door.
    I agree about the horse scene as well. I wish the subtitles had translated the last thing that Pas/<> says to the horse, Liisa, when he sells her, although it was moving enough without knowing exactly what he said. I also liked the detail of his instructions to his son about the importance of stroking the animal while harnessing her.