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.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Land of the Midnight Sauna: Part One

SKIN, SKIN / K/Spy sel/Sn alla
(Mikko Niskanen, 1966, Finland, 35mm, 89 mins.)


The Finnish word sisu means resilience and survival under difficult circumstances. In shorthand, it's often translated as "guts," and is regarded as a characteristic Finnish trait.
-- From the introduction to Sisu Cinema: Nine from the Finnish New Wave


In regarding the Finnish New Wave, it's tempting to look for antecedents to Aki Kaurism/Ski's pitch-black comic style. On the basis of Mikko Niskanen's Skin, Skin (1966) and Eight Deadly Shots (1972), however-I've also seen J/drn Donner's Sixtynine 69 and Anna-Kaurism/Ski's miserablist masterworks, like Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002), seem more idiosyncratic than ever.

To be sure, humor abounds in Skin to Skin, AKA Skin, Skin, but it isn't brushed with blackness, while Eight Deadly Shots is downright Bressonian in its tragic trajectory; humor isn't part of the equation at all. Only six years separate the two, but they couldn't have less in common, and feel like the products of separate sensibilities. (The NWFF will also be screening Niskanen's Song of the Scarlet Flower from 1971.)

In the director's first entry, two college-age couples set up camp by the seaside
in order to get to know each other-and themselves-better. (Anna, starring Don-
ner's Swedish wife Harriet Andersson, also takes place by the shore; unfortunate-
ly, there are no more screenings of Anna and Sixtynine 69.) Based on their skittish behavior, Skin, Skin's female protagonists would appear to be virgins, while their boyish suitors are more experienced-about sex, not the ways of the world.
Boisterous brunette Riita (Kristiina Halkola) reminds her companions of Claudia Cardinale-an understandable observation-while circumspect blonde Leena (Kirsti Wallasvaara) evokes Brigitte Bardot (particularly once she dons her newsboy cap).
The men also seem familiar, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Spontaneous
Jean-Pierre Leaud type Timo (Pekka Autiovuori), a medic whose skills will come
in handy, wears spectacles. His brooding companion, Santtu (Eero Melasniemi, Hal-
kola's spouse), cops a Rebel without a Cause attitude and shaggy hairstyle, indicat-
ing a less conformist outlook (either that, or he's more attuned to '60s fashions).
As Sakari Toiviiainen notes in "New Finnish Cinema," "The main characters...cor-
responded to the image youth had of itself, but equally to the image the parents had: their characterisation was so general that they were like products of the adver-
tising and debate being directed towards them, that is, they behaved more like 'young' than individuals." He adds that the film was "an enormous success."
During the picture, the women sing a few songs, all sounding like Finnish variations on the French chanson-there's also a chic singer/actress on holiday (Anneli Sauli), who performs a number during the pivotal dancehall scene-but Skin, Skin isn't a musical. It's more like a sex comedy; an introspective pastoral miles removed from the urban insanity of Donner's Sixtynine 69 with its human-and canine-coupling.
Despite a few jump cuts here and there, the results more closely resemble a
pre-Vietnam-era American independent rather than a Scandinavian version of the nouvelle vague. These attractive young people have carnal relations on their minds rather than-or in addition to-politics. They're also concerned about their futures, but only in the most general sense, i.e. Riita wants to settle down, Santtu doesn't.
If Skin, Skin sounds light, that's because it is, but it's also entertaining, erotic,
and well worth catching on the big screen (DVD isn't an option). Maybe Finland's
"sauna culture" helps to explain it, but there's as much casual nudity in these movies-naked bathing figures in Sixtynine 69, while abundant skinny-dipping decorates Anna-as hard alcohol. Which is to say: a bountiful bevy of both.
Next: Eight Deadly Shots
Sisu Cinema: Nine from the Finnish New Wave runs at the Northwest Film Forum
from 2/1-17. Curated by Adam Sekuler, Seattle is the only North American city to host the series. Skin, Skin plays on Fri. 2/8. 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 the NWFF, Perjantai 1.9, and SEA: Esitykset.