Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: a few Finnish neo-noirs

Some weeks ago The Festival of Finnish Cinema showed some Finnish films that can be labeled as neo-noir. This was continuation from the last year's theme of Finnish film noir. Last year only films from the studio era were shown, now the films were mainly from the eighties and nineties, with one film from 1978 and one from 2011.

Kaurismäki: Crime and Punishment
The first one shown was Aki Kaurismäki's debut feature based on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The film was made in 1983 and already shows the sureness of Kaurismäki. His style has changed somewhat after this, but it's still clearly his film. The spare narration, tight frames and the matter-of-factness of the dialogue are pure Kaurismäki. The film, taking place in Helsinki in the 1980s, is a bit like B-movie shot in only a few days, but it still packs quite a punch and remains one of Kaurismäki's best up to this day. Kaurismäki has some other films that could be labeled as neo-noir, such as Ariel, Hamlet Goes Business (even though it's pure comedy from the start) and I Hired a Contract Killer, in which a quiet man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) asks a hired killer to finish him off. There's also the TV movie Dirty Hands made from Sartre's play, which might also qualify, but I haven't seen it. 

Pauli Pentti produced and co-scripted and worked as assistant director in many of Kaurismäki's films, and he directed two neo-noirs in the eighties. Both were shown at the festival. Pimeys odottaa (Darkness Awaits, 1985) is perhaps the most quintessential Finnish neo-noir, strange drama of a young man who gets caught up in scheming and betrayal. The story unfolds a bit uneasily, but there's still lots of interest in the urbane film. Macbeth, made almost hand in hand with Kaurismäki Hamlet Goes Business in 1987, takes Shakespeare's nasty little tale into the late eighties' Helsinki. Macbeth in the film is the leader of the gang of criminals who rob empty houses and gas stations at the sea-side. The film is nicely photographed, but it's unfortunately marred by unclear narration of events. If you don't know the story beforehand, it's possible you don't really understand what goes on in Pentti's Macbeth

Pekka Hyytiäinen was an indie director, who made only three feature-length films two of which were shown at the festival. His first, Kirje (The Letter, 1978), was his most successful, as it was seen by 600 people when it opened! There are interesting elements in this psychological thriller, but the film is so slow there's actually no tension at all. Only glimpses of what was to come are seen on screen. Hyytiäinen's next, strangely titled 50-minute i + i (1981), is much more interesting. It's almost a collage of experiences in the life of a young man who's morbidly interested in suicide and dying. There's no coherent story line and it's difficult to tell what's going on in the film, as some of the film stock was almost destroyed by the laboratory, but the scenes were used nevertheless. i + i was seen by some 400 people in the premiere week after which it vanished almost completely. 

Hyytiäinen's best film, MP - minä pelkään (I Am Scared, 1983) was shown afterwards in the Finnish Film Archive's series, and it's ten or even hundred times more powerful than i + i. It's a dystopian horror tale set in a near future. There's possibly a war going on somewhere of which there are some really strange news on TV. A small family is trying to have a vacation at their summer cabin, and the reality and the dreams and nightmares of the family mingle with each other. MP is a very experimental film with some haunting imagery. It's an uneven piece of work (especially the actors are not up to their tasks), yet unlike any other film made in Finland, still it was seen only by some 300 people in 1983. After it was dug out from the archives some five years ago, it's been seen by more people than during its few weeks in the 1980s.

Tallinnan pimeys (The Darkness in Tallinn, 1993) by Ilkka Järvi-Laturi is more a suspense film than a proper neo-noir, but it was shown nevertheless, as it is not often seen and it's not out on DVD. I didn't watch the film at this time, but I saw when it came out. It's a well done caper movie set in Tallinn just after Estonia declared independence from Russia. Ilkka Järvi-Laturi's debut movie Kotia päin (Homeward, 1989) is also worth a look if you're interested in Finnish neo-noir, as is his History Is Made at Night (1999), but it's also so bad it practically ruined his career and he hasn't directed since. 

All the previous films were over 20 years old, but there was still one neo-noir more from 2011: Martón Jelinko's indie film Pystyssä (Indebted) that wasn't shown in Turku during its premiere week, so this was its proper premiere in this city. Jelinko, a Hungarian-born film-maker working in Finland, was at the screening and told how this movie was made with only 8,000 euros and how it was distributed without any funding from the Finnish Film Foundation (that's almost the only way to get your film properly distributed here). Jelinko also told his biggest influence in making Indebted was Nicholas Winding Refn's Pusher trilogy, which to my mind is a recommendation. Indebted tells the story of two young women, the other working for a crime gang, the other working as a prostitute to pay her bills. It's hard-hitting movie with a recklessly moving camera and some tough violence. The ending is bleak, as befits a neo-noir movie. Indebted is not going to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray, but you can watch it at Indieflix. Comes highly recommended by me. 

There could've been more neo-noirs to be shown in the festival, but there were time and schedule restrictions. Some films, such as Veikko Aaltonen's two or three stylish and hard-hitting crime films, were shown during earlier festivals. I mention some other films in the post on studio-era film noirs; link at the top of this post.

More Overlooked Movies here

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The new English translation of Linna's Unknown Soldiers

Remember I wrote about Väinö Linna's war novel Tuntematon sotilas AKA The Unknown Soldier a while back? Check it out here. I mentioned at the end of my blog post that the new English translation by Liesl Yamaguchi is on its way. It's been out some weeks now, and the first reviews have come out. Here's the first one, from Independent. It's not overtly positive, but there's not much contextualizing in the review. The critic writes like it's a new book. And I had no problem with the multitude of characters, maybe it's because the critic is too accustomed to the habit of new novels introducing the characters a tad too carefully?

There's also the issue of the slang being translated in another language. It's never easy. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was translated in the seventies so that the African-Americans spoke the Turku region dialect (which to many sounds funny), the same with cockney in Stoker's Dracula. It's annoying and distracting and only mildly funny. So one can understand the difficulties the translator of Linna's war novel had to come over, since there are so many dialects in the book.

But do note that the new translation is called Unknown Soldiers, not "The Soldier", as the previous, reportedly bad piece of work. I was told, by the way, that the earlier translation should've been better. Alex Matson, whom I mention in my earlier post, wanted his name left out from the book after the publishers botched his work and cut several pieces from the text.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A Most Violent Year

I'd be a rich man, if I was given a nickel every time I hear someone say that they don't make movies for adults anymore. How about trying some of these new crime films, like Prisoners or Mud or A Most Violent Year?

The last one, directed by J.C. Chandor, is a very serious film taking place in 1981, with Oscar Isaac playing a business man trying to make it big and keeping it honest, even though he's married to a mob princess. The police are interested in what he's doing, and someone is hijacking his gas trucks. There's only little violence, only one car chase, but plenty of tension and threat hovering over our hero - who's not a hero in the least, but he's no scumbag either. There's lots of interesting ambivalence in the people of the film, and in the end we are not wiser. There's a clever twist in the end, which you may or may not notice.

Chandor writes and directs with ease and sureness, which makes me want to check out his earlier films, All Is Lost (with no other actors than Robert Redford) and Margin Call.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Stacks of crime books found in a trash bin

Been busy as hell. But I found some extra time when a friend of mine alerted me that her father, writer and critic, had to throw out his English-language crime novels. My friend said I might be interested, the books are in the trash bin of their house and easily available. I jumped on my bike and rode over to the other side of the town.

Lo and behold! There were some 200 books, mostly hardcover, in the trash bin, lots of American and British authors, with some very interesting writers included. I climbed in the bin and started unloading the books. There were so many I phoned a friend of mine who's a taxi driver. He said he's close by and can come to pick the books and take them to our house. When I got back home, I started going through the books. I picked up all the hardboiled and noir books, alongside with the thrillers, and let my friend have all the cozy ones. I didn't know all the books or the writers, but here are my stacks. What say you? Any stinkers in there I should get rid of?

There is a story behind the books. The writer (whom I actually also konw) has worked as a reader for a publisher in Finland and these (or at least most of them) were books that the foreign publishers and authors' agents had sent to Finland for a translation. I think almost none of these books ended up in being published, with the exception of Robert B. Parker's Poodle Springs (and that's the first edition). You note there's a small stack of Black Lizards in one of the photos. In one of them was a note from the Finnish publisher: "Could you read these and comment if they make any sense? They feel like pulp paperbacks."

Some of the books are ARCs, but I don't mind. I notice there are some rarities, like a book by Tom Kakonis, and William DeAndrea's The Werewolf Murders. I believe the Black Lizards aren't very common. Haven't checked these particular titles, though. Even the cozies included lots of uncommon titles, for example lots of first editions of British crime novels published in hardcover by Hale.

I hurt my left leg climbing out of the trash bin, so these didn't come free.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Tales of Ordinary Madness

Charles Bukowski hasn't been a favourite of mine for over 20 years. I liked his books when I was 15 or so, but then they wore me out with their machismo. And then came Pulp, a very bad pastiche of hardboiled crime novel, which wasn't funny in the least. I might reread some of his novels in the near future, but we'll see if I really can make it. I remember, though, that Bukowski is a very easy and quick read.

All this leads me to the first film version of Bukowski's work. I saw Marco Ferreri's Tales of Ordinary Madness, based on a short story collection from the early seventies, already in 1986 or 1987, but just last night I saw it again. I didn't remember anything from it, save from the scene in which Ornella Muti pierces her cheek with a huge needle.

Tales of Ordinary Madness proved to be a pretty good film. Ben Gazzara is wonderful (if you can call him that) as Charles Serking (meaning Henry Chinaski, but they couldn't use the character's real name, due to the fact that Taylor Hackford owned it at that time). Serking is a sleazebag of a man, stalker, rapist, drunk, loudmouth, cynical asshole with nothing good to say about anyone. Yet we feel something for him, when he meets Cass, played by gorgeous Ornella Muti, a wreck of a human being working as a prostitute. Serking falls in love with Cass, and problems ensue. The film ends in a tragedy after Serking is lured to New York by a big publishing house, but he doesn't want to work for them.

Bukowski started where David Goodis left off. There's indeed something noirish in Tales of Ordinary Madness, its view of people of the streets, with no hope, with only their lust and booze. This is enhanced by Serking's hardboiled monologue with sentences out of a neo-noir novel. Gazzara's voice is low and brutal and he works well on those consonants.

Tales of Ordinary Madness, filmed in the US, but made with European money, is no B-grade flick. The decorations of Dante Ferretti and the photography of Tonino Delli Colli make sure it looks good even in the lowest depths of mankind.

More Overlooked Films here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The left-wing and the right-wing definitions of noir

Here's Dave Zeltserman's (wonderful author) interesting essay on the definition of noir at the Artery site. Zeltserman emphasises what an individual, possibly or preferably sick or at least doomed, does to his or her own life. He argues against Dennis Lehane's social class theory of noir, where the failure of man is explained by the circumstances of life, which one cannot influence easily or not at all. Zeltserman is backed up by Otto Penzler, who says: "Noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed."

Zeltserman's is what I should call a right-wing theory of noir. There's been a lively discussion over Zeltserman's essay at this Facebook site, and people like Vicki Hendricks (wonderful author) and Woody Haut (wonderful noir and pulp essayist) have been saying most interesting things. The Facebook discussion is public, so I thought I could link it here and quote it. Here's Woody Haut's comment (after which he says: "Does that make sense?") which, to my mind, illustrates what could be the left-wing definition of noir: "Taking into account society as a whole and the forces at work that produce a noir sensibility. To put it bluntly, social issues inevitably become individual issues. Penzler’s definition is as comprehensive as they come, and easier to digest, but only so far as the individual. On the other hand, that's what noir is invariably about. But, in the end, even though he expresses it in simplistic terms, Lehane’s statement ends up being a deeper concept, if only because the social and the individual can’t be separated."

Further on, Woody Haut says that the psychological struggle (that Zeltserman emphasises) and the social issues can't be separated, both affect each other. The background of many noir stories is minimal and sparse, like in Double Indemnity Zeltserman mentions in the discussion, but I don't think this is not not being about social or class issues. I think Woody Haut nails it when he says: social issues become individual issues. The anxiety of one's place in the society, the urge to move upward, even with the help of violence, the frustration or the anger of what one has become when not wanting to on in the society, these are both social and individual issues. In the right-wing theory of noir, these losers are losers because that's all they can do, in the left-wing theory, the same losers are losers because there's no other possilibity for them in the society, be they rich or poor.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Mark Coggins on The Long Goodbye

I was just writing on Chandler's The Long Goodbye for a forth-coming book I've started working on, and Googling for some references I found this interesting article by Mark Coggins on Chandler writing the novel. Well worth checking out!

(Sorry for not blogging. I'll try to get something done in the near future.)