Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bought some books

It's a rare occasion when I can take some four or five hours to take a good look at the used bookstores around here in Turku, but whenever I can, it can be this good.

(The book on bottom is a Finnish anthology of sword and sorcery stories by writers like Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp. It's called The Witches' Empire.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Finnish Westerns, part two

Okay, to the second part in our on-going escapade on Finnish Western films. In the first part I concentrated on the Wild North movies by Aarne Tarkas (and mentioned some others in passing), in the second part there are two films (if there will be part three, it will be about some TV commercials and some odd pieces here and there) by comedian Spede Pasanen, one of the most commercially successful film-makers in Finland from the 1960's to the 1980's.

I'll have to admit I'm not a fan of Pasanen's humour. Seems like he hasn't got any sense of timing and his jokes and gags go on and on and on... Sometimes he managed to strike a chord, though, and some of his films have a cult following I can understand.

And one of these films is the latter of his western films, Hirttämättömät / The Unhanged from 1971. It's shot almost entirely in a sand pit somewhere in Southern Finland and the almost only set-piece in the film is a wagon (and almost throughout the film it has no horse). The film is about Speedy Gonzales (see more on him later), the famous killer (played by Spede Pasanen himself) and Lonely Rider and his buddy, Tonto, played by Vesa-Matti Loiri and Simo Salminen, respectively. All three are wanted men. Speedy Gonzales lets Lonely Rider and Tonto capture him and take him to another town to collect the reward, but he has a cunning plan: he knows there's not enough water for the three of them, and pretty soon the film is about trying to find water in the sand pit.

The film is absurd, but not absurdist. Some of the scenes must've been improvised on the set, given what kind of mad shit Vesa-Matti Loiri lets out of his mouth all the time. At times The Unhanged is quite boring and scenes just go on and on, but at times it's also very funny. And at times because of the film's minimalism it also reminds one of Monte Hellman's westerns, like The Shooting. The parody element is evident in the opening and closing song, sung by Vesa-Matti Loiri. (Sadly I could find only the trailer, which is very funny, but missing the music. Do check out this hilarious battle scene between Lonely Rider and Tonto and some Indians.)

The Unhanged was unofficially a sequel to an earlier western film called Speedy Gonzales - noin 7 veljeksen poika / Speedy Gonzales - the Son of the About 7 Brothers from 1970. This was a more traditional western film, in the vein of the then popular Spaghetti westerns. Spede Pasanen plays Speedy Gonzales (apparently the same guy as in the later film), who comes into a town to search the killer of his brother. There are some nice ideas in the film and the opening credits are very good, with the Morricone-like music by Jaakko Salo (see here), but all too quickly it turns into a sequence of not very good gags. The shoot-out in the end is quite good, though, and actually very nicely photographed. Too bad I didn't think the film was as fun as some others seem to think.

There's one memorable scene in the film. Between fights Spede Pasanen starts to tell a story and it turns into an absurd song which is accompanied by a story-within-a-story. It's done in a nice Spaghetti style.

One point still: Spede Pasanen, as all the men of his ilk, picked beautiful women to act in his films. There's lots to look at in both The Unhanged and Speedy Gonzales. And clearly Spede Pasanen picked some of his ideas for Speedy Gonzales from Roger Vadim's Les Pétroleuses with Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale, especially the outfits worn by his female lead actors.

Here's still one video, with a Western-style song by a Finnish singer called Frederik edited with scenes from Speedy Gonzales. (More Overlooked Movies here.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Finnish Westerns, part one

The publicity photo of High and Mighty, 1944
The Festival of Finnish Cinema was held in Turku, Finland last weekend. I'm part of the group organizing the festival and it was my idea to show this year Finnish westerns films. You might ask: "what in the name of God are Finnish westerns?" But in fact westerns are an European invention. The first westerns were written and/or directed by Europeans, and there are lots of westerns that have been made elsewhere than in the USA. Italy of course is the best known of these countries that have produced lots of their own westerns, but he have also Germany, Soviet Union, France, the Great Britain, India, Japan... and Finland.

There are six feature films made in Finland that can be called westerns - five, if you're more strict about the genre definition. There are some more if you look at TV movies, short indie movies and TV commercials and such. There are also some films that utilize the same motifs and types of plots as many western movies - many of these are situated in Lapland or the Ostrobothnia area in the Western coast of Finland with its violent "häjy" culture. These films are truly about the edge between the civilization and the frontier, as the more actual Finnish westerns are not - they are merely about playing with the conventions of the genre and trying to cash in on with the more international fads.

The first real Finnish western film is a borderline case, as it's set in Mexico and resembles more the Zorro stories and films. Herra ja ylhäisyys ("High and Mighty" might be a good translation; see photo above) was made in 1944 and at the time it was the most expensive film made in Finland. The film was based on Simo Penttilä's series of books of lieutenant general T. J. A. Heikkilä, Finnish soldier working for the Mexican government. The books deal more with Heikkilä's amorous adventures, and the film follows suit. I haven't actually seen this (at least so I can remember something about it) and it wasn't shown at the festival because of the technical limitations (it's available only on nitrate film), so I can't really comment.

Director and screenwriter Aarne Tarkas, a somewhat legendary figure in his own right, made the next Finnish westerns. The Villi Pohjola AKA Wild North trilogy doesn't represent the true western thematic, as the films don't take place in the American Wild West. Instead they're set in a Never-never-land that shares some of the characteristics as the actual westerns: people ride horses, shoot six-guns, wear stetson hats, dig gold, but then they also have machine guns (Stens, to be exact), drive jeeps and wear wrist watches. And then there's the startling fact that the American Indians are replaced with the Sami people! It makes the films pretty funny - unintentionally of course - at times, but it also goes to show that the Indians in real westerns are a fictional construction.

Tamara Lund in The Gold of the Wild North
I didn't have a chance to see the first Wild North movie (simply called The Wild North, 1955) at the festival, but it's pretty easily available on DVD and elsewhere. The other two films are more difficult to come by. The second film, The Gold of the Wild North (1963), is according to some the best of the three films. It's fast-moving, though there's also the usual sloppiness of director Tarkas with too long scenes and a very bad climax at the end (it's actually quite incomprehensible - the words fail me). The film tells about the three Vorna brothers who are digging for gold somewhere in the utopic North of the films. The plot is pretty thin and meaningless in the end, as this is a mere spectacle of the beautiful Finnish scenery, fist fights and horseback riding. The film has also the charm of the very sexy young Tamara Lund - she plays a foxy lady who's also good with guns.

(Here's Tapio Rautavaara (of the London Olympics fame) singing one of the songs in the first Wild North movie.)

The third Wild North movie, called The Secret Valley of the Wild North (another one from 1963), is the rarest of the bunch as it's been last shown in TV in the early 1980's and it's not available on DVD (nor it was available on VHS either). It's also the wildest one, as it boasts a science-fictional theme of the lost civilization. The Vorna brothers run into a gang of bad guys who are searching for the secret valley they have a map of, but the Sami Indians with their medicine man fight back hard. There is some hilarious action and also some unintentionally funny stuff about the Sami Indians, and the film is fast-moving enough not to be boring, but there are also some scenes that must've looked pretty embarrassing even in the early sixties, such as the two of the Vorna brothers trying to pick up some Sami girls who are out doing Midsummer magic tricks.

The Vorna brothers in The Gold of the Wild North
The Wild North films have largely been seen as parodies of the western genre (and I thought so earlier, too), but having seen the two films I can't concur. It's obvious Aarne Tarkas was pretty enthusiastic about his efforts to bring western thematics and iconography into Finland without having to resort to doing a fake version of Wild West. There's of course humour - some of its largely unintentional, as I've pointed out -, but that's not the same thing. The stuff about the Sami people substituting Indians was a critical mistake, but now it seems only funny. (I don't know how the Sami feel about it themselves.)

One thing about the Wild North films still: the Finnish horses look too big, too muscular compared to the horses in the American or Italian westerns. They don't look right. Some of the guns also look dead wrong (not to mention the Stens), but I can live with that.

Coming up in the 2nd part: the western films of Spede Pasanen (and possibly a cable channel oddity called The Gold Train to Fort Montana).

Here's a stylish song with some parodic overtones, sung by Rose-Marie Precht, from The Gold of the Wild North. (More Overlooked Movies here.)

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Sam Hawken: Juaréz Dance

It's been a long time since I read a book I really wanted to devour. There have been some I've liked, but they haven't been books I didn't want to leave alone. I didn't want to leave Sam Hawken's Juaréz Dance alone. I wanted to get back to it as soon as I possibly could. And for some reason or another, it was possible this last weekend.

The protagonist of Juaréz Dance is an American hired assassin working for a Mexican drug lord. The guy, named Cooper, is a very skilled in what he does, but everything seems to go a bit wrong when the drug lord asks Cooper to bodyguard him. Cooper's still effective, but there's something nagging him all the time.

Hawken writes mean, minimalist, behaviorist prose that doesn't much give away what the people - mainly it's about Cooper all the time - think or feel. I really love this kind of writing. There are wonderful passages of time just passing, of a boredom that comes from waiting by a pool in an empty backyard of a luxurious villa. I could see this being directed by Jim Jarmusch, and I kept comparing it to one of the best books I've read, Kevin Wignall's Who Is Conrad Hirst? 

The last pages of the book are not as good as the previous 240 ones (this is something Hawken says bothered his agent, so the book wound up being self-published), but I'm not really complaining. If I were still picking up books to be translated in Finnish, I'd pick this up.

Purchase the book here. I mean, seriously, do it. This guy means business. (Sorry, the book seems to be available only as an e-book. I didn't mind.)

Hawken has also two other novels, Tequila Sunset and Dead Women of Juaréz. I mean to read them as well.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Sarah Weinman's anthology of vintage female noir

I noticed in Facebook that Sarah Weinman has an anthology of vintage female noir coming out. I snatched the photo from Megan Abbott's feed, and here's a teaser on the book. I couldn't find any more info on the book at the moment, though.