Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Umamerican: An Audience With Reluctant Filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki

Shortly after he turns off my cassette, Aki Kaurismäki tells me a story about a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was the Christmas of 1966, or possibly ’67, and the machine was in the window of an electrical shop in the main street of the small Finnish town where Kaurismäki’s family lived. His sister stopped to look at it often. On Christmas morning, her devotion paid off when she was presented with the machine. She duly used it to record all of the Beatles’ records.
After a few years, Kaurismäki inherited the tape recorder. He used it happily until 1973, when the machine capitulated: its reels would spin no more. He threw away the carcass, but kept the tapes, which he has to this day: reel-to-reel recordings of the Beatles which he cannot play. He tells me this, I think, by way of explanation and, perhaps, apology. For the duration of our interview - not the bit before it, when he chatted happily about the Ian Rankin novel he had just read and his visit to the Edinburgh film festival, when he fled the capital and drove around Loch Ness on the wrong side of the road - he had eyed my Sony Clear Voice with fearful scepticism. But he is telling me also because he does not do technology. For example, he has a stereo system, but prefers to listen to music on a 1950s plastic radio. Why? Because it sounds better. He is a film-maker, but he does not watch contemporary cinema? Why? Because it is shit.
He does, however, have a fondness for Frank Zappa, whose name he pronounces as Chappa. "I have every Frank Chappa record ever made, including the bootlegs. When I was a child everyone else was listening to the Beatles, I was listening to Shostakovich and Chappa. Chappa was one of the geniuses of rock’n’roll. It’s not easy music, but when you understand it, you are surprised."
The labyrinthine logic of Kaurismäki’s speech will be familiar to anyone who has encountered his films, which mix - in varying quantities - a deadpan wit, a spirit of serious existential enquiry, and a concern for the lives of ordinary people. His most famous film is Leningrad Cowboys Go America, in which an improbably coiffured rock band travelled across the US. Of this, Kaurismäki observes: "It was just a film. We started in New York, and we went to Mexico. And we improvised in the beginning and the middle and the end. It was an 80-minute long rock clip." Leningrad Cowboys, and the director’s enduring fascination with rhythm’n’blues, might suggest a fondness for the United States, but Kaurismäki, a cultural nationalist, balks at the suggestion. "For me, the only good things America ever produced were jukeboxes and Cadillacs. After that came Coca-Cola and hamburgers, which, in my opinion, are destruction."
He does, though, admit to owning a Cadillac or two. "To drive a Cadillac - you forget all the other cars. It’s like sitting on the sofa. You need only your little finger to move it and it goes wherever you want, including the moon."
Kaurismäki’s latest film, The Man Without A Past, won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year. It is a simple parable, in which a man arriving at a railway station is beaten up and left for dead. He resumes his life as a derelict, living in a container by the docks, to which he adds a jukebox. He falls in love, teaches the Salvation Army band to play rock’n’roll, and accidentally finds himself involved in a bank robbery. It is beautifully observed, as wry as it is miserable. Of course, Kaurismäki does not accept it when I suggest to him that his film is unlike the big Hollywood productions in that it does not employ action in place of emotion.
"Ah," he says, flatly, "there’s lots of action. And that’s why everybody should see it, by the way."
He is an intuitive director, whose working practice is characterised by the motto: "Don’t criticise, don’t analyse".
"When I direct a film I don’t think. I just do how it feels, which means I don’t have any theories of anything. If I would be satisfied with my work I would say that was my style, but I don’t have any style."
Insofar as he will admit to employing a method, it is "trust in the sub-conscious. Then I shoot where I shoot. Camera here, camera here. Then say a line, then I move nothing, and ‘thank you’".
Rather than running through several takes, he shoots the rehearsals. "The acting style," he says, "is simple. Don’t act."
Because it feels unnatural?
"No, because it feels natural. To be polite I would say I’m not totally happy with the modern Hollywood style where everybody’s acting like hell. I prefer to have actors be humans."
He does not watch new films, "but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t know they are shit. I follow the game. Let’s take David Beckham. Most people don’t like his style, but he makes the goals. Hollywood is the opposite. It’s basically a snake. Which is dead. It’s a money-making machine: it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. It’s pitiful that it prevents national films from being shown. At Christmas you cry and in summer you laugh."
He can remember exactly the films which made him interested in cinema. "There was a double bill show in the film club in a little town in Finland and they showed Nanook of the North, by Flaherty, and after that came L’Âge D’Or by Bunuel, and I got shocked. In that moment, I noticed that cinema is more than laughing at stupid jokes. It sounds stupid, because it is stupid, but I felt that art and cinema had something together. I was 16, so it was a big shock."
His first full-length feature, in 1983, was an adaptation of Crime and Punishment. It was inspired by François Truffaut’s interview with Alfred Hitchcock, in which Hitch observed that Dostoevsky’s book was the one he wouldn’t dare adapt. "I was about 23 or so," Kaurismäki says, "and I said: ‘OK, I’ll show you, old man.’ I did. And then I noticed he was right. Don’t touch." Further adaptations of classics included La Vie Bohème and Hamlet Goes Business.
Working from original material, he has brought a fragile sensitivity and a sense of endurance to tales of life’s losers: Shadows in Paradise (a love story between a dustman and a check-out girl), The Match Factory Girl (a production line worker reads romantic fiction to escape drudgery), and Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatjana (glum Finns pick up hitch-hiking Russian women and take them to a motel, where nothing happens).
In 1996 Kaurismäki began a "Finland trilogy" with Drifting Clouds, a slightly optimistic look at unemployment. The Man Without A Past, is his study of homelessness and is loosely based on his own experiences of sleeping rough for six months.
"I lived in bushes for half a year and then I moved to a railway station. Then a policeman came and I said: ‘I’m taking the next train to Helsinki’. Then he said: ‘You said this six nights already, so f*** off’. I said: ‘OK, thank you.’ I went outside of the railway station, and thought: ‘I have to make some kind of decision about my life, so I went to university.’ But I always had this chance, I could go anywhere. I am not totally stupid."
As he drains his beer, Kaurismäki asks me a question.
"What happened to the great Scottish director who made some beautiful films in Scotland. Bill Forsyth?"
He stopped making films, I tell him, because of some bad experiences in Hollywood.
"Why the hell did he go there? Anybody with his intelligence should have known that it’s bullshit. I saw his first film in Hollywood, Housekeeping, which I liked very much. I saw it in London and he was there, and in that moment I knew that he was too clever and too kind to go to Hollywood.
"I never saw anybody who was swallowed by Hollywood come back. The Coca-Cola machine is swallowing everybody. Hollywood’s a machine which eats European directors. Partly because of Bill Forsyth I made my theory that everybody should make their films in their own country. I am a good man to describe Finland, and he is a good man to describe Scotland, and so on. Why the hell should we go around and make some pudding?"
Kaurismäki mutters quietly to himself, then, for the first time, addresses the microphone directly.
"He should stand up and go back to his ground and make a serious personal story."
Kaurismäki’s films, like those of Forsyth, are characterised by a quiet modesty. "Well," says the Finn, "if you have seen the films I have no reason for any other attitude. They are OK, basically. I’m not ashamed. They are as good as I could do in that moment. And I couldn’t do better in this moment. I would like to make masterpieces, but unfortunately I am not capable of that."
He contemplates his empty beer bottle. "I sneaked in. I freaked out. I’ve always done what I wanted. There’s a stupid joke: others do what they can, I do what I want. It doesn’t mean that I know what I’m doing, but still I never followed any orders, so I’m just waiting till somebody kills me."
The Scotsman, 23 January, 2003