08 November 2009

Aki Kaurismäki

For years I have had stuck in my head the most memorable line in any film (forget the "Play it again Sam" misquote), from Kaurismäki's I Hired a Contract Killer (the film in which there is an assignation at the hamburger stand by Karl Marx's grave in Hampstead Cemetery). The protagonist, a modest and shy man, has decided he must end it all, and seeks advice on where to find a contract killer to kill himself. He is directed to a bar, the camera follow him down smoky stairs, into gloom, the piano stops, men with grim faces swivel and frown. The protagonist speaks: "Where I come from, we eat places like this for breakfast." (For the record, and it's scarcely a spoiler, he hires the killer, tells the killer to surprise him, promptly falls in love and ... (I won't spoil the rest).

This weekend we have also watched Kaurismäki's Mies vailla menneisyyttä [The Man Without a Past], which is sort of Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan but explores the life after bashing rather more extensively. It is a film about very ordinary very decent people told in a beautifully paced and theatrical manner. It is full of lessons in photography, in precision, in fine detail, wryness, avoidance of the obvious, tight construction and simple complexity. The heart warms. Kathryn Heyman urged me at her master class in May: "the reader must know what the protagonist wants and yearn for its achievement." This film is a master class in that. It won the 2003 Grand Prix at Cannes and was nominated for best foreign film for the Oscars. The director boycotted the latter. In a letter to the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he wrote that the United States was “preparing a crime against humanity for the purpose of shameless economic interests”.

Kaurismäki had been invited to the New York Film Festival in 2002, but stayed away..."in protest of the U.S. failure to grant Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami a visa to attend the festival. A letter to the festival director read, in part:
“Under the circumstances, I, too, am forced to cancel my participation – for if the government of the United States does not want an Iranian, it will hardly have any use for a Finn. We do not even have the oil. But I would like to invite the American secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] to see me in Finland. We could take a walk in the woods and pick mushrooms*. That might calm him down.”
[quoted from first link above]
* There is a mushroom-picking walk in the woods in The Man without a Past