“Tom of Finland”
Art and Pornography
Dome Karukowski’s “Tom of Finland”, a biographical Finnish drama that will cause a sensation. Artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) who is better known to most as Tom of Finland, gradually begins to break taboos, asserting a gay identity in his life and art and like the main character, Karukowski goes toward the subversive. We see a duality of representation that’s central to an appreciation of Laaksonen’s work as both art and pornography.
Karukowski liberates his film from convention in much the same way Laaksonen was able to free himself from his sexual anxieties through his art, and images of sexualized “Tom’s men” make it off the page and become a part of Laaksonen’s physical life.
In the early scenes we see the threat of intolerance that follows Laaksonen, as a gay man, at a time in his country when homosexuality was criminalized in Finland. This struggle connects the film to a modern context with the president of Chechnya who has very recently called for the “elimination” of his country’s gay population. There is a sense of paranoia in the way Karukowski films late-night cruising and covert a Cold War thriller substituting one form of repression for another).
The film is part of a movement to document crucial parts of the history of the growth of the LGBT community. Touko Laaksonen was a middle-class Finnish Army Officer who had a great deal of difficulty adjusting back into civilian life after World War II in a culture where homosexuality was illegal and could exposure could ruin one’s live.
During the day, he was a successful advertising agency artist in Helsinki, but at night when he wasn’t in the gay cruising areas looking for sexual partners, he was at home developing his own art as a way of dealing with the rampant homophobia in a very conservative Finnish society. He drew private fantasies based on stylized versions of the soldiers, farmers, lumberjacks and leather-clad bikers that he lusted after and they are nothing like the norm of his reality. When he went to Berlin to sell some of these his visit goes horribly wrong, but Laakesonen knows by the reactions of the closeted gay men who have viewed his work, that he is on to something that is quite extraordinary.
He meets and falls in love with a young dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), and it is Veli who encourages Laakesonen to develop his work even more delving into the ultra-masculine world of biker and leathermen and their sub culture. In order to avoid his drawings being traced back to him and risk trouble with the law, he stops using his real name and just signs them ‘Tom’. Bob Mizer, the editor of the American magazine “Physique Pictoral” that ‘Tom’ sends his work too in 1953 added the ‘of Finland’ to create his famous nom-de-plume.
This was the era of ‘beefcake’ art and photography in the days before homosexuality was fully decriminalized and gay pornography was legal in the U.S. The Tom of Finland books and artworks encouraged gay men emerging to come out from the and take on this whole ultra-macho role which no-one had publicly identified as a homosexual trait. Whilst his work was still a secret back home in Finland, ‘Tom’ quickly became a major cult figure in the more liberated environs of places like California and N.Y.
The film shows “Tom’s” success and his personal life and is compelling viewing. Tom comes across as a charming and affable man and they don’t hide the fact that he participated in a sexual liberation that he helped create. His profound relationship with Vila, the one real love of his life, ended with his untimely death from cancer is a very definite and unexpected tear-jerking moment.
“Tom of Finland” avoids the obvious mention of the link between Nazism and BDSM which we now know was a source of fascination for Laakesonen. Rather, the film it focuses on the profound importance of his portfolio of work, which over the course of forty years consisted of d some 3500 illustrations that became being an iconic contribution to the LGBT culture.
Tom of Finland spent much of his life hiding who he truly was and he was only recognized and admired by those in the gay community. We never really get close to this withdrawn, private and pensive man and the only times that we really learn about his personality is when he is relationships. The last portion of the film shows the rise in AIDS and anti-homosexual attitudes in the USA, something of which Tom’s drawings is the blame for.
The film is almost two hours long with the first half of the film beautifully setting Tom up; the second half of the film is about his American success and downfall. The script, written by Karukowski and Aleksi Bardy, is ambitious. It starts with the Second World War and ending at the 1980’s AIDS epidemic. The film is beautifully shot and styled. It is a beautifully crafted and important story of one of Finland’s major icons.
The film succeeds in depicting the struggle of an unprecedented artist who had to live so many years in the shadows because of his homosexuality and the strong repression against the gay communities. However, it does slow down in the second half when Tom comes to America. The cast is excellent and every gay man should add this film to their must-see list.