Tom of Finland
Dome Karukoski (director), Aleksi Bardy (screenplay), Lasse Frank (cinematographer), Harri Ylönen (editor)
Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Taisto Oksanen, Seumas Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Niklas Hogner (cast)
February 24, 2017 (Finland), October 13, 2017 (Worldwide)
The story of Tom of Finland, both in director Dome Karukoski’s biopic and in the public imagination, is a curious paradox of hypervisibility and complete obscurity. Touko Laaksonen’s body of work is the most ubiquitous and influential conception of queer masculinity, but the man himself is barely discussed or understood. His work permeates every facet of LBGTQIA culture and is a household name beyond it, yet is neither in the Eisner Awards Hall of Fame, nor a recipient of the Angouleme Grand Prix.
It’s a set of contradictions that director Dome Karukoski seemingly seeks to heighten rather than collapse, making Tom of Finland utterly unique in the field of recent high profile biopics that almost without fail seek to make definitive statements on their subjects. It’s an unconventional approach that leading man Pekka Strang is just as deeply invested in as his director, projecting warmth, intimacy, and vulnerability as Laaksonen, while remaining a nearly complete cypher. The audience is invited deep into Laaksonen’s emotional world, but is rarely, if ever, given direct insight into what animates his creative or personal decisions. It’s the complete opposite of a conventional portrait like Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, or Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk, who all expound at length on their worldviews in their own ways, sometimes turning the films they inhabit into more of a philosophical treatise than a biography.
The results of holding back Laaksonen’s voice on his work are deeply ambivalent: as a century shaping queer artist, it’s maddening to walk away from a film championing his life without a concrete elucidation on such a transformative body of work; however, Karukoski and Strang are anything but coy or limp in that decision. Instead of issuing grand speeches or contrived conversations about the nature of Laaksonen’s work, they craft a visual context for the audience to draw their own conclusions about the sources behind Laaksonen’s clear fixations.
A truly fascinating aspect of Laaksonen’s work is that in its current context, it has a kind of suffocating grip on the queer male erotic imagination, exerting a hegemonic influence on the hypermasculine, white supremacist beauty ideals that gay culture finds itself chafing against. One of the primary virtues of Tom of Finland is to bring Laaksonen’s body of work back to its original context, at a time and place where any expression of queerness was criminalized and his cartoonishly exaggerated musculature was a bold subversion of the homophobically emasculated image of queer masculinity that dominated the mainstream.
While the film is frequently harrowing in its depiction of the dangers associated with trying to assert a queer identity and find either a sexual or emotional connection in, there’s no space for wallowing. The twin poles of anxiety and the thrill of the forbidden contained in cruising in public parks and clandestine house parties are captured in equal measure, creating the context for the fraught relationship between Laaksonen and his favored subjects. The contradictions inherent in his fixation on eroticizing authority figures like soldiers, sailors, and the police in a context where the institutions backing those figues were violently repressing him come into sharp focus almost immediately.
This is where the film most sharply creates a context for contemplation rather than issuing a concrete or didactic statement, to great effect. The first clues to parsing Laaksonen’s ambivalent relationship to power emerge in his wartime service, where he first experienced a sense of brotherhood that included a sexual element. Throughout the film, we see elements of his oeuvre present opportunities for him to playfully subvert the world around him to reflect his erotic imagination, encouraged by imaginary embodiments of his most iconic characters. The most definitive and powerful example occurs when he arrives in the United States, coming face to face with the fame that he could neither achieve or flaunt in his native Finland.
While at a pool party surrounded by men dressed in imitation of his characters, Laaksonen has a moment of panic when a pair of cops rush into the backyard, expecting yet another of the raids that sent him fleeing on numerous occasions back home. In a somewhat apocryphally whimsical twist, the officers apologize for interrupting and explain they were chasing a fleeing suspect. Recovered from his initial shock, Laaksonen convinces one of the cops to pose for him, and he draws the man in his iconic style, suggesting, but never stating outright, that a powerful aspect of eroticizing figures of authority arrayed against him was as much a source of self empowerment and reclamation of power as it was a kink.
As powerful, loving, and subtly crafted as Tom of Finland is, it’s hard to avoid feeling a twinge of the same set of resentments that come from watching other recent biopics about overlooked subjects from marginalized groups like Milk or Hidden Figures. While films like these approach their subjects from positions of unquestionable care and genuine enthusiasm, they’re also being made to correct unforgivable institutional failures. More and more it’s falling on Hollywood and the arts more broadly to fill in the gaps of history that public institutions and the educational system should be taking the lead on, becoming one more example of the private sector being forced to compensate for the ravages of neoliberalism. These are tremendous films, but the American public should not be receiving their primary, and usually only, education in these trailblazing figures from Hollywood.
The fact that Hidden Figures has cause to be called that should be a source of shame for NASA, as should the fact that Laaksonen is not widely embraced and celebrated within western comics. These are absolutely films that should be made and celebrated in the tone and timbre they receive, but they should not, by the same token, assume the burden of vindicating their subjects or deliver them from obscurity. The irony is that the more successful these films are, the more likely it is that the practice will be normalized unless the praise for them is accompanied by renewed calls for institutional reform that takes the burden off the arts.
Above all else, Tom of Finland is a film that defies its grim and oppressive historical context to deliver a loving, intimate portrait of an iconic yet underserved artist. The care with which the film was executed deserves to be met with a reclamation and critical re-appraisal of Laaksonen’s work so that, if nothing else, the queer artists of today and tomorrow can see the potential transformative power of their own work through the suffocating haze of heteronormativity.