If you've browsed through your share of erotica from the 20th century, you've probably encountered the work of Tom of Finland. Any fleeting glance would be memorable; his work is characterized by hyperrealistic renderings of large, almost-cartoonish gay men with glistening muscles, round buttocks, bulging pectorals and handsome, angular faces. Men are often posed together in homoerotic positions, kissing or simply half-naked. And more often than not, they're in uniform, be it police, army, naval or even Nazi, of which the artist has famously stated, ostensibly with tongue-in-cheek wit, "Nazis had the best uniforms."
There has always been an exciting, electric energy emanating from Tom of Finland's drawings, so it's not surprising they left an indelible mark on American and European gay subcultures in the 1960s and '70s. They would go on to help create the gay biker movement and, on a wider scale, challenge the notion that gay men were sissies or pansies. But for whatever reason, Tom (née Touko Laaksonen) sidestepped from politics in his work, choosing to stick to erotic tableaux that presented his personal fantasies.
Dome Karukoski's biopic Tom of Finland aims to illustrate the man behind the art, but equally sidesteps from a lot of politics and conflict, compromising what could have been a powerful story about an icon. At best, it's an introductory portrait of the artist, with a deep look at his formative years and experiences as a gay man in Finland. But one can't help wanting more.
Pekka Strang plays Touko with brilliance and resolve—and bears uncanny resemblance to the master himself. A mild-mannered art director at the Helsinki wing of McCann Erickson by day, Touko illustrates his male sexual fantasies in his off time, in secret from the world and his loving but homophobic sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). At that time, Finland criminalized homosexuality, but Touko and other gay men would have secret, nighttime trysts in the park, until the police would break them up. While fleeing one such raid, Touko watches a policeman swing his baton to beat a young gay man; he later replays the motion in his head to inspire a sexual scene between a policeman and a man, perhaps indicating that, with art, he can subvert this moment of violence to homoerotic pleasure.
One of the film's strengths is how it manages to get inside Touko's head. We see that through flashbacks of World War II, particularly during an experience in which Touko kills a Russian parachutist in the woods. The horror of that moment fades into curiosity, then sadness, as Touko observes the dead young man and sensually grazes his hand over his face, as though stealing a moment he could never enact in public. There are also light dives into surrealism in the case of Touko's fantasies steeping into reality, namely that of a virile, beefcake of a man in biker leather named Kake who follows Touko wherever he goes.
There's also an astute representation of the coded lives of homosexual men at this time, which Karukoski captures in furtive glances across the room, head signals and the classic lighting of one another's cigarettes. But being aware of the heavy discrimination in the first half of the film, we're set up for a larger battle that never really takes place—at least not in his home country. When he comes to Los Angeles for the first time, Touko revels in what is assumed to be a post-Stonewall utopia of gay men out and about in public, where the only police raid that happens is due to a suspected robbery in the area.
Accusations of his work being blamed for the onset of the AIDS virus are told to him by Doug (based on Touko's real-life friend Durk Dehner, who acted as consultant for the film), but they are never actually backed up with those right-wing fearmongers outwardly condemning him. We're instead left with a clunky, rushed climax of Touko drawing Kake in a pro-condom ad in response to the growing AIDS crisis, the publication of his first book of work, and being celebrated by a roaring crowd of leather-clad men. Postscripts fill us in on Touko's death, but curiously, there's no follow-up to the current state of LGBT acceptance in Finland.
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For a subject that shaped a kinky sensibility and helped usher gay liberation, the film suffers from a lot of restraint and sanitization, particularly when it comes to depicting nudity and sex. Karukoski has stated before that the core fan base was less interested in seeing the sex itself than their Tom; I can respect that, but cinema has historically kept gay carnal desires in the shadows. What a disservice to continue that tradition.
Tom of Finland was directed by Dome Karukoski; written by Aleksi Bardy; and stars Pekka Strang and Jakob Oftebro. Opens Fri. at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 285-9422; thefridacinema.org. See website for show times and ticket prices. Through Thurs., Nov. 16.