Once upon a time (say, around 1990), no
film festival would be complete without an Aki Kaurismaki movie.
The wunderkind of Finnish cinema, who then put out a new feature or two each year - each a mix of impish humor, deadpan irony and a free-form rock ’n’ roll sensibility - was seen as an antidote to the prevailing perception of too-serious European directors.
Then, Kaurismaki seemed to drop out of sight. He continued making movies, but the festival programmers had moved on to the newest flavor of the month.
Now, when BAMcinematek presents "Kaurismaki Goes America" (July 10-27), viewers may be surprised at how consistent Kaurismaki has been over two decades of filmmaking. When his latest feature, "The Man without a Past," played festivals last year and was released commercially this year, critics fell over themselves praising the director’s new-found maturity. Needless to say, Kaurismaki doesn’t entirely agree.
"I have become older, but does it mean ’maturity’ is another question," he told GO Brooklyn via e-mail from his home in Finland. "I started this caring stuff already in ’Shadows in Paradise’ back in 1986. I always have cared for my characters, but sometimes they just aren’t so nice."
The director casually calls "Shadows" (showing July 12) a member of his "genre C." It’s best to let him explain his motives: "To keep the minimal sanity I have left, I have divided my work roughly to three categories: a) literal adaptations, b) the rock ’n’ roll department, and c) social-realistic tragi-comedies, whatever that means. Of course all these genres are mixed together. I like playing with literal dramas and dealing with social questions but not without relaxing with ’rock-nonsense’ now and then."
Kaurismaki’s entire career has mixed all three genres with delightful abandon. The movie after which the series is named, 1987’s "Hamlet Goes Business" (July 19), is a wry updating of Shakespeare that doesn’t even try to hide its basic ludicrousness; another skewed take on a famous literary work, "Crime and Punishment" (July 11), was the director’s 1983 debut.
The "rock ’n’ roll department," as the director calls it, consists of his ragtag band of ne’er-do-wells from Russia, the Leningrad Cowboys. This hopelessly inept rock group first made its onscreen appearance in 1989’s slapstick "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" (July 13), then returned for a relatively sober 1994 concert movie, "Total Balalaika Show" (to be shown with other Kaurismaki shorts on July 15).
In response to a query about whether or not the Cowboys will return to the big screen, Kaurismaki enigmatically responds, "You never know in this perfect world."
Genre C’s most notable achievement is the under-appreciated "Drifting Clouds" (July 26), a disarming 1996 character study of a working-class couple desperately struggling with their dual unemployment. As with "The Man Without a Past" (for which she won Best Actress at Cannes last year) and other Kaurismaki features in the series, actress Kati Outinen stars as the put-upon - but never defeated - heroine.
Outinen and cinematographer Timo Salminen are the director’s go-to collaborators.
"I have worked with Timo almost 25 years, which means we just whistle during the shooting," Kaurismaki wryly notes, "and the same goes with Kati - after 18 years, I write parts directly for her, and in my last few films I have even let her improvise a bit in minor details ... which I then cut away at the editing table."
One of Kaurismaki’s least-typical adaptations is 1999’s black-and-white, dialogue-less drama "Juha" (July 27), based on a tragic novel by Finnish novelist Juhani Aho. Finnish composers Aarre Merikanto and Leevi Madejota each took stabs at composing operas based on Aho’s book, but Kaurismaki prefers the music of others.
"I am big admirer of certain Russian composers, like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, whose music I have also used a lot in my films," he says. "Of the Finnish, I most prefer [Jean] Sibelius, but for money reasons - all the rights are in Germany, and they are greedy - I have absolutely no chance to use his music in my films."
And no, the director will not accompany his films to BAM, but he has nothing against Brooklyn. Last fall, he made news by refusing to attend the New York Film Festival in protest over Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami not getting a visa. He is not about to change his mind now.
"Even though I missed attending the New York Film Festival, which has the wittiest audience ever, I won’t visit the USA while the present government is in power," he says. "I don’t like totalitarian regimes, but it would be incorrect to call me anti-American. I’m just fond of justice."
"Kaurismaki Goes America," a series of films by Aki Kaurismaki, will be shown July 10-27 at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix Street in Fort Greene.
"Calamari Union," July 10 at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Crime and Punishment," July 11 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Shadows in Paradise," July 12 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Leningrad Cowboys Go America," July 13 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Total Balalaika Show," with program of short films, July 15 at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana," July 17 at 4:30, 6:50 (with introduction by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch) and 9:10 pm
"Ariel," July 18 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Hamlet Goes Business," July 19 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"I Hired a Contract Killer," July 20 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses," July 22 at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"La Vie de Boheme," July 24 at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"The Match Factory Girl," July 25 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Drifting Clouds," July 26 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
"Juha," July 27 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm
Tickets are $10, $6 seniors. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.