American directors are afraid. They’re afraid that if they make a picture with any trace of social conscience, any hint of idealism, they’ll be pilloried by the knuckle-dragging entertainment press and shunned by that ever-important Hollywood demographic, the 12- to 18-year-old suburban youth.
Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki does not have to operate under the tight strictures of the profit-hungry Hollywood content police, however. He can make films for less than most of the big directors spend on lunches for their A-list stars. His entire catalogue has probably cost no more than a tiny fraction of the amount that U.S. filmmakers spend on the merchandising for a moderately-large budget action film. This gives him the freedom, the luxury even, of making films that dare to show life as it is lived, and dreams as they should be dreamed.
Kaurismaki’s freedom to show us what he feels is certainly evident in “Ariel,” his 1988 reworking of the classic working-class-man-falls-through-the-cracks plot. Taisto, a recently laid-off miner, takes his big white convertible to the city in search of work. Some toughs rob him at a hamburger stand, his attempt to work illegally on the docks is frustrated by the police, and when he tries to take matters into his own hands, he gets two years in jail for assaulting a criminal. Along the way, he meets a single mother who’s working at least four jobs to keep her head above water, and who loves him enough to help him try to escape from prison.
Kaurismaki does not romanticize the criminal life. His underworld characters are gritty in the most banal ways – unwashed, unloved and not very bright in a sad way. Life is definitely a struggle for these people of the abyss, and the only way they survive is by sticking together and toughing it out, minus any fanciful deus ex machina swooping down to deliver them.
“Hamlet Goes Business” takes, if anything, an even more jaundiced view of another classic plot. The 1987 film takes a similar tack to the 2000 “Hamlet” in which Ethan Hawke took his turn as the melancholy Dane. Hamlet’s father is a wealthy CEO, murdered by a scheming vice president who marries his wife and tries to push Hamlet out of the company. Unlike Hawke, and many other interpreters of the role, the alliteratively named Pirkka-Pekka Petelius gives us a Hamlet who is more than up to the task of taking back what’s his.
Kaurismaki’s reading of Shakespeare has little time for prolonged brooding on the part of the title character. We zip through a fairly faithful rendering of the plot in just 86 minutes, with the focus tightly trained on the crass machinations of the various rich people involved. Labor wins the day in the end, however, in a surprise denouement that preserves the Bard’s body-count while striking a blow for the little guys who generally get crushed without a thought in great tragedy.
“Ariel” and “Hamlet Goes Business” screen as part of a broader Kaurismaki retrospective which runs through Jan. 30 at the Walker Art Center.