A film that felt essential viewing going in but a let-down upon leaving. What I love about Tom of Finland’s drawings is the freedom and joy they evoke, their playfulness, the emphasis on male beauty — albeit one version of it only, and a very exaggerated model at that– and what seemed the subversiveness of its fetishization of uniforms and the authority figures associated with them. In Tom of Finland drawings, men are having sex everywhere, in and out of uniform, often on bikes, often in nature, and they’re relaxed, free, easy, happy, playful. This is almost the opposite of what the film tells and evokes
Touko Laaksoonen — a former Finnish officer who got the look for the Kake drawings from a Russian parachuter he kills with a pen knife — lives in fear. The police chase him when he’s in the parks; the private home parties he attends could be raided at any moment; he’s vulnerable to the dangers of shock treatments in sanatoriums, to blackmail and robbery from tricks and pick-ups. All of this is what many people who lived through that generation in Finland and elsewhere experienced. But they did not produce the sexy and joyful drawings Tom of Finland is associated with.
The first half of the film is grim and dour without even the excitement that war and danger sometimes evoke. The risky sex in parks and public toilets evoke not one frisson of sexyness or even desire. It’s all needy grimness and glumness, in compositions often shot at eye-level or just above. For a film about an artist, the film does not exactly dazzle with visual finesse. What’s depicted is dangerous but the compositions are so dull that the danger is seen but not felt.
As the film unfolds, Touko who lives with his sister, falls in love with a dancer, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), the romance of his life. They go live together, and eventually Veli gets to hold hands with Touko in public and gets the sissy-ish yellow curtains he’s always dreamed of, but only because the throat cancer he’s been struggling with is now certain to kill him. By this point Tom has already made a name for himself in an America that, in contrast to Finland, is shown as being sunnier and lighter in spirit as well as in sexually freer. This is where Touko Laaksoonen becomes Tom of Finland.
The film first treats his drawings as a kind of therapy, a vision of what it is to be gay that many gay men found personally liberating, and which I don’t doubt is true; it then brings up the issue of AIDS, something Touko arrogantly takes responsibility for, believing that the sexual freedom his work represented and propagated was the cause, thus losing the heart to draw. The film ends with Tom of Finland finding renewed purpose and returning to his art, this time in aid of AIDS research and awareness.
Touko kills a Russian soldier and gives birth to his ideal
The film is a disappointment because nothing about it evokes the beauty, joy, sexyness and skill that Tom of Finland drawings do, not even at the end in California, when the film clearly means to. Contrast for example the photo of Tom of Finlandd at the International Mr. Leather Contest to the way the way we’re shown it: one is happy and sexy, the other….well it tries.
The film’s structure might seem a bit trite. It’s framed as Tom of Finland’s reminiscence as he’s waiting to enjoy the acclaim we will see him earn by the end — a staple and rather hoary structure in the traditional biopic. But it has also got interesting moments of reverie in which Tom’s fantasies join him in his room. I did find aspects of the film moving, particularly the central relationship between Touko and Veli. It was also a great pleasure to be exposed to the beauties of Finland itself. But it’s always a bad sign when one comes out of a film praising the landscape, particularly when it’s a biopic of such a personage.
In contrast to the film, see how Dennis Cooper’s obituary in The Advocate in 1991 highlights the Utopian dimension of Tom of Finland’s work: