A new film explores the life of Tom of Finland, the man whose drawings were so instrumental in developing the gay aesthetic, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
Touko Laaksonen is not a household name. Yet under the simple moniker of Tom of Finland, Laaksonen, making his living as an advertising draughtsman in conservative post-war Finland, was secretively putting pen to paper and exported his leather-clad homoerotic fantasies to emerging gay communities all over the world.
There may not have been another artist so influential in constructing the aesthetic palette that ruled the burgeoning gay scene in San Francisco in the 1970s.
Think Village People: burly cops with moustaches, ludicrously endowed leather-men in peaked caps, cowboys in chaps. Much of this imagery has its origins in Tom of Finland’s work, which criss-crosses the line between erotica, lovingly celebrating masculine ideals of beauty, and full-on porn.
Director Dome Karukoski’s new biopic, Tom of Finland, strives to tell Laaksonen’s story, from his early, closeted existence while fighting in the Finnish army in the second world war, to his relationships with his sister and his lover of 28 years, to his visits to the US, where he was heralded as the man who sparked a sexual revolution.
When Karukoski and his writing partner Aleksi Bardy began to research the story for a potential film script in 2011, “What struck us at that point was that if you google Tom of Finland you get millions and millions of hits, but if you google Touko Laaksonen there were just a couple of thousand,” the Finnish director says. “It was obvious that the story behind the character of Tom of Finland was obscured.”
The resulting Finnish-language film, starring Pekka Strang in the title role, is a beautifully shot and emotionally nuanced exploration of universal themes: “It’s a story about freedom of speech, freedom to be who you are and about the struggle of an artist,” Karukoski says.
Tom of Finland picked up the International Association of Film Critics award at this year’s Göteborg Film Festival and was nominated at Tribeca and Edinburgh Festivals, proving its broader appeal than purely within LGBT communities. Yet it drew criticism in some circles as an acceptably vanilla representation of the life of a man whose sexual imagery had dark and predatory aspects.
Laaksonen’s work certainly seems influenced by early and at times brutal experiences: witnessing a b eating administered to a casual hook-up in a Helsinki park by police on an anti-gay raid, for example.
“We’ve taken the film to 100 countries, and in some countries they will feel that it’s vanilla and not in others,” Karusoski says. “When we’re expressing that sexuality in the film, it’s drama-driven and comes out in the story. We always asked ourselves, ‘Is this a scene that we need? What would be the dramatic purpose of showing a bondage scene?’”
“The film shows what we thought were the five emotionally biggest moments in his life: war, post-war when he’s finding his voice and audience, his partner, and two segments in America, including the onset of the AIDS epidemic, which he viewed as his last war. There are many opinions on what we should have shown of his life, but as artists, we had to choose with our hearts what was the best story to capture that truth.”
Tom of Finland will be this year’s Saturday Night Centrepiece screening at Dublin’s 25th anniversary GAZE LGBT film festival. In a programme with plenty of focus on Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum, the film’s first half, set in Tom’s closeted years in Finland in the ’50s, may reflect an experience of being gay that young men and women in Ireland and Finland (where same-sex marriage was legalised this year) may not ever experience?
Karukoski comes from a liberal background, with artist and writer parents, and laughingly describes himself as “a heterosexual man, but as gay as it gets”. He doesn’t believe that the recent legal changes in Ireland and Finland have had as a large an impact as people may imagine. “I think that’s a very heterosexual viewpoint,” he says.
“For a 15-year-old boy in small-town Finland or Ireland, in surroundings where the family are perhaps not gay-friendly, it will be as tricky as it was for Tom. LGBT kids are still the most bullied kids. There’s still an oppression by the main-stream of a minority; it’s very much psychologically ingrained and that’s why making this film was important.”
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