TOM OF FINLAND
Review by Sean Reid Scott
[Note: Some of the information in this review was from non-movie sources, for your elucidatory pleasure:]
EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW the name “Tom of Finland,” if you’re a gay man with Internet access you’ve undoubtedly seen his work. Likely enjoyed it. Possibly really enjoyed it.
When I saw my first Tom of Finland work back in the day, I was hooked. (Check out my TOF GALLERY.)
Tom of Finland is a very well-produced biopic. It traces the life of WWII decorated officer Touko Laaksonen (Tom) as he returns to civilian life in post-war Helsinki. 1940s Finland (and everywhere for that matter) was not the place you’d want to find yourself if you buttered your toast on the wrong side. It was definitely a different world than 21st century America.
Myself, not having lived in an era or place where pornography was not only illegal, but even suggestive art or photography was vehemently shunned, I take the availability of good jerk-off material for granted. (Side-note: That’s something we in the U.S. should definitely not take for granted, what with the current political climate.) Touko Laaksonen had no porn available, except what his own imagination created—which, as it turned out, ended up feeding the imaginations of countless millions of gays (and straights, no doubt) the world over.
I really liked this movie. A lot. Borderline loved: The acting was superb, the cinematography excellent, the writing and directing were first class. This was no gay porno B-movie. It was nominated for, and won, numerous awards, including a nomination at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Even the music was really, really good. (A little Debussy never hurt anyone.) This kind of flick is right up my alley. I love well-done biographical films, and Tom of Finland didn’t disappoint. I really can’t think of anything I’d change about this movie. Even the fact that some dialogue is in Finnish wasn’t distracting. Using the captions didn’t lessen the experience, and it supported the films authenticity. It was interesting to learn new things about Tom. As a child he took music lessons, and became quite a proficient pianist as an adult (an aforementioned Debussy rendition being an example).
POSSIBLE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, but really, you should read on. Touko Laaksonen moved from his small Finnish hometown to Helsinki in 1939 (age 19) where he began studying advertising. In 1940 he was drafted into the Finnish Army, where he served as an anti-aircraft officer, achieving the rank of second lieutenant. Before he left for the war, he destroyed the erotic drawings he’d made, ostensibly because if they’d been found while he was gone, he’d be done in. During the war, he befriended his captain, who is later revealed to be a “homophile” as well.
Touko (Tom) later attributed his fetishistic interest in uniformed men to encounters with men in army uniform, especially soldiers of the German Wehrmacht serving in Finland at that time. "In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!” 1
War is hell, as they say, and Tom’s experience was no exception. In one early movie scene, he kills a Russian paratrooper in cold blood. For years after the war he was haunted by nightmares. We call that PTSD now.
When he returned home from the war, Tom lived with his sister, Kaija, in an apartment in Helsinki. One of the notable things about his post-war life was his propensity to frequent certain Helsinki parks at night, to hook up with like-minded men who absolutely could not be open about their sexuality. The reason so many of his works are set in parks and forests quickly became apparent—as did the aforementioned fascination with uniformed men. (The style of those uniforms also hinted at why his men frequently have those funny-looking bulges on their upper legs.)
His interest in biker culture is also touched upon in the film. In one amusing scene, sister Kaija walks in on Tom in his room, and he’s dressed—head-to-toe—in leather, eliciting a big laugh from her.
During this time, Kaija does her best to find her brother a woman: “A lot of girls would want a handsome officer like you.” Obviously she knows nothing about the hidden little sketch book he keeps, filled with his homoerotic art. (He signed his drawings just with his initials at first, for obvious reasons. Even when he made it big, he opted to keep the “Tom of Finland” moniker he’d been assigned. When he eventually reveals to Kaija his “dick drawings,” as she ends up calling them, she says: “I’m glad you use that funny pseudonym, so you don’t stain our family’s reputation.”)
Nor does Kaija know that Touko frequently puts himself in danger with those late-night park rendezvous—visits that are often interrupted by the local constabulary, hell-bent on locking up deviant men. Being a homosexual was a crime, you know.
Kaija hooks her brother up with a job at the advertising firm where she works. They both use their artistic predisposition in their careers, but later in life Kaija admits to Touko: “We never became real artists, you and me.” At that point, he is world-famous as Tom of Finland. He opens his private drawing studio to her, and reveals that she is wrong—at least about him—yet obviously she doesn’t approve of his genre.
Not content with late-night park hook-ups in Helsinki, Touko takes a brief trip to Berlin. There he findsgay nightclubs, where he enjoys the company of men. He has a habit of handing out his pictures, which are quite well-received. (Back in Helsinki he made the mistake of hitting on a man by flashing one of his pictures under the bottom of a bathroom stall. Both men then emerge from their respective stalls, but the guy is decidedly not interested. He commences to beat up Tom, and eventually the establishment’s bouncer intervenes, tossing the perverted Tom out of the place. But as he’s leaving, Tom glances at the man who started the fight and says, “Thanks honey.”)
One of the men he hooks up with in Berlin ends up stealing Tom’s wallet and passport, and Tom lands in jail, unable to get home. Coincidentally his former captain in the war is now a Finnish diplomat in Berlin, and he gets Tom out of jail and eventually back to Finland. Apparently because of his association with Tom, the captain is arrested later, with headlines screaming, “DIPLOMAT REVEALED AS HOMOPHILE”. Tom’s former captain is subsequently sent to an asylum where he’s subjected to therapies designed to rid men of those pesky homosexual urges—a course of therapy the captain willingly undergoes. He wants to "be cured."
While he works at the advertising firm, creating pictures for ad campaigns, Tom continues to draw homoerotic images in private. His depictions of muscular men, engaged in subversive acts and free of inhibitions, make Tom quite famous in the underground gay world. (He quits his advertising job in Helsinki in 1973, living solely on his drawing income.)
Earlier, Touko and Kaija take in a boarder named Nipa, a handsome young man who ends up becoming Touko's life-long lover. Later, when Tom returns home from his first trip to Los Angeles (after making it big in the U.S.), he confides to Nipa about LA: “It’s always warm there. And the sea is sparkling blue. Almost everyone is like us in California.”
Tom is blown away by 1970s Los Angeles. Men openly show their gay love, holding hands on the street, and generally parading around in front of God and everyone. He’s astounded to learn that everyone in the LA gay culture knows him. He’s a kind of rock star: “I think the plane must have crashed,” he says to an admirer.
During his trip to LA, while he’s enjoying a big back yard party thrown in his honor, a squad of police officers burst through the bushes with guns drawn. Obviously, Tom thinks it must be a homosexual raid—like the ones he’d always fled in Helsinki. His heart must have stopped, fearful for the party-goers—and his—pending arrest. As it turns out, the cops are merely in pursuit of a suspect of a recent, nearby crime. When the party-goers admit they haven’t seen the bad guy, the cops leave, but not before posing for a picture or two.
When he gets home to Nipa, his lover is sick with complications from AIDS (Emphysema? I can’t remember). Nipa eventually dies. Tom ends up doing some soul-searching when American publishers stop distributing his work. Seems people are linking the availability of his gay porn to the AIDS epidemic; he briefly considers the idea that his drawings may have actually contributed to the spread of AIDS.
One interesting technique used in the film is the presence of some of Tom’s characters in various scenes, obviously existing only in his imagination. His leather-clad muscle men appear in his room, sometimes lying on his bed, smiling and gazing at him suggestively. Specifically, his “Kake” (pronounced, as I learned, as KAH-ky; should’ve known that I guess. Finnish and all) is a welcome imaginary visitor—both to Tom, and to yours truly. (The man who played Tom’s imaginary Kake (Niklas Hogner) was hotter’n hell, and a dead ringer for the hunk.)
Touko Laaksonen was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988. Eventually the disease and medication caused his hands to tremble, leading him to switch mediums from pencil to pastels. He died in 1991 (age 71) due to an emphysema-induced stroke.
Tom of Finland became a symbol of gay fantasy. His imagery is ubiquitous in gay circles. Artists the world over have imitated his style. His impact on gay culture cannot be overstated. As one website says, “Touko Laaksonen died in 1991. Tom of Finland lives.”
Tom of Finland was thoroughly enjoyable. A well-executed treatment of a gay icon, I eagerly recommend this film. It’s a fascinating look into the man who greatly contributed to the heritage shared by gay men everywhere.
[Available on Hulu]
Rotten Tomatoes: Approval rating of 81% based on 52 reviews, with an average rating of 6.6 out of 10.
Film’s website: http://protagonistpictures.com/film/tom-of-finland