January 30, 2009

Prole Arthouse

By: Maria Robinson

When it comes to the economy, the news is emphatically Not Good.  The national unemployment rate reached 7.2% in December, and if the loss of over 50,000 jobs announced Monday is any indication, the expense-flensing won’t be ending anytime soon. With the Democrats readying a historically gargantuan stimulus package and the Fed attempting to outmaneuver deflation in unprecedented ways, economist Tyler Cowen’s claim that we’ve finally entered a depression seems alarmingly un-alarmist.  By now, even those of us not yet suffering from a stubborn case of unemployment are at least psychologically feeling the pinch and hence doing more of what inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander called “the figuring it out at kitchen tables,” whether that be clipping coupons or deferring divorce.

Still, even in the worst of times, Americans have managed to build some wiggle into the budget for escapism.  The movies were America’s favorite diversion throughout the original Great Depression, packing in 60 to 80 million people a week (i.e., more than half the population) even during the darkest moments of the downturn of all downturns. And this time around it looks like it’s movies for the win again, although Depression 2.0-ers seem to be forgoing the megaplex in favor of Netflix.

In a sense, then, the recessionary release of Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy through the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series—“a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions”—is a case of prescient timing.  Worth viewing in any economic climate, this blue-collar suite carries particular resonance in our current era of toppling markets and tightening belts.  With late-80’s Helsinki looking awfully like Cleveland and Detroit circa now, even the Whole Foods set can relate with the meager lot of Kaurismäki’s proletarian protagonists.

Each of the three films peer into the life of a weary working-class Finn: Shadows in Paradise (1986) traces the quiet failures of garbage man Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) as he attempts to woo the frosty grocery clerk Ilona; Ariel (1988) chronicles the cascading misfortunes of Taisto (Turo Pajala), a laid-off miner who winds up wanted by the police; and The Match Factory Girl (1990) follows line worker Iris (Kati Outinen) as she trades the stifling cage of her workaday existence for another kind of cage altogether.  Though there is obvious sympathy here for the struggles these characters face, the films are far from an earnest paean to working-class grit; Kaurismäki’s bleakly wry storylines and deadpan shots consistently steer closer to farce than to tragedy. As his laconic proles drink and smoke their way through destitution, humiliation, and heartbreak (usually with a stint in prison along the way), the camera frames their tribulations with an absurdist’s eye.  During the first love scene in Shadows in Paradise, for example, when Nikander finally makes his move, a song about lost love surges while the camera rests in close-up on Ilona’s outstretched hand; the seconds tick past, but her fingers never let go of the cigarette smoldering between them.

The same quirky plotting and stark visuals that earned his latter-day masterpiece The Man Without a Past the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2002 are already present in this early work: the characters barely speak and never smile, communicating largely via hard-eyed nods and cryptic exhalations of smoke; both pleasure and pain are expressed vicariously through the music that punctuates their lives, whether at a concert hall or on the radio; betrayals are commonplace and cheats abound; and it’s rare for a protagonist to make it through a film without receiving a blow to the head.  Watched in succession, the set start to feel like a filmic riff on the Goldberg Variations, with the alterations that should distinguish one story from the next only serving to bring their symmetries into greater relief—and perhaps that’s the point.

The word “proletariat” itself is fraught with conflicting connotations; in the public imagination, visions of righteous, lean-jawed workers in tattered jackets have always jostled against notions of an unwashed mass too lazy and ignorant to climb out of self-imposed squalor, and Kaurismäki holds these competing conceptions in tension throughout his triptych.  The oppressive hand of The Man looms large in each narrative, and the numbing slog of subsistence is ever-present in the visual details Kaurismäki chooses to highlight: the plates of unappetizing foods, the ill-fitting fashions, the threadbare apartments.  But the constancy of struggle and the imminence of defeat in these movies doesn’t absolve our (anti)heroes of their own complicity in the system that contains them; their choices, large and small, seem to guarantee that there will be as few reasons to smile in the future as there are in the present—a state of affairs with which any Madoff investor can surely relate.

But wait: don’t hard times call for vicarious relief from economic malaise?  If history is our blueprint, then no indeed.  Although our distance-addled canon has ensconced the fluffy musicals and glitzy starlets of the Depression era, in fact the screwball comedies and feel-good Shirley Temple numbers we associate with those days rose to prominence only after the establishment of the rectitudinous Breen Office dovetailed with the flush of New Deal-inspired optimism that hit Hollywood in 1934.  Before then, our cash-strapped great- and grandparents tendered their precious quarters in pursuit of hard-edged social-realist dramas involving gangsters, prostitutes, and other outsiders, hoping less for respite than recognition.

So, while the economists look to Scandinavia for guidance on rapid and effective banking stabilization a la Sweden in the ‘90s, perhaps the rest of us would do well to look in that general direction for some cinematic solidarity between now and whenever the New Deal Redux kicks in and puts us all back in the mood for happy endings.

-Maria Robinson is a writer based in Northampton, MA.