The Cinema Of Mika Kaurismaki: Transvergent Cinescapes, Emergent Identities

The Cinema Of Mika Kaurismaki: Transvergent Cinescapes, Emergent Identities

by Pietari Kaapa


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Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki’s films challenge the boundaries of nations, genre formations, art and popular culture, and fiction and documentary. Synthesizing concepts from a range of thematic frameworks, including transnationalism, eco-philosophy, architectural theory, and cartography, this book provides an interdisciplinary reading of Kaurismäki’s body of work. The notion of “transvergence”—thinking in heterogeneous and polyphonal terms—emerges as an analytical method for exploring the power of these films. Through this method, the book encourages a rethinking of transnational cinema studies in relation to many oft-debated notions such as Finnish culture, European identity, cosmopolitanism and globalization.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841504094
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Pages: 265
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Pietari Kääpä is a research fellow in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has published extensively on transnational Finnish cinema.

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The Cinema of Mika Kaurismäki

Transvergent Cinescapes, Emergent Identities

By Pietari Kääpä

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-409-4


The Aki/Mika Syndrome: Cosmopolitan Auteurism and the Search for Cinematic Stability

The name Kaurismäki has become something of a brand in both Finnish and international cinematic circles (Nestingen 2010). For cinemagoers well-versed in 'world cinema', this can instantly create a set of associations connected to the 'Kaurismäki-phenomenon', a phrasing that plays on the title of an early musical documentary collaboratively directed by Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, Saimaa-ilmiö/The Saimaa Phenomenon (1981). Two prominent articles by well-known Finnish film historians, Sakari Toiviainen's Kaurismäki-ilmiö/The Kaurismäki-phenomenon in his work Levottomat Sukupolvet/Restless Generations (2002a) and Tytti Soila's The Landscape of Memories in the Films of the Kaurismäki Bros (2003), both discuss the historical collaboration of the brothers and compare and contrast the films to one another in the framework of Finnish national cinema, setting standards and expectations for many analyses of both brothers' work. Certainly, the Kaurismäkis' films share many similarities and inhabit a distinctly alternative or marginal position within the normative confines of Finnish cinema. The three early feature films the Kaurismäkis produced in collaboration (The Liar, The Saimaa Phenomenon and The Worthless) form a template for many of their future films. In these early examples, we can observe several of the key thematic preoccupations that characterize Aki and Mika Kaurismäki's politicized work: for example, a critical focus on the changing notions of the Finnish welfare state; characters who are lost in both the urban cityscapes and the traditional landscapes of the nation; intertextual and thematic internationalism; and an urge to bring such debates to the public sphere via popular culture. These categorizations have since become an apt (and pervasive) description of the types of films Aki Kaurismäki produces and it is an association that also extends to interviews and reviews of his films.

Aki Kaurismäki's films are very idiosyncratic in their social criticism, and their focus on the transformations of welfare state ideologies into more neo-liberal concerns, which pushes his protagonists outside of the physical and/or cultural borders of nations. He has also worked from this palette outside Finland on numerous occasions, as he has produced films in the UK (I Hired a Contract Killer, 1990), France (La Vie De Bohême, 1992), and the US (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, 1989), all of which tend to feature similar concerns as those he has produced in Finland. The collaborative productions directed by Mika Kaurismäki, The Liar and The Worthless, feature transnational mindsets and textual and thematic content suggestive of the increasing transnationalisation of the Finnish nation, on which Aki Kaurismäki's subsequent films expand. These films tend to provide an impression of universal marginalization, a condition best exemplified by a key line of dialogue from I Hired a Contract Killer: 'The working class has no fatherland.' While nations are still powerful in Aki Kaurismäki's cinematic world, socio-economic, class-based exclusion seems to be a global condition (Kääpä, 2006).

Many of Mika Kaurismäki's films, such as the comedy Cha Cha Cha (1989) and Zombie and the Ghost Train, feature similar concerns and are inhabited by 'Kaurismäkian' protagonists. Mika Kaurismäki's interviews also emphasize these qualities as he discusses his socio-political views and expresses criticism of Finland's cultural circles. His international work continues his experimentation with different modes of production in ways that indicate his refusal of categorization. Thus, we see him move from small-scale documentaries on Brazilian culture to epic adventure films taking place in the Amazons, from multinational 'indie'-comedy (LA without a Map, 1998) to Eastern European road movies (Honey Baby, 2004). Accordingly, labelling his films as part of the Kaurismäki-brand is not the most productive approach for understanding their cultural potency. While there is plenty of incisive commentary to be drawn from such a comparative approach, the scope of 'Kaurismäki-cinema' is very limiting in terms of Mika Kaurismäki's work. Regardless, most of the articles exploring the work of Mika Kaurismäki inevitably mention Aki Kaurismäki, the Oscar-nominated and Cannes Grand Prix-winning director of Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä/The Man without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, 2002). Aki Kaurismäki's success in art-house circles is connected not only to the socio-critical structures of his films, but the ways they self-consciously mobilize a form of art-house branding as an idiosyncratic, esoteric, difficult, and specifically, national auteur. For example, Bert Cardullo's interview collection includes Aki Kaurismäki alongside such pre-eminent European auteurs as Renoir, Bergman, Antonioni, and Bresson (Cardullo 2008). Simply put, Aki Kaurismäki's films are more well-known and, as his reputation overshadows that of Mika, this association tends to create critical favouritism for those of Mika Kaurismäki's films which most resemble his brother's.

Mika Kaurismäki's films have sought to problematize the supposed singularity of cultures, preferring to demonstrate how cultures are always a result of cross-border exchange and reciprocity. This is, of course, one of the key themes of most of Aki Kaurismäki's work, and he has collaborated on screenplays for films such as Rosso, with its doubled-up auto-ethnographic perspective on representing a globalizing Finland. But the intensity of such themes in Mika Kaurismäki's work has magnified throughout his career. In contrast to Aki Kaurismäki's idiosyncratic perspective, Mika Kaurismäki is more willing to adapt his approach to account for the heterogeneity and polyphonality of the cultural exchanges the films explore. Even when we are supposedly witnessing ethnically- and nationally-delineated cultures – such as the ones seen in Mika's Brazilian-set documentaries – any homogeneity or singularity of such cultures is problematized by historical transformations and contemporary multiculturalism. How does the notion of auteurism impact these artistic and cultural /political dynamics?


Aki and Mika Kaurismäki's films are often bipartially divided into a set of opposing categories: Aki Kaurismäki's films are about the nation, whereas Mika is more cosmopolitan in his approach; Aki's films are inherently art-house, whereas Mika traverses the line between art and commerce, Aki focuses on the marginalized of society, Mika on a plethora of different characters, including the so-called upper classes; Aki's work is that of an idiosyncratic Finnish auteur, whereas Mika is more impersonal as his films are often the work of a hired gun. These are, of course, enormous simplifications of the discourses that circulate around the personas and the works of the Kaurismäkis. Regardless, these conceptualizations do exist and they maintain a powerful hold on how the Kaurismäkis' films are discussed. As part of the mission statement of this work is to move beyond such dichotomous conceptualizations, it is also necessary for us to unravel these distinctions, coming to a more complex, multi-faceted picture of not only the individual works of these film-makers and their collaborations, but for the idea of a 'Kaurismäki-image' that still seems to persevere in certain critical circles.

It is not surprising that Aki Kaurismäki is consistently identified as one of the prominent Finnish examples of auteurist film production (Nestingen 2008, Toiviainen 2002a), as he directs, writes, produces and edits his work, and plays a large part in their domestic and international marketing and festival and commercial distribution strategies. In contrast, Mika Kaurismäki continues to explore multiple different avenues for the production and distribution of his films. His roots are in the European art-house mould, acting as one of the main – if not the primary – contributor of the films. He directed, co-wrote, produced and edited much of his early work, much of which was promoted on the basis of his reputation. He also frequently works in commercial Finnish and international genre production, where his auteurist control is less intense. For example, Condition Red was 'only' directed and co-edited by him (though the film contains an executive producer credit to his alias Michael Bambihill) and he has relinquished editing of his Brazilian trilogy to other people. Despite working on international co-productions of different ranges, he clearly retains considerable authorial control directing, writing, producing, and editing these films. Yet, many of his critics do not see his contribution in this way.

Finnish film historian Peter Von Bagh (2000) has used the distinction between an auteur and a metteur-en-scène to discuss the differences between the brothers. The auteur suggests a person in charge of most, if not all, aspects of the production; a stamp of individuality that extends to the thematic content and visual appearance of the films. The latter literally means someone who stages a scene from an existing script and directs the movements of the actors, purely a director in the literal sense. While Mika Kaurismäki's cinema is not as aesthetically or thematically coherent as that of his brother, it is not very difficult to find a range of idiosyncracies in his work. Sakari Toiviainen has characterized Aki as an 'introvert' and Mika as an 'extrovert, as Aki has 'focused on internal movements, the ethical choices and conflicts of the individual. Mika Kaurismäki's scale is wider and ranges from intimate relationship comedy to environmental problems on a global scale – he has literally opened to the world' (Toiviainen 2002a: 60). While Toiviainen acknowledges the similarities in the Kaurismäkis' works and touches on some fundamental features of their distinct production methodologies, this conceptual division remains somewhat simplistic. For one, the definition does not take into account the extent to which Aki Kaurismäki's works are inherently transnational as they engage in Finland's globalization (Nestingen 2004, Kääpä 2010a). But it also reduces the films of Mika Kaurismäki to large-scale epics and irreverent comedies, an approach which suggests these films neglect the human elements of social representation.

While we can certainly discuss Aki Kaurismäki's formative and narrative techniques and complex character psychologization in a neo-auteurist framework, these films are ultimately shaped by a multitude of contesting forces from their production to their transnational reception (Nestingen 2008). Similarly, Mika Kaurismäki's prolific plays with identity politics, genre formations, multiculturalism, synergies of different production and industrial formats, and even different national cinemas, makes it difficult to rely on a simplified (neo)auteurist framework. Yet, it is not difficult to identify a set of key themes in Kaurismäki's work as they appear in different forms from the Finnish 'neo'-Godardian The Liar to the Hollywood-set LA without a Map, from his most recent Finnish comedy House of the Branching Love to the large-scale adventure film Amazon. Kaurismäki has also indicated the need to consider his work as that of an auteur, as he insists on having full control of the production and most of his projects originate from him and share the themes with which he is preoccupied (Kääpä 2010b). Clearly, there is room to consider him as something more than a metteur-en-scène. Simultaneously, we have to be careful about equating this complex body of work under the homogeneous label of not only 'Kaurismäki' but also that of Mika Kaurismäki – the Finnish director whose preoccupations revolve around exploring multicultural conditions and marginalization. We need to carefully consider the influence of Kaurismäki's authorial presence on not only the production of the films, but also on their reception, as especially the marketing and the publicity of the films often resolves around Kaurismäki's persona and feeds into the production and distribution opportunities his subsequent films receive. The concept of auteurism and its impact on spectatorship is something to which we will return throughout the work

Zombies of the welfare state

To explore the difference and similarities between Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, we return to the ways these film-makers represent the nation and specifically its welfare-state incarnation. Zombie and the Ghost Train is a key film in this regard. It was released in 1991 and functions as a distillation of Mika Kaurismäki's socio-critical tendencies as well as the generally pensive mood in early 1990s' Finland on the brink of an economic catastrophe. In the late 1980s, Kaurismäki had examined the high-flying consumerist life-style of Finland's new 'middle-classes' in Cha Cha Cha (1989) and Paperitähti/Paper Star (1990). These comedies took a topical critical stance on the socio-economic corruption and moral compromises that had become a dominant talking point in the mid- to late 1980s. This period had seen the increasing privatization of the Finnish welfare-state as increasing international trade with European states became a reality in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policies in the Soviet Union. The government of Harri Holkeri embarked on 'structural changes' of the welfare state, which essentially equated to the type of monetarism practised by the Thatcher government in the UK. With the increased influx of finance, the banks decreased their loan rates and people flocked to amass a significant amount of cheap debt. But as the nation's predominant trade partner, the Soviet Union, collapsed and inflation settled in, these individual debts were suddenly insurmountably higher. The uncontrolled gambling with stock markets and fluctuating bank loans that dominated the financial sectors of Finland eventually led to the labelling of the era as one dominated by 'casino-economics', which were a major contributor to the collapse of the national economy and the deep depression that followed. National unemployment rates rose higher than before as approximately a million people out of a population of five million had to seek solace at the unemployment counter. Mika Kaurismäki's Zombie and the Ghost Train takes issue with these societal transformations, but before we explore these in depth, we must explain the ways in which his films engage with the politics of the welfare state.

The focus on social outsiders, attempting to find some means of balance in the fluctuating landscape of a socio-economically transforming nation, has been evoked by numerous commentators as one of the key themes of'Kaurismäki-cinema' (Hèlen 1991, Von Bagh 2000, Toiviainen 2002a, Soila 2003). Andrew Nestingen (2008) suggests Aki Kaurismäki's films function as a forum for emergent cultural-political debates. These are conducted in the public sphere and encourage heterogeneity and new forms of social collectivity as they challenge any continuation of homogeneous national narratives and acceptance of the metamorphosis of the welfare state into a neo-liberalist conglomeration. Nestingen explores 'the containerization' of the welfare-state, whereby the container – the habitat of the main protagonist of The Man without a Past (2002) – is read as a 'cipher of neoliberal globalization ... an object of circulation and seriality' (Nestingen 2008: 151). The container functions as a suggestive metonym for the humiliating and inhuman treatment of the labour force (human capital as the backbone of the welfare state) and its increasing outsourcing as corporate agents continue searching for ever-expanding profits – the topic of many a contemporary Nordic film. These films need to be understood as politicized contributions to discussions of the Nordic welfare-state, where, for example, the container as a home in The Man without a Past calls for a moral response to the type of socio-economic displacement seen in the film, instigating a pervasive demand for solidarity.

The welfare structures of the Finnish state is a part of the 'Nordic model', which is characterized by a strong sense of social-democratic universal equality amongst its citizens provided by a powerful public sector (Jokinen & Saaristo 2002). The welfare state retains a powerful presence, despite the contradictions of 'the controlled structural changes' that became governmental policy in 1987, but which had been instigated earlier in the course of the 1980s. Even in the information society of the twenty-first century, Finland arguably has the most substantial problems with social marginalization, especially amongst women and youth groups (Normann et al. 2009). Both Kaurismäkis take issue with these contradictions and their films need to be understood in the fluctuating landscape of the welfare state, which is increasingly moving away from any sense of the 'People's Home' into impersonal, uncaring territory. Finland in these films is more appropriately characterized as a 'malfare' state, premised on

... the exclusion of a major sector of the population from the benefits of social policy, as well as inefficient allocations of social spending. Seen from the perspective of the poor, the welfare state is absent, or its presence is circumstantial, fragmented and/or limited. This becomes the basis for criticism of the State's presence in guiding social policy. (Bustelo 1992: 125)


Excerpted from The Cinema of Mika Kaurismäki by Pietari Kääpä. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The (trans)national and the Global in Mika Kaurismäki’s Films

Chapter 1: The Aki/Mika Syndrome: Cosmopolitan Auteurism and the Search for Cinematic Stability
Chapter 2: Cross-genre: Transnational Genre Mutations
Chapter 3: Mapping Transnational Space at the Margins of the Global Metropolis: Representations of the City in Kaurismäki’s Films
Chapter 4: Post-road: Deconstructing the European Road Movie
Chapter 5: Auto-ethnography: Merging the Self and ‘Other’ in Brazilian Music Documentaries
Chapter 6: Post-nation: Kaurismäki’s Films in a Global Spectrum
Chapter 7: The Potential of Post-humanism: Kaurismäki and the Ecological Imagination
Chapter 8: The Polyphonality of Transvergence: The Reception of Kaurismäki’s Cinema

Conclusion: Beyond the Happy Ending

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