Thursday, 2 September 2010

That Finnish Beat

Original Post - Monday, July 26, 2010

I’m currently reading Kerouac’s On The Road which has long been a glaring omission from the books I’ve read. I have long felt that I had missed the boat not reading it as a teenager as it has a place as a teenage rite of passage. However it’s rapturous embrace of ‘the American night’ brings back memories of  my own youth and although Dublin to Galway and back doesn’t quite match the continental scale of Kerouac’s peregrinations you make do with what you got.

I may return to On The Road in a later ramble but it was reading it that led me to see Taisto, the hero of Kaurismaki’s Ariel as archetypically beat, as I understand Kerouac to use the word. The world pisses on him but he can’t be bothered to put up an umbrella.

He loses his job when the mine he works in is closed. He then goes for a drink with his father who gives him the keys to his Cadillac convertible, tells him to leave and heads into the pub toilet and shoots himself. Like the Rain Dogs in the song by late era Beat Poet Tom Waits, he's out on the street and the rain has washed away the scent of home.

Withdrawing his life’s savings Taisto heads to Helsinki in the Cadillac convertible with the hood down, apparently broken. On the way he stops for a burger and is hit over the head with a bottle and robbed. At this stage I was reminded of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin in which the eternally optimistic hero is quite literally taken apart.

In Helsinki, amoung other things he gets a parking ticket. However the traffic warden tears it up in exchange for dinner and over the course of the evening Taisto commits to staying with her forever. The fact that she has a child will ‘save time’ establishing a family.

However the bad times aren’t over and when one of the men who mugged him turns up Taisto chases and catches him only to be sent to prison for assault.

At this point there is a discernable influence from Jarmusch’s Down by Law which was released two years before Ariel. Taisto and his cellmate declare their innocence and plan to escape. Although the cellmate is killed in the ensuing adventure Taisto and his family make in to the titular Ariel, a ship due to sail to Mexico.
As they row out to the ship a Finnish version of Over the Rainbow plays. Indeed the film could be seen as being like the black and white opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz - never reaching Oz and colour. (Another film I was reminded of was Boorman’s fantastic Point Blank - where the Lee Marvin character just keeps going, inexorably driving forward. Taisto seems similarly unflappable.)

The film is bleak but suffused with Kaurismaki’s trademark humour and humanity.  The world is full of misery and it will chase you down– but if you keep going you just might get ahead of the game every now and then.

Watch Ariel, watch Down by Law and if you have time and are the other person who hasn’t read On the Road - read it.  And if you like your humour served black search out and read Nathaniel West’s three novels.

p.s. If you’re the person to whom I lent my treasured Complete Works of Nathaniel West I’d love it back. I feel like re-reading it.

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