As portrayed by Pekka Strang in the new movie, Tom of Finland, Touko Laaksonen is a sad man for most of his life. His young military career during World War II is spent longing to “play the piano or draw.” His later years during the AIDS epidemic leave him “sick of people dying all the time.” Somewhere in the middle, though, he meets Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), in whom he finds as much happiness as he’s bound to find as a gay man unable to publically express himself.
Written by Aleksi Bardy with additional dialogue and storylines by Mark Alton Brown, Noam Andrews, Kauko Royhka, and Mia Ylonen, Tom of Finland is a matter-of-fact depiction of the life of the artist who has been called the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images.” Director Dome Karukoski steers clear of “gay movie” conventions in a movie where the most nudity or sexual activity you’re going to see is within Tom’s stylized drawings.
With frequent time jumps, the movie lays groundwork for big dramatic moments, but then skips over them, avoiding sentimentality. It’s fascinating, then, how impactful this approach becomes. I was as moved, if not more so, than I have been by other movies that feature big, eye-drying scenes. For example, the moment Veli gets a lingering cough, you know he’s going to be sick. One minute they’re buying yellow curtains, the next, Touko is packing his clothing in a box.In a movie that allows you to focus on what you want to take from it, I found great joy in the relationship between Touko and Veli. It’s not because of any big scene where feelings were forced upon me. It’s in the quiet moments over time, the beginnings and the endings where I was allowed to fill in the gaps. This is best demonstrated in the relationship among the two men and Touko’s sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), which starts with romance between her and Veli.
On a bigger scale, I found Touko’s life to represent a larger part of gay history. Learning about an individual, I learned about an entire group. It must have been awful for a gay man desperate to find expression not only in the 1930s and 1940s, but also in a part of the world so close to post-WWII Germany. Then, when he finds acceptance in the United States, he’s suddenly part of a health crisis that threatens to destroy him and everyone like him.
As an art director of an advertising firm in Helsinki, Touko takes photographs that he uses as a basis for his professional drawings, a practice he also uses for his erotic drawings. Tom of Finland combines scenes of him stopping on the street to snap a photo of someone working on a motorcycle, for example, then drawing a highly masculinized version of what he saw, while a live-action fantasy version of the drawing comes to life behind him. It’s visually interesting.Another compelling relationship is that between Touko and an officer he meets during the war. This man acknowledges without reprimand the activities in which gay men participate in the woods. Years later, he rescues Touko when he’s apprehended in Berlin. Subsequently, Touko learns he’s gay, providing other homosexuals with an oasis amid oppression by hosting frequent parties at his home where they can let their hair down. His ultimate fate is bittersweet.
My comments keep returning to Veli. In his fresh, dewy eyes we see what is perhaps the wish of all closeted gay men: to live with their curtains open. This optimistic view counters Touko’s, who can’t imagine a world where homosexuality would ever be accepted. That is, until he goes to California for some underground exhibits of his art. His turning point arrives during the first attempt to legitimately publish his work…
Rejected by all printers, he and his biggest fan, Doug (Seumas F. Sargent), arrive at Zagat, a Jewish print shop. The proprietor asks them if they realize they produce religious materials. Touko replies, “This is sacred to me.” Late in the movie, late in his life, Tom of Finland Retrospective was published in 1988. The final scenes of Tom of Finland demonstrate the impact one man can make without even knowing it. It’s the same impact this movie made on me.