Friday 16 November 2012

The Man Without A Past

Aki Breaky Heart

The Man Without A Past (Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä) 
2002 Finland/Germany/France
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
ICA Projects Region 2

It would be untrue to say that not much happens in an Aki Kaurismäki movie... it just seems like nothing happens because it’s all so laid back.

This is not exactly my first experience of movies by this incredible film-maker... but I haven’t seen too much of his work and it was all such a long time ago, so I can’t claim to be able to comment wisely about his particular stylistic traits. Back in the 80s or possibly the early 90s, I saw Hamlet Goes Business and Leningrad Cowboys Go America on TV. I think I saw either Ariel or The Match Factory Girl too... but I just can’t remember which one it was.

What I do remember of these is that they seemed fairly minimalist in nature, were usually quite bleak in outlook and had a good amount of heart to them. The same could be said, in some ways, about The Man Without A Past... apart from the fact that, although it still carries a certain bleak attitude, soaking through the celluloidal pores, directly from Kurasmaki’s brain to your eyes and ears... in many ways, this film is a bit of a ‘feel good’ movie. I think Kurasmaki might well say the same thing too... but I’d have to look into his work a little more. I do remember reading an interview with him, and possibly seeing one too, back in the 80s/90s and his miserable outlook seemed heavily promoted by him to the interviewers, almost like it was part of his branding.

The Man Without A Past tells the story of a man who comes to town looking for work, only to be badly beaten up and left for dead by three young thugs who take his suitcase and money. He is wrapped in bandages but then promptly dies in hospital and is pronounced dead by the staff, who exit the hospital room.  He then, of course, revives and wanders out of hospital, still in bandages, to collapse by a river. In a sequence which seems to be fairly like what I remember of Kurasmaki’s ability to pile one misfortune on after another, rather like waiting for that extra last brick to fall on Ollie’s head in a Laurel and Hardy short, a passerby then steals his boots and replaces them with what he is wearing.

He is then found by a family who live in an impoverished community that inhabit metal containers (which they rent) and the rest of the film is pretty much about how he faces up against his plight, as the mugging has left him with no memory of who he is and what his former life might have been. He slowly turns himself around and even gets a girlfriend, who works with the Salvation Army and gets him some clothes and a job with them until he gets on his feet. He does get on his feet fairly quickly, growing a crop of potatoes by his rented container, inspiring the Salvation Army band by exposing them to rock n’ roll on his juke box (which he gets for his container) and then managing them, and also getting a job as a welder while the band is taking off.

Everything is done with an absolutely straight face and penchant for an acceptance of the inevitable misery of life which is an endearing feature of Kurasmaki’s work (what I’ve seen of it) and which is a trait shard by pretty much all the characters in his films. Everyone is truthful and honest about their lot in life, weighing up their words before every response and pretty much relating on a fairly minimal but honest and up front level with each other. This is not how the majority of the universe tends to work, especially in Western culture, but this is how the ‘kurasmakiverse’ works and we’re left to accept and get on with it or leave the movie.

In the meantime, there’s a dog, a bank robbery, police harassment and a confrontation with the former life the main protagonist had when it finally catches up to him, but everything works out fairly upbeat for everybody in the end... muffled, but upbeat.

The pacing is beautiful and relentlessly casual, which makes everything feel a bit less hectic than it actually sounds. The movie is crammed full of incident but you kind of let it wash over you because of the way the shots are framed and edited, and even by the way the camera moves through these shots, in easily digestible, long, slow takes which derail any clutter implied by the narrative incident. This then leaves you in a head space, dictated by the pacing, where you can absorb the details of the characters and their reactions to each other in a way that gives you time to assess the situation and appreciate the emotions underlying them, in contrast to their stoic exteriors. Hollywood filmmakers could possibly learn a thing or two from this kind of conflict between incident and pace but, then again, their target audience is probably perceived differently and until they rethink the tolerance of their audience, they won’t benefit from this kind of approach to film-making, is my guess.

The main problem I had with the movie is that it’s fairly clichéd. It’s easy to predict what’s going to happen to the characters from one scene to the next and I don’t think this is specifically because the pacing is leisurely enough to give you time to do so... I think it’s more a problem with the writing than anything to do with direction. I didn’t feel too let down by that, though, except maybe right at the end, because the film is such a nice experience to sit through. It’s basically a love story at heart... and I’m always a sucker for a well made love story (and there are so few good ones made that are worth watching... the US seems to have lost the art of making them somewhere around the tail end of the fifties, it seems to me).

All said and done, The Man Without A Past is a cracking, well paced, easily absorbed movie which will slowly sink into you as you watch. It’s maybe a little too predictable and upbeat for its own good at times but, ultimately, it’s not doing anything you really don’t want it to do and it leaves the characters at a place where you’d want to leave them. A nice little movie to watch on your own on a quiet evening. Give it a look some time.

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