Tom of Finland—the pseudonym for Finnish art Touko Valio Laaksonen, a name likely incomprehensible for anyone who has yet to encounter the Finnish language—is one of those magical names for me, a sort of watchword for transgression; and if you know his name, chances are you’re at least loosely part of or familiar with a sort of sexual counterculture. Though he’s become one of the most recognizable figures in gay, leathermen, and sadomasochistic subcultures, he’s still far from the mainstream (at least for most English speakers). While Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Laaksonen had a friendship, has basically become a household name, Tom of Finland remains, defiantly, a pornographer—albeit one with a vast influence and a sizable presence in modern art museums. Thus I am pleasantly surprised that there’s a recent Finnish film about his life, particularly one with a healthy budget and mainstream appeal.
And while the debate of whether pornography is worthwhile artistic expression or worthless, offensive trash has raged on over the last few decades, it’s been particularly prominent lately, at least in terms of my life as a writer and critic. Related to the recent outpouring of horrific allegations of harassment and sexual assault in Hollywood, I keep seeing tangentially related issues raised about what kind of content—particularly sexual content featuring women—is appropriate in cinema. As an avid proponent of pornography in all its (legal) forms, there are few individuals more than Tom of Finland who serve as a defense of myself personal viewpoint that pornography is a valid, often transformative contribution to art and culture. There is no denying that through his drawings, Tom radically changed the face of gay culture.
The film attempts to capture both the individual and his symbolic worth. Tom of Finland’s director, Dome Karukoski, treads an interesting line between depicting Tom as an influential, even revolutionary figure in gay culture, and positing him as an assured, thoughtful artist. And for all its issues, I think the word that best describes the film is “thoughtful.” It follows Touku from his days serving as a young officer in WWII on through to his emergence as a gay icon, covering several decades all told. Where the film really shines is in Pekka Strang’s captivating portrayal of Tom, which is nearly able to overcome the narrative issues. He’s charismatic and sort of captures the ultimate essence of the “strong but silent” type. There are no elements of the tortured artist that is so frequently the central focus of artist biographies, and in a sense this downplays the real life Laaksonen’s struggles a bit. Strang’s self-assuredness and seemingly ironclad resolve as Tom makes it seem inevitable that he would go on to become a lauded, successful artist.
It’s strange that leather culture—so central to Tom’s life and art—doesn’t have nearly as prominent role in the film as you might think. Being familiar with it already (and maybe a little obsessed, as it was effectively my introduction to fetish subcultures as a teenager), I can’t imagine how this must have went down with viewers who had no idea about what it was, or maybe only had a passing familiarity related to something like the Village People. This robust subculture straddles the line between gay male and sadomasochistic subcultures and has been a banner for both (overlapping) communities. Aside from the obvious fixation on black leather clothing, a possible but not mandatory interest in motorcycles, and a performative, erotic emphasis on exaggerated masculinity, leather culture, leather culture effectively served as the beacon for gay male and sadomasochistic communities in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In a parallel to the events of the film, leathermen groups sprang up in the postwar years and were intrinsically connected to biker culture, becoming associated with particular motorcycle clubs, bars, and nightclubs in different cities around the US and Europe. Like Tom, many of these men were influenced by service in the military or at least an understanding of military culture. Tom, of course, was a major influence on the visual style of the development of leather culture with his pornographic drawings that both captured a culture in development and shaped its evolution. It’s difficult to think of a heterosexual parallel, particularly in terms of how he was able to parallel individual and communal desire for an obviously widely shared type.
But despite the fact that this is a film about a leather pornographer, it fails to show Tom’s true bravery because it fails to show the reality of life as a gay man in ‘50s and ‘60s Europe. Certainly Tom is beaten and subjected to near arrests in Finland and an arrest in Berlin. One of his friends, a high ranking military officer and diplomat, is discovered by police and sent to a sanitarium to be “cured.” Tom is forced to endure the repeated disapproval and even disgust of his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowski), but it’s a real mystery to me why the scriptwriter felt the need to keep returning to this increasing dour character. She has no real arc or growth throughout the film—there isn’t even a real moment of conflict between she and Tom—but she merely remains the same, almost down to the same dialogue in different scenes, throughout the different phases of Tom’s life and career.
And this is my real complaint with the film: it is overly polite at times and it presents us with a number of potentially fraught situations that never come to a head. Not only does it barely touch upon onscreen sex or nudity, but it skirts the issues of HIV and the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s. By the second half of the film, it’s often difficult to tell where we are, chronologically speaking, in Tom’s life. Events that are hinted at but never developed include: he and his boyfriend Veli (the beautiful Lauri Tilkanen) have gotten a lovely apartment, his boyfriend has gotten sick (presumably with HIV) and later dies off screen, Tom begins selling in art and making a living from it, and so on. He is shown to age dramatically in this second half and it is a mature, assured Tom that emerges in a Californian paradise of open homosexuality. Barely addressed are Tom’s somewhat controversial eroticization of military culture and stereotypically masculine working class trades.
While the film is more than willing to embrace the romantic, sentimental aspects of Tom’s gay lifestyle, it often shies away from the sexual excess that so profoundly shaped his work. On the other hand, this co-production between Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, and the US could use its timidity to introduce completely new, mainstream audiences to Tom, Tom’s work, and gay culture. The film has been selected as the Finnish entry for next year’s Academy Awards, so perhaps its restraint will pay off in a broader sense. And despite my criticism, I really did enjoy Tom of Finland. In addition to the wonderful lead performance and beautiful cinematography, I was entranced by its stillness. It’s not in a rush to tell Tom’s story and lets his character slowly unfold. It even ends with a wonderfully celebratory note, with Tom addressing an auditorium packed with jubilant leathermen. This is a nice nod to recent events, not only with the recent legalization of gay marriage in Finland, but with the long overdue (yet still gradual) liberation of gay people around the world. Wherever Tom is right now (he passed away in 1991), I think he would approve of that sentiment.