The Man Without a Past, Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s celebration of lower-depths esprit, is a deadpan comic romance rendered as a series of poker-faced arabesques. Kaurismäki, who boycotted the last New York Film Festival in solidarity with the State Department-banned Abbas Kiarostami and absented himself from the Oscars (where his movie was the first ever Finnish nominee) to protest the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, is a filmmaker who appreciates the value of dramatic gesture.
The movie’s terrific opening sequence—wherein the nameless hero (Markku Peltola), identified in the credits only as M, arrives in town and is almost immediately mugged, bludgeoned, and left for dead in a park near the Helsinki train station—is as tense and spare as any ’50s B movie. The image of the apparently deceased victim abruptly rising from his hospital bed, wrapped in bandages like the Mummy, packs another sort of genre punch—it suggests that what we may be watching is Kaurismäki’s typically understated version of a Christian miracle.
Has M been resurrected? Or perhaps we are in paradise, the Helsinki equivalent of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s summer and the bluff, taciturn, amnesiac M is nursed back to health—if not memory—by a family of squatters living in a storage container on the forlorn urban periphery where the train yards meet the harbor. There’s a backbeat of melancholy Finnish tango, an emphasis on the big Nordic sky, and a suggestion of the midnight sun, not least in the protagonists’ unspoken desire for the consolation of human warmth. M locks eyes with Irma (Kaurismäki axiom Kati Outinen), the mournful-looking proprietress of the Salvation Army soup kitchen. Like him, she’s a stylized creature with a solemn, weathered face, a curiously formal manner, and a telegraphed inner life. Back in her lonely room, she lies on the narrow bed listening to a Finnish rockabilly band’s mid-’60s version of “Do the Shake.”
For a time, Kaurismäki seems to be tapping into a strain of tragic lyricism or impossible romance—what in the press notes he calls “a dream of lonely hearts with empty pockets.” But The Man Without a Past only intermittently regains the clear focus of its first half-hour. Soon M is fixing up his own cozy storage container, complete with a jukebox that plays Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “That Crawlin’ Baby Blues.” The movie’s sardonic tone is increasingly muted by a Wenders-ish sentimentality manifest largely in the filmmaker’s propensity for lovable canines and gruff landlords who turn out to be softies, as well as a maudlin, weary faith in the redemptive power of rock and roll. Individual scenes turn slightly silly; the narrative, already flirting with slapdash, nearly unravels with a ridiculous bank robbery.
And yet this whimsy does not entirely dilute the movie’s other strain of sentimentality—its anti-authoritarian undercurrents or its One Big Union concern for the down-and-out. (This almost seems a sensibility out of time: The Man Without a Past has intimations of the skid-row internationalism found in 1920s European proletarian novels like B. Traven’s The Death Ship or Victor Serge’s Men in Prison.) As with his less successful 1996 Drifting Clouds, a movie about unemployment, Kaurismäki seems to be searching for some usable expression of working-class uplift. The movie’s last shot is pure Chaplin. Jean Renoir he’s not, but The Man Without a Past‘s florid dialogue, lush movie music (perhaps lifted from actual soundtracks), and unabashed romantic clichés suggest that as Kaurismäki’s last feature, Juha (1999), remade a Finnish silent classic, he may here be reworking something from the Finnish ’50s.
Premiered last year at Cannes, The Man Without a Past was highly popular with the international film press, for perhaps the same reasons that Far From Heaven resonated with North American critics. Like Todd Haynes, Kaurismäki is reclaiming dated melodrama for sincerity—albeit imbuing his title with an unavoidable irony. (Kaurismäki’s movies are, after all, suffused in traditional values.) The Man Without a Past even manages to find a place near the end for the venerable Finnish singer Annikki Tähti to perform her 1955 gold record “Do You Remember Monrepos?,” a doubly nostalgic lament for the Finnish province annexed by the Soviet Union.
Kaurismäki’s deepest feelings are reserved for cinema—that may be his true international. However frivolous The Man Without a Past seems, its mise-en-scène never falters. A narrative filmmaker with a strong sense of film form, Kaurismäki remains the director who profited most from the example of early-’70s Fassbinder. Kaurismäki’s temperament may be sweeter than Fassbinder’s, but his mode of address is no less cool. His camera moves are precise; his blocking is impeccable; his laconic sight gags are perfectly uninflected. Kaurismäki’s movies can be superbly economical, unostentatious even in their minimalism. The two I most admire—Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1992), prole tragedies both—are each less than 75 minutes.
The Man Without a Past is less bleak and far more expansive than those two, not least in its generous view of its marginal characters. This may not be Kaurismäki’s masterpiece, but it is a movie of sustained stylistic integrity—and it has the power to make you laugh.
If The Man Without a Past often plays like a bottom-of-the-bill cheapster, Phone Booth actually is one. This compact 80-minute Joel Schumacher job, directed from Larry Cohen’s screenplay, is deeply and wonderfully anachronistic. Low-rent and high-concept, this disreputable thriller equally suggests an EC horror comic morality tale and a coffeehouse one-act play circa 1962.
It’s also bizarrely topical. Scheduled to open last fall but delayed by its distributor in the wake of the Washington sniper reign of terror, the movie posits a smart-mouthed, double-dealing, small-time New York publicist (Colin Farrell) held captive in plain sight—trapped in the Times Square phone booth he uses as an office by the unseen but telephonically present sniper watching from a nearby window. Thus the drama is played out in the crosshairs with the self-identified “media consultant” simultaneously placating his mysteriously omniscient captor and defending his scuzzy turf against an assortment of pizza deliverymen, hookers, pimps, and ultimately half the NYPD. (Forest Whitaker classes up the procedural as a neurotic cop.)
Absurdly set in some pre-cell-phone, post-Amadou Diallo alternate universe and generously stocked with logical inconsistencies, Phone Booth is best appreciated as hilarious pulp metaphor, which, not coincidentally, happens to be one of the screenwriter’s specialties. Could Camus or Sartre have imagined a scenario in which the antihero is acting—under threat of death—according to the enigmatic instructions of a voice that only he can hear even while a convenient display window filled with television sets broadcasts his plight to the world? Schumacher uses shots of communication satellites circling the globe to provide a suitably cosmic context while compounding the hysteria with his free use of split-screen and pixelated madness.
Still, it’s a pity that Cohen, whose topical tabloid worldview makes him one of America’s last abstract sensationalists, didn’t direct his own script. The dialogue is often priceless. Charged by his invisible captor with “the sin of spin,” and ordered to make a public confession, Farrell cracks the booth door and screams into the void: “I’m just part of a big cycle of lies. . . . I should be president!”
Speaking of which, Chris Rock’s new comedy, Head of State, in which he plays a Washington, D.C., alderman drafted to run for the White House, is evidence of the comedian’s uncanny sense of timing, but little else. This amiably lame Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rehash takes fixed elections and duplicitous pols as a given, but other than one scene where the star goes stand-up to rock the house with a bit of call-and-response populism, it’s pretty much a toothless dog. That Head of State was produced, co-written, and cautiously directed by Rock himself doesn’t add any psychodramatic frisson: His persona wobbles uneasily between innocent goody-goody and mildly mischievous street kid, with Bernie Mac drafted to provide some additional badassity. Head of State shows Rock suffering from premature Robin Williams syndrome. He’s yet to express the full ferocity of his comic talent on the screen and he’s already doing penance by going for the warm and fuzzy.