File under: “I can’t believe we still have to fight this fight.” The 21st century has been much kinder to the LGBTQ community that its predecessors, in much of the world at least. But something happened in the last year or two. An international wave of organized anti-gay bigotry has been finding purchase here in America. Funny timing for a movie like this come out. And for me, walking home from this exhibition, the negative synchronicity got even more pointed – and scary.
Director Dome Karukosi did his Q&A for Tom of Finland before the film screened that evening, on its opening night at the Tribeca Film Festival. Saying he needed to leave because he had to “get some sleep,” the audience nevertheless asked him about the piece we were about to watch, sight unseen. It was a little easier than it could have been, of course, because this is after all a biopic. The eponymous Tom was the real-life creator of breakthrough homoerotic art in the 60s and 70s, an era when even supposedly liberal Europe still jailed people for being gay, and roundups and beatings were a fact of life those men had to deal with. After a bunch of questions about the actual historical figure, a couple of tidbits came out of the session. First, the screenplay went through 39(!) drafts, with a decision upon just what events to cover in the span of a single feature being elusive. That he found a Goldilocks formula from this rich life story is remarkable. But what was really surprising to hear from him was that even in uber-progressive Finland, home of the director and the director’s subject, forces of intolerance were rising up against his work. This was hard for me to understand – until reality almost hit me right in the face later.
The film itself is very well-handled. It hits most of the standard biopic tropes with exceeding competence and sensitivity. Setting the stoic nature of Finnish culture aside, Pekka Strang’s performance as Tom evokes a great deal of the frustration and longing which surely the artist felt. It’s a maddening proposition. He bravely fights in the front lines against the Russians during WWII – they opened a theater against the Finns at the border – going so far as to killing a soldier in a way which haunted him the rest of his life (and whose face pops up cinematically at just the right times). But rather than being treated as a national hero, his dalliances at gay parties, nighttime hookups in the park and of course, his extensive portfolio of outstanding “dirty art” earned him imprisonment, derision and violence. Determined to stand up for his rights as an artist and for the rights of his community, Tom pushed the envelope across Europe, risking deportation and worse, until he found a friendly market in America. There’s this remarkable moment when he’s at a gay pool party in 1970’s Los Angeles and the cops break in. But it’s not to “bust the perverts.” Instead, they’re just looking for a thief who was spotted in the neighborhood. The truly innocent revelers are as flamboyant as they want to be with the police, and there’s no animosity at all. It’s a moment of vindication filled with silent elation on Strang’s face which offers as much catharsis as the final two words of the film: “Hello boys!” There is release, a happy ending, and the lights went up on a very satisfactory experience.
On my way home from the theater, I kept thinking about the director’s warnings that bigotry was making a comeback. Of course, we all watch the news, we know what he’s talking about. But this is New York. The last thing in the world I was expecting was this kind of hate to follow me from the screening. Walking down some subway stairs, a young man was passing up past me. As we reached the same steps, he leaned into me and said – “Fa**ot!” It all happened in a microsecond. Nervous, I walked past him quickly. He called back after me, “Congratulations!” as if to confirm his assumptions about my sexuality. I’m not a fighter really, and there was nobody around. This guy was clearly out for violence, guessed I was gay (I’m not) and was hoping to provoke me and then beat the shit out of me. As a straight white guy, this was not the sort of experience I was accustomed to. It left me rattled. And it occurred to me, horrible though it may be, Tom of Finland is not just a warm and entertaining movie – it’s a movie we really need to have in the public discourse right now. In this age of renewed creeping fascism, we have to remember the cruelty of intolerance, the forces which it unleashes. Assholes like the guy in the subway are coming out of the woodwork from Helsinki to Manhattan and we can’t turn away. Tom fought for us and he is here again to inspire us anew. I am grateful for its role in this, and how it played into my almost mystical experience. Time to fight back again. Tom did it. So can we.