Wednesday 11 May 2016

Grumpy old bear

I've spent quite a bit of time in Finland: back in the 1990s I landed a gig teaching in one of the Universities and was asked back to run the same course at other venues across the country.  Not the wild and woolly North but Turku / Åbo in the Swedish-speaking gaeltacht and in Greater Helsinki further East.  Every time I went, I made a point of being deeply uncomfortable in a sauna: uncomfortable being naked in public; uncomfortable having my thermoregulatory system assaulted to breaking point. But you really can't go to Finland and avoid sauna - every home has one; even if it's a closet in the utility room that can seat one adult or two children. They make films in Finland.

The final film of the Blackstairs Film Society 2015-2016 season, last Saturday, was a comedy called Mielensäpahoittaja. Such a word could only be Finnish or Estonian, but it's rendered in English as The Grump.  The film was funny but it was also rather close to the bone [as the best comedies have to be] in its dissection of family relationships, ageing and communication.  The basic storyline is that an old farmer has lived all his life in 'hardy' conditions in the house he built with his own axe when he got married.  He has an accident and it is decided that it would best if he goes to the city for a while to get checked out.  He'll only leave if his son stays behind to continue preparing the potato field for planting, so he is taxied to stay with the son's wife in her upmarket modern house in suburbia. He is slightly demented in the sense that the tap in his mind is fully open. Most of us have thoughts which rise unbidden but are often best left unexpressed "Blimey you're ugly" - "Men can't be nurses" - "Them foreign johnnies are taking over the neighbourhood". Dementia lets it all hang out but it's usually only embarrassing to the children. In the film, there is no coffee to be had in Casa Suburbia because they all drink chamomile and rooibos, so he's taken out to a coffee-shop; they don't have anything which he recognises as coffee, but the daughter-in-law and the two women behind the counter decide that a latte will be the nearest thing.  When he comes out he remarks on how well the black girl spoke Finnish. Ooops. Did you know that Finnish censuses refuse to ask about ethnic or religious matters??

When his boys were growing up, the farmer expected them to do all the manly things he did with his hands: chopping wood, scything the 10 acre for hay, grubbing spuds, breaking the ice on the drinking trough, shooting bears [his hat L is made of bear-skin].  His wife did her best to protect her boys from this harsh and unforgiving life, which she recognised as being on the edge of the dustbin of history. They were let stay inside to study while she went out to do the chores, or they helped her make buns in the kitchen.  One of the sons got himself an education is now a nuclear physicist in Belgium.  The other is less obviously successful but has a quiet sense of self-esteem; which he might have developed avoiding, with the mother's help, the demands of his father and the goddamn farm. There is a telling moment at the end of the film when he comes home from 'minding the farm' [actually going on a nostalgia trip through the boxes in his old bedroom] with a stack of his mother's recipes which he then shares with his own daughters. When the buns are made, the old man shuffles up to the kitchen table and sits down with his family.  Maybe silently acknowledging that growing a loving and lovely family is an accomplishment at least as valuable at saving a moribund farm from the encroaching wilderness.

Another thread in the film is a persistent guying of Russia and the Russians, which the old man persists in calling Soviets 25 year after perestroika.  Like us in Ireland with the monstrous British next door; Finland has lived under threat from its enormous and potentially rapacious neighbour to the East. Despite the Winter War / Зи́мняя война́ in 1940, when the Finns held off a numerically superior Red Army for several brutal months, Remember Karelia. Finns are careful not to annoy the Russians too much. But that only fuels the development of subversive irony and ridicule: in Mielensäpahoittaja, Russians are charicatured by a plutocrat called Sergei [of course] who struts about with a bullying sense of entitlement, has a taste for drink and is maudlin and sentimental.

In summary, The Grump is like science's Ig Nobel Awards "first it makes you laugh and then it makes you think". Here on The Blob, in January this year, was a brief flood of page-views from Russia and I thought I was going viral in Красноя́рск or Владивосто́к but that tide drained away. Recently there has been another wave of traffic from Russia. I hope that they can take their satirisation like a man. Don't leave me boys! Не оставляйте меня товарищей!

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