Thursday, November 29, 2007


Ariel posterAki Kaurismäki is a cinematic poet of what Giorgio Agamben terms "bare life". The characters in his films are almost always devoid of everything except the most basic vitality that makes them (barely) human. In Ariel, for instance, at one point the protagonist, unemployed miner Taisto Kasurinen, is imprisoned and has to answer a series of questions to which his answers are unremittingly negative: "Address?" "None." "Closest family members?" "None." "Previous convictions?" "None." Kasurinen lacks any distinguishing characteristics, except perhaps for the white Cadillac convertible in which he has driven down from the frozen North.

Taisto's grossly impracticable automobile is inherited from a colleague (perhaps his father) who undramatically shoots himself when the mine in which the two of them work is shut down. But nothing in Kaurismäki's universe is dramatic. Ariel is chock full of action, from muggings to marriage, prison breakouts to bank heists, but each event is treated with the same deadpan lack of intensity that drains it of all drama. Shit happens. And that's it. Characters take the worst of calamities in their stride. Which is not to say that they are simply resigned or despairing. Rather, they get up, brush themselves down, if necessary pull a dead man's coat out of the garbage to keep themselves warm, and move on. Kaurismäki shows us that even at this abject depth of subalternity, the will to live remains strong. Taisto's conatus, his insistence on his own power's of existence, remains undiminished whatever happens to him.

So though this film lacks emotion, it is steeped in affect. This is indeed what Deleuze terms "a life," life in all its generality and abstraction, immanent to pure affect.

Trapped in prison with his equally uncommunicative and undemonstrative cellmate Mikkonen, Kasurinen declares (as always, undramatically and unemotionally) that he is going to escape. They discuss the possibilities. And Mikkonen, an old hand and unregenerate serial offender, goes through the various possibilities. Getting out of jail itself is no big deal, but all too soon they will be found and brought back. They need to skip the country: get new passports, slip onto a cargo vessel, and flee somewhere far away. Italy, perhaps. Or Mexico, Brazil.

Ariel still
And so Mikkonen and Kasurinen, with the help of the latter's girlfriend and her young son, make the necessary preparations, jump the wall, find themselves new clothes, and arrange for new passports and passage on a ship called the Ariel. Their plans go somewhat awry when the pair are double-crossed by the people who are forging the documents for them, and Mikkonen is fatally wounded. Laid in the back of his friend's Cadillac, the dying man asks what a particular button in the car door does. He presses it and with agonizing slowness the convertible's roof slowly raises, finally giving shelter to the dying man. Kasurinen and his girlfriend look on, impassive as always, but we feel that if only they had found the key to at least minimal shelter at an earlier stage, perhaps things might have worked out differently. But perhaps not. There's not much room for hope in Kaurismäki's bleak universe.

And it's in this context of endless striving without the luxury of hope that the film's final scene acquires its full irony. Ariel is, of course, the figure for Latin America: the New World spirit of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the guiding metaphor for José Enrique Rodó's classic manifesto affirming the region's singularity and future potential. As the minimal community comprising Kasurinen, his (now) wife Irmeli, and his (equally stoic) young stepson Riku trace a slow line of flight across the waters of Helsinki harbor towards the container ship whose name "Ariel" is lit up like a beacon, on the soundtrack we hear the incongruous rendition of "Over the Rainbow." In Finnish.

Taisto, Irmeli, and Riku are headed to Mexico. They have no great expectations of what's to be found over the rainbow. It can't be any worse than what they've found in Finland. And if it's no better, well, they've survived so far. And at least they have each other, not in any romantic sense of personal fulfillment, but in the sense that the three of them together have more power to affect and be affected than any one of them alone.

YouTube Link: the film's magnificent finale.

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