by Pat Graham
Attendance was minimal at the screening I attended of Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk, which played at the Gene Siskel Film Center last week (July 20-26), though somehow you suspect Kaurismaki would've wanted it that way. Or maybe this way: one lonely viewer in an otherwise empty theater, the better to nip any general stirrings of levity in the bud. Laugh if you absolutely have to, but if you do you're on your own, with only the empty seats as witness to your, well . . . unseemly outburst! Since all of Kaurismaki is about tamping down, putting the clamps on tone, not reinforcing whatever irruptive impulses you'd want to entertain: it's just you and the everlasting universal maw, which, as we all know, ultimately swallows you whole. Second law of thermodynamics: everything winds down . . . except Kaurismaki's already been there ahead of you.
But there's an art to this entropic dancing around, and Kaurismaki's pretty well the master of it. Never too much this or that, and for every dire reversal a promise of new beginnings. Desperation's always at the door, yet somehow never gets in to ransack the joint. Or if it does then out of the detritus come these fragile bursting shoots, as ecologically imperiled as they are impossibly resolute—like the clasped hands at the end of Lights, which in terms of the movie's zero-sum balancing act, seem almost too hopeful: thank God they're on-screen for only a fraction of a second. More interesting to me though—as with Kaurismaki's films generally—are the minimalist blips of life along the distressed margins of the frame: open, airy visuals, clean-cut and linear, that invariably subvert the bare-bones determinism of story. Or don't, since it's always a matter of tit for tat, of riding a liminal wave.
Arguably of course, we've been through all this before—certainly with this director—though the idea of recycling your own work endlessly brings to mind the career of Jacques Demy, whose ambition it was to "make fifty films which will be linked together and which will mutually illuminate each other's meaning through shared characters." It's subtle variations that make this sort of thing fascinating, assuming—as I will here—that it's fascinating at all, and subtlety in barely inflected doses is probably where we're at with the ironic Finn right now. Banality as auteuristic option: I guess the jury's still out on that one.
Anyway, lichens on a tundra clinging to the rocks is what Lights in the Dusk puts me in mind of most. So is that some kind of beautiful or what?