Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

Bohemian Rhapsody

December 9, 2018

Bohemian-Rhapsody If we agree that movies — even documentaries — are not the first place to look for the unalloyed truth, the question then becomes, What story are we being told? To what ends are the facts being bent? The answer may explain why a movie is a runaway success, like Bohemian Rhapsody, the most lucrative musical biopic of all time, which takes the thorny persona of Freddie Mercury and gentles him into what he says, in the film, he doesn’t want to be: a cautionary tale. Better to say that Mercury, safely dead for the better part of three decades, is now ripe for autopsy and a moviemaker can try to divine by his entrails.

The narrative being pushed here is one of a boy, Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), who as the movie begins has already Americanized his name to Freddie. After a while he will legally change his last name to Mercury, cutting himself off from his Farsi roots. Freddie is bisexual but falls in love with one woman, Mary (Lucy Boynton). Despite his later life consisting of a blur of male partners, Mary remains his one great love. With his band Queen, Freddie reaches the stars but emotionally wallows in the gutter, until his AIDS diagnosis humbles him. He grovels his way back to the band (with their hetero lives, their wives and children), and the movie ends on the sweeping up note of Queen’s triumph at 1985’s Live Aid concert.

Never mind that the real Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987; that would just end things on a bummer, and bummers don’t make almost $600 million worldwide. Bohemian Rhapsody certainly doesn’t take aesthetic risks comparable to those of its namesake single; it’s a bog-standard rise-and-fall-and-rise music biopic, and whatever affection has attached to it is pretty much the work of Rami Malek, whose resemblance to Mercury is passable — the actual Mercury had a kind of Christopher Reeve butch handsomeness interrupted by the extra teeth crowding his mouth. The way Malek’s syllables undertake the perilous journey around the fake choppers he wears is a little distracting, but a quick check of video of Mercury himself reveals that’s pretty much how he talked, right down to the frequent sucking on the front teeth.

Malek obliges the movie’s preferred narrative by enacting young, hungry Freddie, then success-sodden, druggy-orgy Freddie, then humbled Freddie ready for greatness, having suffered and renounced the catting around. He does all of this with sufficient facility, but Bohemian Rhapsody is probably better suited for people who haven’t seen this basic story a hundred times. The difference is the music, and I wonder if part of what accounts for the strong box office is that people are using the movie to see “Queen” in concert. The singing is Mercury’s, as is the band’s playing, taken, I assume, from live tapes of the era, so people might also want to hear the music in movie theaters with reasonably good sound systems as a communal event, framed by biographical re-enactments with the guy from Mr. Robot.

I’d hate to think it’s the message that’s driving repeat business. And that message? If you’re from an immigrant family, and on the queer spectrum, you can have it all, but don’t get too far above yourself. Show respect for your ma and pa (both followers of Zoroastrianism, which teaches that to be gay is to be demonic), tell your one-time white hetero female lover that she’s the love of your life (to hell with you, Jim Hutton, the lover who nursed Mercury until his death), and basically reject whatever sweaty, glittery, outlaw energy made people want to make a movie about you in the first place. Oh, and the press — enemy of the people! — is a mob of barking, salacious freaks who just want to know who you’re fucking, and gays around you will sell you out to them. “I’m not going to be anybody’s victim, AIDS poster boy or cautionary tale,” says Freddie, blithely unaware of the movie he’s in and what it turns him into.

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BlacKkKlansman

November 3, 2018

blackkkIn a way, Spike Lee’s filmmaking career from the beginning has been a rebuke and retort to the infamous Birth of a Nation, the movie credited with sparking the comeback of the Ku Klux Klan in America. In 1980, in film school at NYU, a 23-year-old Lee made the short film The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is hired to write a remake of the D.W. Griffith film. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee stages a screening of Birth of a Nation for an audience of hooting white supremacists, including Klan grand wizard David Duke, and intercuts it with an account of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, during which account a witness (played by Harry Belafonte) links the atrocity to the release of Birth of a Nation the year before.

Lee knows the power of cinema to influence and change. Will BlacKkKlansman do likewise? As a work of (somewhat fictionalized) protest, it’s a piece of the past (the early 1970s) passing trenchant comment on the present; time will tell if it will have much sway in the future. What it is right now is an attempt to unify rather than to divide — the movie shows black and white people working together to shut down the racists. It may begin and end with blasts at racism, but most of BlacKkKlansman is an object lesson in cooperation between different races, colors and creeds. It does this in a half-satirical way that’s as much about acting as about reality.

Black men have to pretend to be racist white men; Jewish white men have to pretend to be anti-Semitic white men. Based loosely on the adventures of a real cop, BlacKkKlansman shows rookie detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) posing, over the phone, as a white man interested in joining the local Klan chapter, so that Stallworth can infiltrate and learn about possible terrorist plans. Stallworth is black, so he can’t carry out his disguise in person; enter white Jewish cop “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who “plays” Ron in the flesh.  In a spooky basement meeting with a virulent Holocaust denier, Flip-as-Ron makes an equally Jew-hating case for the Holocaust having happened. Whichever one of the four credited writers (Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) is responsible for this scene, it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Eventually, Stallworth talks his way up to the top, securing himself (or Flip) a meeting with David Duke his own bad self (Topher Grace, teaching a master class in mealy-mouthed corporatized racism). The filmmaking heats up, changing from fluent coolness to a hot thriller mode, charging towards a climax fabricated for the movie but no less dramatically and thematically sound. Lee’s inventions don’t offend much, because even if some events didn’t happen to Stallworth, they’ve happened elsewhere, and Ron comes to stand not for himself but for the disenfranchised who have tried to negotiate a hostile territory through defensive imposture. Blacks passing as white, Jews passing as gentiles, gays passing as straight (this last doesn’t get much play in the movie, except maybe through amusing subtext).

Undercover cops have to understand the banality of evil in order to assume it as cover, which often means understanding their own self-hatred or potential for bigotry. Actors and artists do much the same, and the movie finds Lee wearing both entertainer and artist hat. BlacKkKlansman argues for a world where no one has to pretend to be anything. I think Lee would even rather racists were open about it, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all, instead of hiding behind the hypocrisy of dog whistles and three-piece suits. Lee has taken the opportunity to deliver an existentially crazy police procedural that ends up saying more about society’s disease than many a sober-sided Oscar-chaser. Not that the movie doesn’t deserve it — c’mon, Academy, can you acknowledge Spike now, please?

Final Portrait

March 18, 2018

finalportraitYou don’t have to know anything about Alberto Giacometti to enjoy Final Portrait, an account of the Swiss sculptor/painter’s halting attempts to paint a portrait of his friend, the American art critic James Lord. Final Portrait is the fifth film in 22 years directed by the wonderful character actor Stanley Tucci, and the first in which he does not appear. On the rare occasions when he is moved to sit behind the camera, Tucci seems most interested in artists — their difficulties, their integrity, the ways they can drain the energy of those around them. In his filmmaking debut, Big Night, Tucci played the long-suffering younger brother of the chef (Tony Shalhoub) of the Italian restaurant he managed; his brother insisted on fashioning art with his cuisine, rather than the weak-tea “Italian food” their American customers demanded.

Here, Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) feels like a fraud because all of his art is “unfinished” — most artists know that you never “finish” a piece, you just abandon it, otherwise you’d tinker with it forever if you could (and some artists do). When James (Armie Hammer) sits for a Giacometti portrait, he soon senses that the work is becoming a tinker-fest. Giacometti roughly renders James’ features, then goes for his thick brush and slathers gray paint over everything he’s done, then starts over again. What begins as a three-hour session in Paris turns into weeks. James is often seen on the phone, repeatedly cancelling his flight home to New York.

In a lesser, crasser movie, we’d eventually see the airline employee on the other end answering with a crisp “Yes, Mr. Lord, we know.” Stanley Tucci doesn’t make lesser, crasser movies. Final Portrait isn’t cheaply jokey like that, but it is nimbly entertaining. The color scheme, mostly the grays of Giacometti’s studio, interests me; usually, of late, I’ve been honking on about the dreary monochrome of most movies. But the grays here, courtesy of cinematographer Danny Cohen, have variety and texture. The result is that Giacometti’s workplace feels weirdly cozy. We can believe in it as a place — spattered with plaster, stuffed with hidden sacks of money — that Giacometti can retreat to, and frequently gets tired of, shuffling out to get a drink with his prostitute muse (Clémence Poésy).

I wasn’t aware of Geoffrey Rush before his Oscar-winning and annoying turn in Shine. Later on, as I saw other, better performances from him, I had to confront the question: In Shine, was I watching an irritating actor, or a great actor who had played an irritating person very effectively? By now I would fall into the latter camp on Rush, and here he creates a gravely shambolic mad genius whose skyward-pointing tangle of hair recalls similarly coiffed visionaries like Eisenstein, George S. Kaufman, Barton Fink. His Giacometti is mordant, depressed: he will never be finished, he will die before reaching any closure in his work. (And indeed two years after the events here, Giacometti was dead.) Rush does especially subtle work with Shalhoub as Giacometti’s brother Diego, who gently suffers the great artist’s foibles.

James, who went on to write books about Giacometti, figures out he has to still Giacometti’s hand before he reaches again for the annihilating thick gray brush. An artist learns to listen to the editor voice inside that dictates when time is up and the piece is as done as it’s going to get. Mute that voice and you get (in David Denby’s words) a “lordly ditherer” like Kubrick, or Malick, or your choice of creatives who take eons between projects, chewing the damn thing to death, to shreds. Giacometti is a restless god, always with two or three pieces going at a time, his studio full of his own work, some of which seems to regard him balefully. (In one shot he has a wordless psychic clash with a large plaster head that resembles him in profile.) Here and in films like Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret, Stanley Tucci shows an artist’s respect for the unfinished, the abandoned, the work someone lived with and dreamed of until it was time to send it out into the world. James may be Giacometti’s final portrait, but I sincerely hope this won’t be Tucci’s.

The Post

December 31, 2017

postIt seems unlikely, but The Post marks the first time Steven Spielberg has put the Vietnam War on the screen. Granted, it’s only for the first few minutes, and I can’t really forgive his easy falling back on Creedence Clearwater Revival for the song choice (Creedence is generally the lazy director’s signifier for ‘Nam). But the PG-13 jungle chaos Spielberg stages right at the start helps to establish why the saturnine and disaffected Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) risks everything to leak sensitive government documents to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and seventeen other newspapers — documents that show the government knew we couldn’t win the war.

The Post isn’t really about Ellsberg, whose story was told in a cable movie from 1993, The Pentagon Papers, starring James Spader. No, the story here is about chasing a story. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has taken over as publisher of the Post from her husband, who committed suicide eight years prior; she feels insecure in the role, the paper is bleeding money, and now would seem the worst time to run a bombshell story that will, at the very least, antagonize the Nixon administration. But the story is more or less dropped into a Post reporter’s lap, and the savvy editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) lunges for it. Various lawyers and bean-counters advise Ben and Katharine to back off. They won’t.

The problem is, there’s not much inner conflict. Every so often there’s a line of dialogue about how very, very foolish the paper would be, especially after going public at a loss, to pursue its line of inquiry. This sort of scene generally ends with Ben or Katharine nodding gravely and saying something like “Okay. We’re going with it anyway.” Spielberg doesn’t put much stress on their fear, or on anything else, really. The filmmaking is very mild, classical at times, shot in long takes of two people sitting and talking. Despite that, The Post does move along; it comes in at a brisk hour and fifty-six minutes, which for Spielberg these days is concise. It’s smooth work from an old master (despite clunks like a bad continuity gaffe involving someone’s cigarette).

The smoothness is meant to help the message go down — that a free press is crucial for an informed public, that in the words of the Supreme Court it’s there for the governed, not the governors. Under the current leadership, which is fond of discounting the media with squawks of “fake news,” we are meant to find that message more poignantly urgent than ever. But — how to put it gently? — those who might most benefit from such a message aren’t likely to go see The Post, or to come away from it changed if they do go. It is possibly, then, a note of go-get-‘em support to the beleaguered and splintered media of the moment. If they could take a demon off the throne, the movie whispers to the modern Bradlees and Grahams, so can you.

Spielberg, though, doesn’t bring much passion to it, and he seems to encourage his actors, sharp but tremulous Streep and amiably growling Hanks, to underplay to match his apparent energy level. Years from now, away from its current relevance, The Post will play like a sedate prequel to All the President’s Men — here’s how the heroic paper rose from its underdog status to set the table for its later, larger triumph. I don’t think the seeming lack of engagement on Spielberg’s part is due to his indifference to the subject, but maybe to the simple, complexity-free way it’s presented (by scripters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, the latter of whom wrote Spotlight, a better movie about a paper going after the big fish). The Post is bland and, if I’m not mistaken, vaguely dispirited, as if Spielberg knew the media it depicts has become a shadow of itself, as have the media’s consumers. Newspaper-making even in its full metal physical details — the clacking typewriters, the gleaming printing plates — had more weight, more substance, in the old days.

I, Tonya

December 10, 2017

i-tonya-margot-robbie-850x478A rarity for me: I went into I, Tonya without knowing who the director was. As the absurdist black-comedic biopic unfurled, I thought, “Whoever made this, he’s really trying to get his Scorsese on.” (I thought “he” because female directors rarely if ever try to get their Scorsese on — they’ve worked too hard to express their own voices to want to ape someone else’s.) The major tells were the frequent (and frequently ironic) ’70s-rock needle-drops and the incessant trackings in and out — the camera almost never stops moving, except when it’s locked down in “interview segments” wherein Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) unburden themselves.

As it happens, the director is the nondescript Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), who aside from his Scorsesean gesticulations mostly stays out of the way of the star and co-producer, Margot Robbie. I would like to report that in the reviled Tonya, the media-beloved actress has found something feral, primordial, essential in herself, as Robert De Niro did in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I would like to, but that isn’t true. Robbie is snarly and entertaining, but except for the grinning-rictus-through-tears bit she does in a mirror — and that’ll turn up in her Oscar reel if she’s nominated — she doesn’t locate any humanity except fear, rage, need. And since Robbie is more conventionally attractive than the real Harding, the makeup she wears to render her skin mottled and white-trashy suggests that, in this context where Tonya’s stupid tragedy is played for black comedy, Robbie is condescending to working-class Harding even physically.

I, Tonya left me in a mildly desolate mood. It says that dreams are shit in a country that turns everything to shit. The movie (rather brilliantly, actually) ends with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” and that’s what Tonya is. Pushed into skating as a toddler, forever connected to a ridiculous crime, she has no agency. (She rides and she rides.) The movie’s concerns don’t seem universal — they’re belittlingly specific. We’re just watching these particular dimbulbs — Tonya, her hapless husband Jeff, his buffoonish friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) — as they fuck everything up. The characters get progressively idiotic, until, by the time we get to Shane Stant, the doofus who actually kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan, he’s so brutally inept we wonder how he manages to figure out his pants in the morning.

It’s difficult to stay engaged in a work that has so little regard for its subjects. Gillespie doesn’t display the freezing contempt of, say, an Alexander Payne, but it’s hard to know what he does feel about these people. The movie hedges its bets more than a little by casting a ringer, Allison Janney, as Tonya’s ghastly mother. Not only has Janney played this sort of role before (as a trailer-trash floozy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which, despite the more farcical context, she may have done subtler and more compassionate work than she does here), she’s still playing it every week on Mom. Janney is America’s sweetheart in the division of endearingly fucked-up mothers. When Tonya’s mother is abusive and hateful here, it just seems like Janney doing her usual shtick; the movie is deadpan-sarcastic about it — look at this moron woman throwing stuff at her moron daughter until finally she lobs a knife at her — and Janney hasn’t been directed to make anything real out of it. Real would be sad, sobering, anathema to the sour good time the movie wants to give us.

Eventually Gillespie drifts away from imitating Scorsese and starts imitating Scorsese’s imitators. The last reel or so has the spun-out, dirge-like melancholia of the last act of Boogie Nights, where people wound up beaten up, in jail, dead, soulless. Here, everyone starts dropping around Tonya like brainless flies, whisked off to jail, and the camera lingers on Tonya in her devastation after she is sentenced to life without professional ice skating. Then we see a bit of Tonya’s career as a celebrity boxer spitting blood all over the ring. Ah, finally she’s found an arena that lets her release her rage. But then, stupidly, the movie cuts to footage of the real Tonya skating, and we see, through the context of the life we’ve just watched, the aggression and fury in Tonya’s movements, the fierce determination, the itchy underclass energy that the upper-class skating establishment was never going to be able to accept. Tonya quite elegantly and wordlessly speaks for herself in this footage, and leaves the callow jeering movie in her dust.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

November 6, 2017

goodbyechrisrobinTo the short subgenre of biopics about children’s-book authors (Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild, J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks) we must now add the modestly touching Goodbye Christopher Robin, about A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. This one, though, concerns itself more with postwar trauma than with the usual biopic tropes and beats. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) goes off to World War I, and is injured in the notoriously brutal Battle of the Somme. Once home with his young wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), Milne broods on war, how it seems to render all the world’s sources of happiness impotent. Then Daphne, with misgivings, bears him a child, who will lead him out of himself and into fame and fortune — and a whole other set of problems.

Directed with a stiff sense of dignity by Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin is about men and boys, fathers and sons, losing and finding themselves. Curtis, though, with Gleeson’s help, convinces us that Milne has been broken by the nightmare meat-grinder of the Great War, and this runs underneath every scene Milne is in. It’s kept quiet, though, not obnoxiously obvious. And given that this is a very polite PG-rated film, with only the most oblique glimpses of war bloodshed, Curtis impressively conveys the eternal dread of the postwar life. We gather that Milne saw hell. Out of this darkness, improbably, blossoms one of English letters’ most enduring creations of whimsy (not beloved by all, of course, as those who recall Dorothy Parker’s legendary dragging of The House at Pooh Corner can testify).

Inspired by the playtime of his son Christopher (Will Tilston) using a variety of stuffed animals, Milne creates Ashdown Forest and its inhabitants, a place of safe and gentle adventure, as opposed to the real world and all its dangerous, vicious adventure. Milne gives himself a fantasy into which to escape, but in the meantime he has made an unwilling celebrity out of his son, upon whom the books’ Christopher Robin is based. The real Christopher is pressed into service hosting tea parties for lucky young contest winners and posing for photos with a fake Pooh bear. We spend most of our time with the younger Christopher, until the magic of movies telescopes time while he’s at school, so that he becomes a teenager (Alex Lawther) beaten and ridiculed by bullies because of his literary connection. It’s this Christopher, hardened after years of a public childhood, who decides to go off to war himself, this time World War II.

By then, we know what such a decision will do to Milne. A couple of fine, pained scenes between Milne and fellow WWI veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) — who goes on to illustrate the Pooh books — show us what this shared experience does to men, and there’s an equally fine scene near the end, when another pair of men sit and take note of the beauty that the world can also offer. When things look bleak, Daphne excoriates Milne for “fixing it” so that their son (who’d failed the physical) could go to war, but what could Milne do? It was what Christopher wanted, and for Milne to deny him would have driven the last wedge between them. Sidebar stuff like this, which has little to do with the origins of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, deals with things we seldom see in movies; a father and a son bonded by horror, ready to embrace the future and abandon the agony of the past.

Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin is honorable, even if the tears are jerked a little too strenuously near the finish. One thing, however, prevents me from giving the film more than a middling mark. I know this isn’t her movie, but the cavalier, seemingly unloving behavior of Daphne throughout the film is baffling, all the more so because no one else seems to notice it. She leaves her husband until he starts writing again; she seems ruthlessly unsentimental, which is fine, but it seems at odds with everything else in the movie. Margot Robbie plays her as a borderline flapper who seems to yearn for champagne and glitz over a stuffy old house with a stuffy old writer. (When they married, Daphne was 23, Milne 31.)

Eventually, offscreen apparently, Daphne gentles into a vaguely worried mom tinkering in the garden, and Kelly Macdonald steals the movie as Olive, Christopher’s faithful caretaker. Macdonald brings that tired cliché the selfless nanny to life, and her expressions of despair and later joy are far more compelling than anything else going on. Goodbye Christopher Robin is refined, tactful, competent. Its dark undertone of war and its deforming power lifts it above the usual schmucky Hollywood stuff. But it’s missing that gratifying sense of everything coming together to create a vision based on subtle thematic work — that almost audible click when the elements hang together coherently and with originality of purpose. (We feel this, for example, at several points in Pulp Fiction.) The movie seems to be about a man who, when creating a fantasy into which to escape war memories, inadvertently drives his own son into another war. How does a movie even begin to deal with that? This one doesn’t.

Tom of Finland

October 15, 2017

tomoffinlandTouko Laaksonen, better known as the fetish artist Tom of Finland, liked to draw what aroused him: beefy men in uniform, or leather, or leather uniform. A veteran of World War II, Touko seemed to draw his aesthetic partly from the Nazis, with whom the Finnish army fought against the Soviet Union in an example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend — kind of.” (Finland stayed independent and never formally allied with Nazi Germany; near the end of the war the two countries got into it with each other anyway.) I don’t think the new Finnish biopic Tom of Finland gets into the Nazi thing, which is probably for the best; by his own admission, Touko was never particularly political at heart, though his work ended up being plenty political.

Touko (Pekka Strang) cuts an artsy figure — with his porkpie hat and mustache, he resembles a Eurotrash R. Crumb (whose bizarrely sexual comics, like Touko’s art, are as notorious as they are renowned). He slouches around Finland, furtively pursuing men in parks or at “poker parties” and risking arrest. (Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in Finland until 1971.) He has a job in advertising, and on the side he draws painstaking pictures of men posing alone or in twos or threes, sometimes busy, sometimes just bulging. What made Touko’s drawings so magnetic to gay men in later years, and what gives them a spark that transcends the usual porn, is that they come from such an obvious, desperate place of, well, concupiscence. It was his inner orgy life given form, though in technique it was, as one critic said, illustrative but not expressive. The men’s expressions are sullen or glazed over with lust (there are some exceptions). The blankness of their faces is a good screen on which the viewer can project his fantasies.

The movie’s Touko seems to follow suit, eventually shopping for leather-daddy gear and becoming one of his own stolid cartoons. Touku never seems especially cheerful or even happy. The frequent same-sex encounters are filmed rather neutrally by straight director Dome Karukoski. The heart of the movie is in the relationships between Touku and those who love him, such as his disapproving sister (Jessica Grabowsky), or his younger lover who succumbs to AIDS, or the Californian gays who invite him out to see the impact he had on American rough-trade culture (in the West Coast ‘70s as well as the Helsinki ‘40s, it’s all about butch hair and mustaches and shared cigarettes and sexuality so aggressively lunging it seems almost like Kabuki at times). What we don’t know is whether he loves them back — or can. The film cites Touko’s wartime stabbing to death of a Russian paratrooper as the event that froze his soul, took him out of the human race and sidelined him as a watcher, an artist.

Once the movie gets to California and the snarky twinks and amiable bears who revere Tom of Finland’s work, its outlook improves and it shakes off, at least temporarily, the Helsinki blues. It does spend a lot of our time beforehand being dreary (though, as lighted by cinematographer Lasse Frank, gorgeously dreary — not drearily dreary as in the recent England Is Mine). I found myself wanting a whole movie documenting Touko’s bright years in the ‘70s, before AIDS decimated the community and before Touko himself fell to emphysema in 1991. But in order to appreciate Touko’s liberation and vindication in his later years we need to see the repression/oppression of his youth. In the ‘40s, Touko passes one of his naughtier drawings under a toilet stall as a come-on; he gets a fat lip for his troubles. Fast-forward to the ‘70s, and dudes are dueling with giant inflatable phalluses at pool parties where wayward police, rather than being feared, are catcalled.

That juicy round of hooting at embarrassed cops who, in another time and place, would have been arresting the whole party is gratifying and about as close as Tom of Finland comes to pure comedy — except when it shows us Touko’s work. The drawing has the fizz of an artist mesmerized by his own onanistic images, like all those so-aroused-it-hurts drawings by R. Crumb of fat-bottomed girls, or S. Clay Wilson’s seething panoramas of filth. It has wit, and a refreshing lack of sentiment. Would that the same were true of the film, which goes a little soft (flaccid, if you will) near the end, with a bunny brought into a dying man’s hospital room — the scene is, I think, a mistake. But most of the handsomely assembled film pays tribute not to the man’s pornography but to the way it pointed gay men away from shame towards pride, like an arrow, or like something similarly shaped.