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‘Tom of Finland’ illustrates the power of being oneself

“Tom of Finland” (2017). Cast: Pekka Strang, Seumas F. Sargent, Lauri Tikanen, Taisto Oksanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Niklas Hogner, Jakob Oftebro, Hayman Maria Buttinger, Manfred Böll, Fabian Puregger. Director: Dome Karukoski. Screenplay: Aleksi Bardy. Story/dialogue: Aleksi Bardy, Dome Karukoski, Mark Alton Brown, Noam Andrews, Kauko Röyhkä, Mia Yiönen and Susana Luoto. Web site. Trailer.

Regrettably, it’s often all too easy to subvert the emergence of our true selves. Whether we doubt our ability to bring it into being, fear the ramifications involved in its expression or allow ourselves to be intimidated into submission, we may find it easier to roll over and let things slide than to act upon our genuine impulses. But where is the satisfaction in that? Can we live with the regrets that are likely to arise late in life when we realize the opportunity we’ve squandered? And, perhaps above all, can we be truly happy with ourselves for acquiescing to such a timid course? Fortunately, we have the choice to pursue a different path, one that is a faithful reflection of our inner being, no matter how seemingly trying the circumstances. Sometimes all we need is a little inspiration to steer us in the right direction for pulling it off. Such was the case with an erotic artist who lived on the fringes at a time when his works were considered scandalous, if not pornographic, a story featured in the film biography “Tom of Finland,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand.

After valiantly serving in the Finnish army during World War II, Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) returned home to Helsinki to resume his life. As victors in the war, one would think that these heroes of the homeland would be accorded honors and recognition for their service. But, for some, like Touko, new struggles emerged, some of which were just as difficult to deal with as those they faced during the war – and all of which were eminently more personal.

Touko’s challenge was learning how to clandestinely live as a gay man in a society vehemently opposed to such “aberrational” behavior. In those days, men were expected to get married and have families, and those who strayed from that course were subject to severe persecution from the authorities. Even possessing artwork or periodicals containing references to such “subversive” acts could result in prosecution.

For someone like Touko, who had just returned from conditions where he was constantly surrounded by virile young men, adjusting to the prevailing social expectations was virtually impossible. He knew he was gay and was supremely frustrated that he could not openly act upon it for fear of reprisals. Such frustration was exacerbated by the constant pressure to conform placed upon him by others like his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), with whom he shared close living quarters. And whatever opportunities came along that might have allowed him to be himself were fleeting and fraught with complications. He simply couldn’t be who he wanted to be, and it tore him up.

Homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang), better known as Tom of Finland, made a name for himself as a gay icon after years of struggling to gain recognition, a challenge depicted in the film biography “Tom of Finland,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand. Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

To cope, Touko needed an outlet for his pent-up feelings, and he found it through a somewhat unexpected channel. As a skilled advertising illustrator, Touko already possessed the talent of an accomplished commercial artist, so he decided to employ this ability to express his repressed erotic urges. He initially drew images for his own amusement, eventually showing them to a few close male confidantes. But, given the potentially harsh penalties he faced for possessing such images, he had to keep his artwork tightly under wraps to avoid getting caught.

From the outset, Touko distinguished himself by the kinds of men he drew. His illustrations were heavily influenced by his days in the military, typically featuring hyper-masculine images of uber-handsome men blessed with rippling muscles, striking physiques, classic square-jawed looks and seething levels of testosterone. His figures generally sported working class trappings, such as the uniforms of sailors and policemen, leather biker jackets, and construction worker outfits. He truly created a style all his own.

However, given Finland’s parochial laws governing the dissemination and possession of such materials, what was Touko to do with them? Continue to draw them only for his own entertainment? He clearly had a valuable commodity on his hands but no readily available market – at least in Finland. But outside his country was another story.

With the emerging gay liberation movement in nations other than his homeland, such as the U.S., ample opportunity awaited the undiscovered artist. He began submitting his work to American beefcake magazines, which published everything they could get their hands on. And, to add further mystique to his persona (and additional protection for his identity at home), Touko adopted the pseudonym Tom of Finland, a name that would become synonymous with his signature style of art.

Touko’s initial success was nothing compared to what would follow. As his works were circulated ever more widely, he developed quite a loyal fan base, especially by a pair of well-connected entrepreneurial Americans, Doug (Seumas F. Sargent) and Jack (Jakob Oftebro), who sought to promote Touko so that he received the recognition they thought he deserved. And, upon a trip to the U.S., an astonished Touko discovered the icon status he had unknowingly attained among his many American followers. Touko, as Tom, had at last made it.

Over time, the professional success Touko achieved was quietly matched personally, too. When a boarder, Veli (Lauri Tikanen), moved into the home he shared with his sister, Touko found a love interest. Even though he initially had something of a rivalry with Kaija in vying for Veli’s affections, that artificial opposition quickly evaporated when the truth of the parties’ sexual orientation emerged. Touko had found the love of his life.

Gay artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang, right), better known as Tom of Finland, and his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky, center), both unwittingly vie for the affections of their new boarder, Veli (Lauri Tikanen, left), in the film biography of the iconic illustrator, “Tom of Finland.” Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

However, despite Touko’s hard-fought victories in the three decades since the end of the war, some of his biggest challenges were still ahead of him in the late ʼ70s and early ʼ80s. Personally there was Veli’s failing health, as well as the demise of his friend Jack, developments that greatly saddened the artist. But an even bigger setback began to arise professionally in the wake of the emerging AIDS crisis: Critics contended that Touko’s unabashedly provocative homoerotic drawings helped promote the promiscuity that led to the spread of the fatal disease among gay men, a backlash that threatened his livelihood. But even those who were willing to overlook the social responsibility aspect of his work were increasingly critical of his immensely popular illustrations, suggesting that his drawings were nothing more than pornography masquerading as art.

As someone used to addressing challenges, though, Touko soldiered on. With a strong support network and an army of ardent “Tom men” staunchly behind him, Touko kept fighting the good fight, taking on challengers who sought to silence an artist who had become a gay folk hero. Unlike in the past, this time the veteran illustrator would not be silenced.

Regardless of what one might think of Touko’s art, attitude and sensibilities, there’s no denying that he was someone who clearly knew what he was. And, even though prevailing social conditions forced him to stay underground for many years, he never denied who he was to himself. He was steeped in his beliefs about his nature and never stopped seeking ways to express it, even in the face of potentially harsh consequences.

This is a textbook example of someone who has a firm grasp on his aptitude for the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. The challenge for Touko was figuring out how to devise beliefs that overcame the obstacles that stood in the way of preventing him from fully realizing who he truly was.

Of course, some would argue that, if he was so adept at understanding himself, then why did he create a reality with such inherent roadblocks to fulfillment? As with each of us, his reasons were his own and not for us to judge, but it’s possible to speculate about some of the rationale behind these materializations.

For instance, one of the primary aims of conscious creation is teaching us how to overcome limitations. Given the time frame and social conditions under which Touko lived, he had ample opportunity to tackle this life lesson. What’s more, considering that he was not alone in his struggle, he became something of a champion for others enduring similar circumstances. Like the good soldier he was during the war, Touko became a fervent combatant in his battle against prejudice and inequality. As his artwork gained international recognition, the impact of his efforts extended beyond Finland’s borders, too, helping to promote the cause of gay rights far and wide.

In taking on these challenges, Touko also addressed another of conscious creation’s key aims – that of overcoming fears and living heroically. If we’re ever to get past the hindrances that stand in our way, we need to move beyond whatever fears block us, for they will surely prevent us from manifesting what we seek to create. Given the circumstances under which Touko operated, one might easily assume that fear would be a readily present component of his existence. However, he was determined not to let it stand in his way. Perhaps the wartime experience he created for himself gave him an opportunity to learn the basic skill of how to vanquish fears that can pose hurdles to attaining the success we seek in fulfilling our aspirations, regardless of the arena of manifestation involved. Or maybe he was just proficient at formulating beliefs that kept fears at bay in the conscious creation process. Whatever the source, however, he dismissed this element in keeping him from ultimately getting what he wanted.

Homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, drew characters he was readily able to envision, such as his prototypical leather man, Kake (Niklas Hogner), a capability depicted in the illustrator’s film biography, “Tom of Finland.” Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Touko was also creative, in the truest sense of the word, in reaching his objectives. Even though he was, for all practical purposes, caught up in a “battle” to achieve respect and recognition for himself and his community, he didn’t resort to using the typical means one might associate with attaining victory in a conflict. The “arms” he took up weren’t weapons in the classical sense; rather, he used an unconventional weapon – art. Granted, it was a formidable, in-your-face kind of art, but it was intrinsically nonviolent, designed perhaps to provoke one’s outlook and sensibilities but by no means intended to cause physical harm. Indeed, attaining victory without ever firing a shot, so to speak, is certainly the sweetest victory of all.

The artwork itself not only confronted the mainstream social opposition, but it also took on those in the gay community who held a different (and much more limited) impression of what constituted an acceptable standard of beauty. Those who adhered to a less “rugged,” more “refined” image of gay male masculinity had their views more than a little challenged by Touko’s raw, earthier sketches. For those whose attraction to such unconventional images had been effectively squelched by a lack of available material suddenly had their needs met – and in ample magnitude.

On some level, Touko knew there was a following for his kind of artwork waiting to be tapped. What’s more, he readily knew how to bring it into being. His time in the military, for example, provided him with abundant inspiration for the characters he would eventually draw. He was able to envision his models with ease, as depicted in several scenes in the film in which he effortlessly pictured several of them come to life, such as his fantasy cop (Fabian Puregger) and his prototypical leather man, Kake (Niklas Hogner). Again, he knew what he wanted, and he handily manifested it – just what conscious creation is all about.

Although Touko used his metaphysical skills in ways far different from how many of us might employ them, his wherewithal and dexterity in this area are indisputable. Those who question the relevance of someone who practices conscious creation to achieve ends such as these may unexpectedly find their eyes pried open when they scrutinize the aptitude and outcomes involved. In this way, we could all learn a lot from Tom of Finland in learning how to express – and be – ourselves.

As biopics go, “Tom of Finland” adequately examines the life of its subject, with fine performances, effective period re-creations, and insightful explorations of the social and metaphysical considerations in question. However, despite these strengths, the narrative appears to have some unexplained gaps in the timeline of Touko’s story, with a few sequences that also go on longer than they probably should have. Also, given the highly provocative nature of Touko’s artwork, the film is surprisingly “tame” in its tone. Nevertheless, these shortcomings aside, the picture shows what’s possible when we put our minds (and beliefs) to what we want to achieve, no matter what the area of creation.

Being oneself can be quite challenging, but it can also be immensely satisfying and empowering. By allowing our true selves to come into existence, we can fulfill our destiny and contribute to the mosaic panorama of creation. It would indeed be sad if we missed the chance to make our mark, no matter how outlandish or marginal our contribution may be seen. If we indeed succeed at this task, we can take comfort that we’ve met our goal and, one would hope, helped to make the world a richer, fuller and more inclusive place.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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