By Bob Vitale
Just about any fantasy you have right now can come to life—or at least high-resolution photography—at the other end of a Google search.
For a generation of gay men, though, erotic fantasies were fueled by the art of Tom of Finland, whose drawings of men with, in the polite words of Wikipedia, “exaggerated primary…sex traits” were the XTube of their day.
A biopic of the man behind the bulges will play this weekend at the Wexner Center in Columbus and on Jan. 13 and 14 at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Although not nearly as provocative as his art, “Tom of Finland” puts the gay icon and his work into a historical context that is important to honor and remember.
(You can watch a trailer of “Tom of Finland” here.)
Tom of Finland’s real name was Touko Laaksonen. He was born in 1920 and served in the Finnish Army as his nation fought a Soviet invasion that became intertwined with the hostilities of World War II.
Finland emerged as a free nation, but freedom didn’t extend to gay men there or elsewhere. Early scenes in “Tom of Finland” alternate between the war’s battles and police brutality against gay men. Laaksonen awakes from a war-induced nightmare in one scene. In another, he watches another nightmare live as a tryst is kicked and beaten by police.
Laaksonen’s drawings made the rounds furtively in post-war Helsinki and eventually gained widespread distribution through the American gay magazines that were camouflaged back then as health and fitness publications.
“Tom of Finland” is filmed in a style that evokes the same mood as Laaksonen’s illustrations. The biopic captures the underground and forbidden feel of the era’s gay culture: the furtive meetings, hidden gathering places, knowing looks. It also captures the pain of the time; in one scene, Laaksonen visits an Army friend who tells him of his hope to be “cured” following a police raid on a party in his own home.
The film focuses on the repressive ’50s in Finland and then jerks the wheel into the everything-goes ’70s in California. It makes quick work of the 1980s and the onslaught of AIDS through one character and a scene of Laaksonen drawing one of his fantasy men holding a holding a condom.
There’s little about how he — and we — got from one place to the other.
It’s interesting to learn about the life of a man whose work helped define gay culture, but ultimately, “Tom of Finland” shows Laaksonen more as a product of changing times than as a figure who helped bring about that change.
“Tom of Finland” will be shown at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 5 and 6, at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St., Columbus, 43210. Tickets are $8, or $6 for Wexner Center members, students and seniors. Visit wexarts.org for more information.
After the Saturday screening at the Wex, AWOL will host a special Tom of Finland edition of its monthly Code Jock party. Bring your ticket stub for free entry. A $3 cover charge for others benefits the local leather community.
AWOL will have themed dancersand a Best Tom contest with prizes.
“Tom of Finland” will be shown at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13 and at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 14 at the Cleveland Institute of Art, 11610 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 44106. Tickets are $10, or $7 for members and free for those 25 and younger. You can buy tickets here.