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More on Aki Kaurismaki  
'I am a lousy film-maker'
It is just past noon and the more sedate among us are still drinking coffee. Aki Kaurismaki tuts derisively. "Coffee? I don't want coffee. To talk about my lousy films I need more than coffee." So a beer is ordered, soon joined by a bottle of white wine. Meanwhile, a surreptitious measure of whisky is pulled from his pocket for a crafty nip, a cigarette lit and smoked to the butt. The greatest director in the (slim, granted) history of Finnish cinema hunches in his seat; a large, pasty man in his mid-40s with the sagging demeanour of a weary shrug made flesh.
Anything else would be a disappointment. After all, in the two decades
he has been making films, Kaurismaki's name has become a byword for the
dry and deadpan: a perennial eccentric whose characters might battle unemployment
in the restaurant business (Drifting Clouds), embark on a one-woman revolution
(The Match Factory Girl), or lacquer up gargantuan quiffs in the hope
of making it in rock'n'roll (Leningrad Cowboys Go America), but who never
cracks anything resembling a smile in the process. So it is with the man
himself: an essential sweetness of nature pickled in a brine of gloomy
despondency. Which could also describe his latest project, The Man Without
a Past, in which an anonymous Finn is mugged in a Helsinki park in the
film's opening seconds to be left with amnesia among the homeless community
gathered on the city's shoreline. The film is rendered hugely entertaining
by Kaurismaki's wry humanism and sure-fire comic instincts.
He looks genuinely concerned. I tell him the mugging scene is hardly excessive and he frowns (or frowns deeper). "Ah, but that is what is wrong. Hollywood has melted everyone's brains. In the old days you had one murder and that was enough for a story. Now you have to kill 300,000 people just to get the audience's attention. And in Helsinki the violence is not glamorous. It is nameless. There, someone hits you just because they are in a bad mood." Has he ever been attacked? "Many times. But I'm quite big and I will hit back. So none of them lived afterward." A mighty fug of cigarette smoke has already built up. "That is a joke, by the way."
For Kaurismaki, you feel, in person and on screen, brevity is a virtue: he pretty much clams up at the mention of his years sleeping rough in the 1970s and their possible bearing on The Man Without a Past. "Things were different then. You could be a bum and find a job later. Now you just die in the cold."
Instead of giving in to over-analysis, he puts his faith in certain iron laws of creativity - the same ones he has been following since he and his elder brother Mika (himself the director of 21 features) began making films in the early 1980s. Budgets are kept low, crews small and actors restricted to a single rehearsal before the camera rolls. "My relationship with them never changes," he says, refilling his glass. "I hold my finger up when I want them to say the line. They say it, and I say, 'Thank you very much.'" And if they want more detailed direction? "In that case there is always the door."
The fruit of such economy is a cinematic identity as clear as any film-maker working today. If plots amble - events are routinely undercut with a muted surrealism - if the one-liners come tart as vinegar and 1960s rock'n'roll fills the soundtrack, you can be sure you're watching Kaurismaki. Some strictures can be tinkered with (at 97 minutes, The Man Without a Past is an epic by his standards); others remain untouchable. Take his subject matter: the Finnish working class.
"Yes," he says. "The people who are hidden. The ugly people, as some critics have called them. But then who is good- looking? Bruce Willis? I think he is ugly. Horribly ugly. Totally unable to act, and totally ugly. So I will stick with my ugly people." You can't help but think of how people have reputedly walked out of his films after paying to see a comedy and assuming they are in the wrong cinema. Asked if he minds, he (naturally) shrugs.
"Tell me, who wrote the book called High Fidelity? Nicholas someone? Hornby? Well, it is the most boring book I ever read. I hated every line because it was just what you are talking about. Every joke, ha ha ha " - he clutches his sides for effect - "every joke so obvious. And now it is the same in films. It is Hollywood's fault. Hollywood is the reason I make the films I do. Because I hate it. And I would never go there or waste my time watching their films because . . . well, I am a lousy film-maker, this I admit. But I refuse to make shit. Bad films I can make. Shit, no."
Success may have escaped him in his homeland ("in Finland they prefer the television to me"); elsewhere, his films are seen as the work of a true maverick talent, a fixture at the more prestigious stopovers of the festival circuit. Last year's Cannes saw The Man Without a Past win the unofficial "second prize", the Grand Prix, beaten to the Palme d'Or - controversially - by Roman Polanski's The Pianist. Last October, however, his gilded tour of the festivals came to a halt immediately before New York. Waiting for his flight, the director learned that his acclaimed Iranian counterpart Abbas Kiarostami had been refused a visa. Outraged, Kaurismaki abandoned his own travel plans, issuing a statement in which he denounced US foreign policy and invited defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to go mushroom-picking with him. "I must make clear that I didn't boycott the New York film festival," he says now. "I like the New York film festival very much. I boycotted the US government. I was at the airport with my ticket in my hand and I heard Abbas wasn't being let in, and I thought, OK, if the US government doesn't want an Iranian film-maker then they won't want a Finn either. And I will not go where I am not wanted."
With his bemoaning of American imperialism, it comes as no surprise to hear him describe the current crisis in the Middle East as "what happens when Yankee idiots want to make more money from oil". All the same, with his fondness for greasy rock'n'rollers and old westerns, you wonder if there's ambivalence in his loathing of America? "Yes, but the America I like is the America of Roosevelt. Not that led by the clown George Bush, with the boy scout Tony Blair beside him. Because I think with these maniacs we don't have a lot of hope. Can you print that? You can? Well, good. Print that." I ask how he sees the situation developing. "To be honest, I think the clown and the boy scout will bring us the end of the world. Goodbye."
For a moment, silence falls over the table. The wine is almost finished. I change the subject, enquire after his next film. He explains that The Man Without a Past is the second part of a trilogy of movies concerning social hardship (the first being Drifting Clouds), so whatever he comes up with must be the final part. Except he has no ideas. "When I was young," he sighs, "I would sit in the bath and ideas would come to me. But I'm not young any more, so now I just sit in the bath."
At least he has got his love of films to keep him going. You'll never find a more ardent movie buff than Kaurismaki, a man who admits he once regularly watched six films a day and who later opened a chain of cinemas in Finland. So, what new films have excited him lately? "Nothing. I don't watch new films anymore. The last new film I saw was . . . where is my memory? Who made Riff Raff? Ken Loach? Yes, that was it [Riff Raff, incidentally, was made in 1990]. To be very honest, I don't want to waste my time watching 15 lousy films just so I can find one that is more or less OK. The really good films, I've seen them all a hundred times before. I come to London and all you have is James Bond, Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. So I think no, I will just walk to Oxford Street and go to His Master's Voice and buy some DVDs of Laurel and Hardy. And that will have to be enough for me."
He sounds pretty contented. In fact, it's only when I ask for another coffee that he complains, his voice pitched somewhere between disgust and incomprehension. And he orders a Bloody Mary, takes another furtive slug of whisky, gazes around the room seemingly unmoved by the quantity of liquor he's knocked back. And I ask him why, if he generally feels so glum, his films always have a low-key but insistent optimistic streak?
"Well... I think the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic the films should be." He leans forward, play-punches my shoulder and, for the first time all day, breaks into a grin. "This is the way I think about it. Life is too sad to bear and there is no hope for anyone. So now, let us drink to happy endings."