Ilppo Pohjola is best known for his international prizewinners Daddy and the Muscle Adacemy, a docufiction about gay artist Tom of Finland, and P(l)ain Truth, a conceptual fiction about going through a sex change operation. Both took the widest possible festival route to overwhelming critical and audience reaction. Daddy was also a theatrical hit in Finland and the USA. Asphalto, a 43-minute short is Pohjola's latest, and another cinematic, experimental assault.
"YOU'VE GOT ASPHALT UP YOUR ASS!", a woman's voice repeatedly shouts throughout the film. Asphalto is a road movie and a fetishistic fantasy made in the style of oil-company commercials of yesteryear with their glamourous model girls, combined with the modern fragmentary style of music videos. The film is a succession of fleeting images in non-linear order of a journey through Finland, from Helsinki in the south to its northernmost point at Utsjoki-Nuorgam; it is also the story of a pointless demolition derby with rally cars smashing into each other like insects running amok. Finally, it is a film about a man and a woman: the image of this couple behind the shadowy windscreen - hidden somewhere behind the reflections of light - reminds us of Jean-Luc Godard. They are physically so close and yet so far apart.
As is fitting, service stations - many of them abandoned and forgotten by time - are the only signs of civilization on the journey. We see signs for ancient oil-company brands, such as BP and E-Öljy - which have now changed their names or vanished in corporate mergers - and sleek model girls wearing these brand symbols on their flashy costumes made of latex and rubber, with flared trousers, in retro (-futuristic) glamour style. Remember the Shell girls in those old TV commercials? Also reminiscent of these is the low, growling voice of Kaj Gahnström hitting us like bullets, which became famous from the Finnish Shell commercials of the 60s and 70s. The Voice of Shell, the Voice from Hell is back for this one film only, reading the road signs aloud, as we move onwards. Aerial views accompany this journey to nowhere.
It is also a journey through the images in our generation's collective memory from the childhood years of the 60s and 70s: checkered flags, striped Matchbox toy cars, Shell commercials - seen through the deconstructive eyes of the 90s. This Carmageddon is a fetishistic sado-masochist fantasy, where Helmut Newton meets J.G. Ballard, the kind only consumer society can create. Merzbow's harsh noise music growls on the soundtrack in this assault on the senses made at breathtaking pace. Too bad we can't get odours into films: Asphalto would probably smell like burning kerosene, steaming asphalt, smoldering rubber, acrid exhaust fumes and fresh latex, vinyl and PVC.
If the pun weren't so bad, we might call this film an "auto-erotic" experience. In film and popular song, cars have often been used as a kind of metaphor for our culture: just think of the post-hippie American dream gone bad in Vanishing Point, Monte Hellman's existentialist drivers in Two-Lane Blacktop, or the late-60s Finnish film by Risto Jarva, Bensaa suonissa ("Gasoline in their Veins"); the apocalyptic traffic jams of Godard's Weekend; the post-apocalyptic westerns of the Mad Max movies; cars in various pop songs (the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe, Springsteen's Racing in the Street, Iggy Pop's The Passenger, The Normal's Warm Leatherette, Gary Numan's Cars, Prince's Little Red Corvette, etc.) where they have often been depicted as objects of desire. You might ask whether this is sexism multiplied to abstract dimensions - the curves of rally cars compared with the curves of women? It is not unusual for a car to be used as a metaphor for woman, frequently in a psychosexually twisted way (Led Zeppelin's Trampled Underfoot, Stephen King's Christine). And not forgetting the ambiguous meanings of the English verb "to ride"...
In the end, the film remains ambivalent; will it be seen as deconstructing the pervasive 20th-century mythology consisting of TV commercials, music videos and the brash, overpowering forces of Capitalism and consumerism, or will it merely reinforce them, through the worship of the pure sublime beauty of these images? Yes, it's the Leni Riefenstahl dilemma once again: can the message ever be separated from the medium? - e. rautio
(English version revised by Mike Garner)
[see also Routemaster - Asphalto's "sister movie"]
asphalto @ new films from finland
asphalto @ imdb
Ilppo Pohjola @ IMDB
Ilppo Pohjola search results @ Google