Cultural Reportage

In a way, most of my reportage over the years — from writing about education to covering nightlife and almost everything in between — could be called cultural reportage. Whether writing about a country or a club, I approach my subject from the point of view of a cultural investigator, someone who is writing about the manners and mores of a discrete culture or world. Not surprising, perhaps, for someone who trained as a cultural historian. Indeed, if you wish to be technical about it, you could call me a contemporary historian, especially since I write for the record.

Two of the articles herein, both about Finland, constitute good examples of my foreign cultural reportage.

One, “A Helsinki State of Mind,” I wrote for The International Herald Tribune in 1997, when Finland was in the process of sloughing off the last traces of its Cold War blues. The journalistic equivalent of a postcard, this short piece describes Helsinki’s changing consumer culture and new upbeat mood.

The second, much longer piece, “Romantic as a Caterpillar,” which ran in the Financial Times in December 2002, is an in-depth interview with pioneering Finnish film director Aki Kaurismäki.

Flashback: In 1991, shortly after my first visit to Finland as a professional journalist, I did a feature about the laconic Finn and his irrepressible main actor, the late, great Matti Pellonpaa, a feat that first required getting drunk with Pellonpaa, who then passed the word to his press-shy friend that I was, in fact, okay. The piece that resulted was the first feature about Kaurismäki to run in a major English language publication; one could say I was among his earliest champions in the international media.

And so I have remained. I hesitate to say that we are friends, though I think you could say that we have a relationship of sorts: In 1999, I interviewed Kaurismäki again at the site of his quixotic old age home-turned-hotel, Oiva, in Karkilla, in the wilds of southwestern Finland. The fearless Finn was then in the midst of making his idiosyncratic black and white, silent remake of the classic Finnish story “Juha.”

Then, in 2002, Kaurismäki made what was probably the most successful film he has done so far (although I remain deeply fond of “Match Factory Girl”), the surprisingly upbeat “Man Without A Name,” about an amnesiac who rediscovers his love for life — and rock and roll — with the aid and support of a loving woman and a good jukebox. The extensive, tongue-in-cheek session that resulted, which took place over several smoky, beer-filled hours in the restaurant of Oiva, represents the longest interview he has ever given any journalist. I also think it shows how well I know and love Finnish culture, as well as Kaurismäki’s singular contribution to international film.