Sunday, November 28, 2004

Screaming Men (Huutajat)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Screaming Men is a documentary about a group - the Finnish Screaming Male Choir - that, like their leader Petri Sirviö, takes pride in its absurdity. The opening, in which Petri is joined by his choir on a glacier (they arrive by icebreaker), has a portentious appearance which is gleefully mixed with the silliness of one of the members constructing his rubber tie by attacking a tire liner with a pair of scissors.

Here's the thing, though - absurdity and silliness aren't enough to sustain even this film's 76-minute running time unless there's something behind them. Sometimes it can be a point to be made, and sometimes pure artistic inspiration is enough. And while one can, if one tries hard enough, find a certain meaning in Sirviö's creations - a large part of their repetoire is national anthems, and having them shouted at you does tend to emphasize their generally martial nature - what is most striking is Sirviö's ability as a composer/arranger. He has managed to take perhaps the crudest tools available to a musician - a group of men with little musical training (one applicant mentions that he is just looking to find a way to fill time) and loud voices - and created interesting performance pieces. At one point, the choir is literally yelling a section of the tax code unaccompanied, and it's good music.

Writer/director Mika Ronkainen is a former(?) member of the group, and his affection for it and its leader comes through loud and clear. He shares the same quirky sense of humor, too, using bits of wordless stock footage to finish sentences and using irony to set the scene of the Choir's hometown of Oulu (a line about the city being at the forefront of high technology shows an Atari 800 or Commodore 64 running Music Construction Set). This film is another that can be misconstrued as being fun because it doesn't take itself seriously, but both Rokainen and Sirviö do, in fact, take their work seriously - they just recognize that humor is intrinsic to that work. The bookend sequences with the icebreaker alone was dissected at length at the eye-opener discussion afterward, and as the choir travels the world, their program is adapted for not just the city in which they play, but often (only days before the performance) for the facility as well.

The "Male" in the choir's name is no extraneous adjective; though the women in the audience clearly enjoyed both the subject matter and the documentary, participation is clearly A Guy Thing. The members are scruffy, working-class guys who sweat like pigs (Sirviö brings up the smell in several interviews) and unwind with fart jokes. There's a very Monty Python-ish feel to some of their interactions with their audience - a "lecture on screaming" Sirviö gives in Tokyo is especially amusing.

Though the title refers to the Choir as a whole, the focus mainly stays upon its leader. Petri Sirviö is, in fact, a trained musician, but a hand injury ended his career as a bass player early. He spends a lot of time talking about his family and how they wish he would do fewer international tours; he's a contrast to the other members. It's not an overwhelming focus, but the bond Ronkainen does create with the audience is in large part to Petri.

After seeing this feature, much of the audience wanted to know what it would take to book the group for a Boston show or two. Watching Screaming Men likely won't change the audience in any meaningful way, but it will entertain them with both interesting subject matter and presentation.

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