Friday, November 04, 2011

Matti Piuhola, a man of the cinema (exhibition)

The Museum of the Moving Image of KAVA, Vanha talvitie 9, Helsinki. Introduced by Lauri Tykkyläinen.

Matti Piuhola (born in Isokyrö in 1929, died in Seinäjoki in 2007) wanted to be known as "a man of the cinema" (elokuvamies).

When Piuhola started his career as a travelling film exhibitor at the age of 16 his vehicle was a bicycle. At 17 he owned the first car in the village. Piuhola toured Finland with his projection equipment during the decades when travelling cinemas were at the height of their popularity, from the 1940s to the 1970s. Touring cinema exhibitions were licensed outside the regular cinema circuit.

People travelled miles to the screenings. As a prelude, sound records were played. Then there was a film suitable to all audiences such as Teuvo Tulio's Unelma karjamajalla [A Dream at the Pasture Hut], and the final number was a movie for adults only such as Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit [The Way You Wanted Me].

Sometimes the show was delayed until the entire audience had formed a search party to track down a girl lost in the woods while picking berries. Occasionally a patron was late because he had encountered a bear on the forest path. When necessary, the showman's car served as the generator.

In the 1950s old-timers gave up their nitrate 35 mm equipment, and Piuhola based his shows on 16 mm technology. He bought the historical equipment from the veterans, and thus became a collector and a historian. He conducted interviews, visited garage sales, and researched basements and attics. His knowledge was of an international standard, although he only spoke Finnish and Swedish.

Piuhola looked after old films, equipment, and music machines. He was interested in rare printed matter such as posters, labels, and postcards, which he tracked down in old printing houses. He cultivated contacts to the earliest film families.

From his own collections Piuhola mounted a centenary of the cinema exhibition. He wrote remarkable historical articles in the newspapers of Pohjanmaa and helped with his discoveries the professors Sven Hirn and Hannu Salmi. Piuhola discovered the oldest Finnish film poster (anno 1897, Vaasa), the first Finnish sound films, believed lost (made in 1929 by Lahyn-Filmi in Turku), and the Turku-based movies of the Kivimäki brothers from the 1940s.

Unique foreign nitrate prints rescued by Piuhola have been preserved at New York (The Museum of Modern Art), Washington (The Library of Congress), and Berlin (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv). The American-Filipino production Zamboanga (1937), shot on location in the Tausug language was believed lost until Piuhola sent his 16 mm print to Washington. When The Library of Congress repatriated a print to Manila it made front-page news in the Philippines.

"Piuhola's interests were admirably many-sided", said Sven Hirn, "but he had a good grip on the whole". Piuhola, having toured Finland during several decades, was a first-hand witness to fundamental changes. "Previously, people were more original", he observed. Until media made everybody alike.

I had the privilege to belong to Matti Piuhola's circle of friends, and the text above is the obituary I wrote about him to Helsingin Sanomat, slightly modified.

In Piuhola's childhood his family had had to endure hard times and devastating losses during the great depression of the 1930s. Matti Piuhola lost his illusions about human nature very early, but his spirit of enterprise was undaunted. Bringing the joy of cinema to people was to him more than business. It was his passion and vocation. He was a happy man when he showed a film.

The Matti Piuhola exhibition at Helsinki's Museum of the Moving Image is a tribute to many sides of Piuhola's work. There are fascinating samples of old film projectors. There are unique posters of local film screenings.

Most grateful I was of the insight in exhibiting early film posters from the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s, from the decades before the reign of the feature film. These posters are strong extra evidence that a feature film like format existed early on in compilations such as the ones about the Dreyfus affair and the Russian-Japanese war. The posters are very detailed: all the short films are listed, and there are often elaborate descriptions of each. They also help understand better why teachers around 1905 were often happy when children flocked to the cinema to see the wonders of the world, the nature, and history.

In the museum cinema Lauri also showed three of the early Finnish sound films (our counterpart to the Vitaphone shorts), two of which I had seen before, Raf. Ramstedt's Mun kehtoni on keinuellut [My Cradle Has Been Rocking] (1929) and Rönnbergska dansen [The Rönnberg Dance] (1929). Two years after making them Ramstedt met the most gruesome ending a ladies' man can imagine (his final woman did to him what Gérard Depardieu does to himself in La dernière femme). Laulu- ja tanssiesitys [A Song and Dance Number] (1929), reconstructed with music ("Ich hab' das Fräulein Helen baden seh'n") a year ago I now saw for the first time. The synch is perfect, and Eva Hahn and Helmi Vuorisola perform a delightful dance number. In Elämän maantiellä shown at the live cinema concert a week ago Lia Lae was supposed to play a dancer although she cannot dance. Here is the real deal.

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