Nine years of work culminated in the completion of Log Head (2015, 10 min), the final film in the Crazy May Trilogy. The two earlier parts of the trilogy are Up And About Again (2009, 9 min) and In A Musty, Misty Thicket (2012, 12 min). The common thread running through the trilogy consists of the psychological tensions, the absurdities and the atavistic behaviour portrayed in each piece. Throughout Crazy May, abandoned landscapes play central roles, speech is absent, inner worlds are exposed. A heightened awareness of one’s solitude is experienced as we journey through the metaphors of life. The trilogy points towards the ultimate exploration of the inner state of human beings, by combining black humour, cinematic special effects and anthropomorphic beings. A truly perfect celebration of madness.
Explosions, smoke, stunts, special effects make-up and prosthetics, along with artificial snow and blood, tell stories of otherness, depression, narcissism, alcoholism and dysfunctional families. The explosions stand for unexpressed, helpless rage. If we cannot mourn, we might revenge instead. Whilst the soulscapes may be dark, I have chosen humour as my method. I see my films as experimental comedies. The works in this trilogy are many-layered and open to multiple interpretations. The narratives are open-ended and can be understood in various ways. My films invite the viewer to free-associate and be playful in discovering their own interpretations.
The reception of a work cannot be controlled, nor would I wish to do so. The genders and ages of the main characters remain deliberately undefined in each film. The central characters in the trilogy are a Datsun 100A, two badly-behaved women, and a birch log. My works have been shown in hundreds of venues in 40 different countries – in exhibitions, at biennials and festivals, on television and at various other arts events. Alternative spaces have included a parking garage, a punk club, a drive-in theatre, an old folks home, a Mediaeval castle, the roof of a sky scraper and several sports stadiums. My work has been shown in Canada more than any other country. These showings have netted two first prizes: at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal, and at the Toronto Urban Film Festival, judged by Guy Maddin.
Log Head is an experimental comedy about nature within us. Log Head takes an absurdist look at our dark side whilst asking where a human being ends and nature begins. Log Head is a surreal and psychoanalytical film about a human being experimenting with living as a tree. The synopsis of Log Head:
Log Head is an experimental comedy about a birch log
with a soul and a pair of skis.
When Log Head is faced with the final chop, it takes to its skis.
Will Log Head’s escape be blocked?
The main character is a half-metre high birch log called Log Head. It moves around a snowy forest on red mini skis, with its lumberjack hat on its head. Its torso is sawn in half, and it has a gnarled crotch and a wound left by a chainsaw. Log Head has special skills: it moves, becomes moved, and moves others. Its soul is recognizable: it is envious of the handsome and wholesome Juniper. In an area of destroyed forest its heart breaks and it tries to unite with Stump. Log Head is sensual, and even temperamental: it gets angry when ignored, and in emotional turmoil it explodes, spurts out smoke and changes colour.
At the beginning of the film, Log Head runs away because it is afraid of being terminally split. The antennae and feelers of its emotions are the flaps and strings of its fur hat, which fly back when it is being pursued, spin around when it is excited, or droop when it is feeling disheartened. Finally, exhausted by the long journey and all the events of the day, Log Head finds itself by a river and takes a nap. The red mini-skis carry on shining red. The colour red runs through the film – in Log Head’s skis as well as some deathcap mushrooms, explosions and a river.
I have been lucky enough to make all three films with the help of dedicated film professionals, all in accordance with my precise plans. The creation of the trilogy was made financially possible with funding from YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company, AVEK The Promotion Centre of Audiovisual Culture, Arts Promotion Centre Finland, and Finnish Cultural Foundation – a big thank you to all of you! Thanks are also due for artist residencies at The Banff Centre in Canada, AiRSandnes in Norway, as well as at the Saari Residence maintained by Kone Foundation in Finland.
This is what the members of the core team said when I asked them, long after the filming had ended, what their personal feelings about Log Head were.
Assistant director and editor Ville Väänänen, who operated Log Head:
Log Head could be a hybrid between a Teletubby and dwarf, with magic powers and the instincts of an animal.
Cinematographer Sari Aaltonen:
It is a kitten, a child’s imagination, the adventure stories of a grandfather.
Special effects designer Konsta Mannerheimo:
Log Head is a survivor, a child running away, someone in need of help, but also a pervert, all at the same time. It has a wide emotional scale of sadness and hatred, and it is yearning to express its true self, but keeps being frustrated in its efforts.
Sound designer Kyösti Väntänen:
Log Head is an individual and a person, just like anyone else, like any character in any film. Impossible to figure out whether it is a man or a woman.
Stills photographer and camera assistant Jarkko Liikanen:
I reckon Log Head is a guy moving into a city from the country, so he is clueless about all the hassle around him, but in the end he kind of finds peace, things might work out okay, a promise of more to come.
Yle Finnish Broadcasting New Kino producer Sari Volanen:
Log Head is not old or young, man or woman, not even a refugee. Log Head is just Log Head.
Fanny Malmberg, for Filmjournalen, wrote a piece entitled “Of Nature, Humans and Human Nature about Crazy May”. Malmberg saw Log Head as an orphan. I found her interpretation very moving. Tens of thousands of Finnish children were sent to safety in Sweden during the Second World War. After the war 55000 found themselves fatherless. In the last few months more than 32000 people have arrived in Finland, running away from the horrors of war in Iraq, Syria and Afganistan. Among those refugees have been many children.
Children taken into state care are children abandoned within their families. Log Head could also be the orphaned child inside all of us. The pain is hidden.
So is Log Head a woman, a man, a boy, a girl, an animal, a comic object or just a birch log? I have already come across all of those interpretations, and indeed it was my intention to portray a genderless, ageless and neutral state of existing. Sometimes Log Head is a child, sometimes an animal, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. Log Head’s identity encompasses both male and female characteristics. Could it also be an androgyne, a third gender individual who does not define of him- or herself as male nor female? An androgyne takes on whichever social gender seems most expedient at any particular moment. Personally I find dualistic gender divisions insensitive, inflexible, oppressive and depressing.
According to the French psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, a subject is never constant, it remains divided and multi-layered. The true subject is always the subconscious subject. Kristeva is calling for a more critical attitude regarding one’s identity. She maintains that our identities consist of both belonging to, and being outside of, the group in relation to which we attempt to define ourselves.
The Finnish language lacks a grammatical gender-specific personal pronoun for ’he’ or ’she’. Both are covered with the gender-neutral word hän. The Swedish language is similar to English in this respect, but the Swedes have recently invented a gender-neutral personal pronoun, hen, with the aim of helping to achieve not only gender equality but also gender neutrality. Every human being is permanently in a state of change. All of us carry our past within us – our wounds, dreams, experiences and feelings. At the manuscript stage Log Head was a petulant toddler as well as someone menopausal, and in the finished film it is also driven by its love hormones. The male menopause is discussed even less than the female one. One viewer felt that Log Head was a feminist free spirit, able to show its feelings and its desires, as well as its darker side of hatred, envy and revenge.
Abjection, according to Julia Kristeva, is terror and loathing towards any philosophical entity that threatens to break down the boundary between The Ego and The Other, and between subject and object. Life-threatening abjection must be removed.
One viewer saw Log Head as a bachelor and a James Bond, out to find a woman, with his ego and his hormones riding high – in a spirit magic realism though. Another said Log Head reminded him of his army days. A third one thought Log Head was an adolescent boy, and a fourth saw in Log Head the animation character SpongeBob SquarePants. A fifth thought of Log Lady, the lovable eccentric in Twin Peaks.
One might ask why so many of my films have something other than a human being in the main role. These have included – in addition to Log Head and the Datsun 100A – swans, ducks, a river, bottles, explosions, frogs, french fries, garbage cans, post boxes, as well as some less well-known celebrities instead of stars. When I watch a blockbuster movie I often find my attention distracted by the glamorousness of the movie stars. Actors upstaging the films they appear in?
Research has shown that trees of certain species are capable of communicating with each other via a network of connected roots, regarding matters such as nutrients and the shedding of leaves. Roots may join together even when there is plenty of space, as opposed to the Darwinian struggle for existence. This appears to be a manifestation of sharing-is-caring – not everything is based on competition after all. Some trees also communicate via the air, signalling to each other when to exude more tannin in order to prevent their leaves being eaten. The part of a tree visible above ground is only one third of the total mass of it.
Log Head makes a stand for forests and for nature in general. When it is on the run in a forest, a beautiful virgin landscape of hills is visible on one side, but on the other there are signs of intensive forestry. A clear-cut area there equates to genocide in Log Head’s mind. Log Head can also act as a platform for dialogue regarding climate change and deforestation. In other words, Log Head is a film about the environment. The character of Log Head is a symbol of the spirit of the forest. Log Head is related to the goblins of traditional Finnish forest mythology. Finnish people have been referred to as people of the forest. More than 70% of the land in Finland is forest.
In this film skiing is a metaphor for living, and trees have a spiritual presence.
Prop person Karin Pennanen, who operated Log Head:
I remember my anthropologist father playing Father Christmas, with a birch bark mask on his face, a fur hat with earflaps on his head, and wearing a lambskin fur coat. This Father Christmas looked scary, definitely not a Coca Cola Santa. Log Head in the form of the spirit of the forest is searching for and longing for the last primeval forest, after all the forests have been cut down. Log Head, a homeless refugee, has drifted into living as a nomad. Even the spirit of the forest has been forced to wander around the earth. Log Head is rootless in many senses.
In the past silver birch bark was used for making bags, footwear, clothing and food containers. We do not have a long tradition of urban culture yet, so in a sense we have only recently climbed down from the trees. It has also been said that without skis there would not be a Finland. In the past many activities, such as hunting, going to school, going to war, were only possible on skis during the winter. Skiing has also brought Finland glory and shame in the form of Olympic medals and doping scandals.
The forest is seen as both sacred and profane. The forest is where we go to make love and to die, to gather berries and mushrooms and to hunt. Doctors in Finland send depressed people for walks in the forest. Exercise in the forest reduces symptoms of depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, stress, irritability and anxiety. It also inspires a sense of community and an increase in generosity. Words connected with forests, trees and skis appear in many expressions – including swear words – in the Finnish language. When things aren’t going well you are said to be heading for a collision with a tree. Finnish ways of saying ‘fuck off’ include ‘go ski into a spruce tree’ and ‘go ski into a cunt’!
One particular scene in the film has attracted the most attention. This is where Log Head catches sight of a clear-cut tract of forest, and attempts to unite with Stump. Log Head is longing for its lost family, parents, friendship, roots, its own missing piece. This desolate meeting place has been interpreted as mass murder, the apocalypse and a battlefield. Log Head yearns for contact, or even a warm hug. Whether Log Head will achieve what it wants – I have left that, too, open.
The Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
The forest is an academy, now destroyed by barbarians.
The world premiere of Log Head took place in 2015 in Montreal, in the competition at the A Class Festival du Nouveau Cinema. Programmer Philippe Gajan says in the catalogue:
The return of our 2009 Silver Wolf winner (Up and About Again),
the queen of anthropomorphism and of exciting and, shall we say, off-the-wall adventures.
The third part of her trilogy leads us on the trail of a log with a mustache…
The front of Log Head’s body resembles the female front in my opinion, but here it was viewed as a moustache. Nicolas Girard Deltruc, the artistic director of the Festival thought this:
Union with Stump stands for union with the whole Universe. Log Head, having suffered much hardship, wanders around the now decimated forest, desperately searching for the right Stump, because it wants its DNA to live, and the forest to be returned to its living self. When Log Head finds the right Stump, it achieves union and ejaculates. The French word for a tree stump is ’souche’, and the term stem cell is ’cellules souches’; both are able to replicate and renew themselves.
The European premiere of Log Head took place at IDFA 2015 (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) in the ParaDocs series, the showcase for experimental documentaries and documentary experiments. I am pleased to report that this was my fourth time and sixth film at IDFA.
In this mythological documentary about a human tree, experimental animator Maarit Suomi-Väänänen equips a little birch stump with a pair of skis and a balaclava, and sends it gliding through a forest where others of its kind have just been felled. Wisps of smoke and mist suggest that the executioners have only just left, but the stump appears to have revenge on its mind. Skiing, falling and skiing on again, the little guy moves among the felled trees, sometimes pausing to ponder a particular stump. Is he shedding a tear? Is this perhaps a family member who has been brought down, or is he sad because of the inevitable fate he is facing himself? Groaning, he takes flight. Against the backdrop of this forest war zone, with the sound of chainsaws and explosions, we genuinely begin to wonder whether trees deserve more sympathy. Suomi-Väänänen creates the atmosphere of a cartoon film by using marionette animation and reversing the footage. A somewhat absurdist reflection on nature within us all.
In this catalogue text Log Head is seen wearing a balaclava, maybe even shedding a tear. Viewers had this to say after the sold-out IDFA show: Thanks for challenging our ideas of the boundaries of documentary. Log Head is raising thoughts about what a documentary can be and Endearing, absurd, and perplexing – a genuine work of surrealism!
The year 2016 saw the Finnish premiere of Log Head at the DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival, and the U.S. premiere at the Experiments In Cinema Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company will be broadcasting Log Head nationwide.
The film ends with Log Head, now red, arriving at a river and seeing something red flash by in the water. Log Head throws itself down on the ground, but is it to sunbathe, to take a nap, or to draw its last breath?
Personally I see the red colour in the flowing water as a reminder of the impermanence of everything. Neither joy nor sorrow last, karma is all that remains. The red karma of the explosion attaches itself to Log Head, just as our actions leave a mark, a stigma. The red colour has been interpreted as a comment on the pollution of the environment, as well as blood and an echo of lost love. One viewer thought Log Head would be a more mature adult once it wakes up from its hangover. The film ends on a note of hope, with the last rays of the sun resting on Log Head. The end is both happy and sad; the old has gone, the new is here, but the plastic is staying.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something red.
Allegorically, Log Head is about class divisions. Life is not fair. One becomes Log Head, another is free to grow whole as Juniper does, others are felled without so much as a by-your-leave. Must we accept this, or could we change things?
No trees were harmed in the making of this film.
Maarit Suomi-Väänänen is author, film director, media artist, artist film-maker, screenwriter, video-maker and photographer, editor, producer and woman from Finland. www.maaritsuomi.fi
This article will be published in Girlfriend: An Ovular Peek into She-ness and Cinema (Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA) 2016, the Yearbook#2 produced by Experiments in Cinema.
A version of this article is published in AVEK Magazine (Finland) 1/2016.
Photos: Jarkko Liikanen
Translation: Iiris Pursiainen