Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 2

Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan all encounter a similar type of crisis in their ability to pursue their art. The effect on them as creative individuals, and their attempts at solutions, however, are very different.

For Keaton, it’s the encroachment of the studio system on his practitioners’ realm, that space in which vaudeville evolves into silent comedy: he first embraces silence, then, as the talkies come in, he is enveloped by it, and by alcoholism.

For Carrington it is the cataclysmic impact of the war on her attempt to set up an artistic and emotional home with Ernst in Saint Martin d’Ardèche, which leads to her breakdown, and the terrible experiences at the hands of civil and medical authorities she describes in Down Below. Alongside this sits her understanding that the Surrealists in general and Ernst in particular are no more able than her father to regard a woman artist as their equal. She can only ever – to the dominant gaze of her day – be Secondary.

With Milligan, the pressure of solo scriptwriting, combined with his increasing difficulty in engaging with the organisational mindset of the BBC, leads to depression, ’deep narcosis’, divorce, ECT, and regular hospitalisation.

The absurd worlds they create for themselves are therefore at once impediments to their abilities to deal with overweening structures, and refuges from those structures. These creations are simultaneously desired by controlling bodies, and mysteriously inaccessible to them, leading both to hostility and rejection.

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton’s last film in charge of his own production company, the cyclone tears away all vestiges of the small town world which has been comprehensively rejecting the hero. It also allows Bill Jr. to become genuinely heroic, breaking down the rivalry between his father and the unscrupulous tycoon John James King by rescuing them both. As King’s daughter, Kitty, is the film’s love interest, all can end happily, though in fact the box office disagreed – Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a flop, and the creative stasis of MGM Studios beckoned.

Because the cyclone is Keaton’s creation, it is at once a destructive force and his habitat -simultaneously constructed and natural. It is this at-homeness in all three artists with a deliberately engineered, genuinely dangerous, apparent chaos that the studio system, the BBC, and indeed, for decades, the art world, cannot comprehend or reproduce, only commission, patronise, control, censor, and, finally, commodify.

As the cyclone takes complete control, Bill Jr clings to a tree for shelter, only for the entire tree plus a clinging Keaton to be uprooted and fly back and forth over town and river. You think both of the witch’s broom and the tricksy prophesy of the Weird Sisters in MacBeth: ‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him…’

Something simultaneously comic and uncanny is happening, and it may just be the same oddness that drew Shakespeare to his image of the walking wood. Walter Benjamin wrote about how the work of art generated such sensations in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, encapsulating its uniqueness and authenticity as ‘aura’ – only to exclude it from the recorded image:

‘…for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which is on the stage, emanates from MacBeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public.’

What Keaton realised is that a type of aura can be generated in film by focussing on types of authenticity: seeking location shots, performing one’s own stunts, and honouring the strange logic of the cinematic image.

This is, textually, what Shakespeare did in relation to his sources. He read about MacBeth in Holinshed, who in turn got his account from Hector Boece. Bellenden’s translation of Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum into Scots reads as follows: ‘[Makbeth] had sic confidence in his fretis, that he belevis fermely nevir to be vincust, quhil the wod of Birnane war brocht to Dunsinnane…’ – or, as The Courier would no doubt have it: Dundee Man Inspires Bard.

By a similarly twisting route, the weirdness in Shakespeare’s image may be behind another of Milligan’s great lines from The Goon Show: ‘We must get to the woods before the trees get there!’

Meanwhile, in ‘The Royal Summons’, after playing draughts all night on a terrace lined with cypress trees, with a cabinet intent on establishing who will assassinate their mad queen, one of Leonora Carrington’s unidentified narrators is identified as the winner by an unknown voice:

‘“Who? Me?” I said.

“Yes, you,” the voice replied, and I noticed that it was the tallest cypress speaking.

I’m going to escape, I thought, and began to run in the direction of the avenue. But the cypress tore itself out of the earth by the roots, scattering dirt in all directions, and began to follow me. It’s so much larger than me, I thought and stopped. The cypress stopped too. All its branches were shaking horribly – it was probably quite a while since it had last run.

“I accept,” I said, and the cypress returned slowly to its hole.’

All three artists seem to be presenting variations on MacBeth’s horrified insight as Malcolm’s army approaches, bearing the branches of trees to disguise their numbers, ‘I pull in resolution, and begin/To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth.’

For them, however, the true fiend is normality, which allows us to assume there is a sort of narrative continuity to its nature, when in fact the cyclone, the war, the breakdown, the portable forests, are always inherent to its structures. While narrative itself, with its hoped-for resolutions, catharses, and ambiguously unending happy ever afters, is always and only our imposition upon it.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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