The Seventh Brings Return

HANNAH COWLEY – WRITER/DIRECTOR/ACTOR

 

“All movement is accomplished in six stages.
And the seventh brings return.”

‘Fu/Return’, The I Ching.

As a late June gloom passed into July 2012, an occasion not widely marked occurred on the seventh: The sixth commemoration of the death of Pink Floyd founder Roger Keith ‘Syd’ Barrett. Observing this anniversary for that lost icon whose bloom  (not unlike a latter day Keats – potent, unique – and vanquished before maturation)  led me back to his work: particularly the unhinged brilliance of his solo material, produced after members of the Floyd had long since locked him out of the studio. Both Keats’ death and Barrett’s descent into madness represent a departure so violent, sudden and inexplicably tragic it is easy to understand the flourishing cult of mystery and quasi-beatification surrounding them. Having pored over the beauty and tragedy of Keat’s letters and Syd Barrett’s diaries, paintings and lyrics – I would vouch that this cult of beatification is not unjustified. However, there may be a distinction separating these doomed poets which raises a salient point for all artists, particularly aspiring ones – and perhaps now – in an era where the barriers that used to inhibit artists from being able to create in their chosen medium have largely disappeared, it occurs that this is especially relevant now to filmmakers. Following the fashion of a binary encoding that seeks to conform humanity’s vast diversity into “us” or “them,” it occurs that there are those artists who seek validation from their audience, and those who do not. Is it possible to still be an artist, sensitive to all things and values, and yet dogmatically need validation by way of fame? Does that lessen the validity, or purity of the art?What is fame as it relates to art, why does it matter? I’ve always been biased in sentiment towards those who create for art’s sake, and not the vainglory of a fawning fanbase. Yet perhaps that attitude is immature, as well as curmudgeonly. After all, one of my most revered favourites was the delicate John Keats.  Knowing full well that the tuberculosis that had claimed his brothers was drawing close on him, Keats had written beseechingly:

“So let it be known…I have loved the principle of beauty in all things and if I had had time would have made myself remembered.”

Keats died in Rome, penniless, anonymous and virtually alone – having been unable to marry his great love Fanny Brawne (the inspiration of much of his life’s work – and the subject of Jane Campion’s breathtaking film ‘Bright Star’) because he hadn’t the means. He was twenty-five years old.   If he were to have known – even momentarily –  the significance his name and work would subsequently acquire, I hope it would have made his final days less lonely.  Largely attributable to the persevering efforts of friends Byron and Shelley – Keats became known as one of the greatest British poets, decades after his death. Reflecting upon his doomed last weeks in Rome, and the agonizing promise of his only partially fulfilled literary genius,  his sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be” bears a chilling portent of what was to come.

 .

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
 .

Fortunately for literature, Keats work survived his present-day anonymity and managed to flourish into the canonical position it currently maintains, safe among the giants, nearly two hundred years after his death.  There can be no reliable estimate of the scores of other unknown greats whose work never availed itself of the attention of the right people necessary to ensure its survival over wantonly destructive centuries. What is left for posterity is indubitably a paltry offering compared to what has been lost and forgotten, and of those who managed to attain recognition in their day – the vast majority have been reduced to mere footnotes.  One of the most striking figures at the turn of the 19th Century, Gertrude Bell, the explorer, cartographer and stateswoman who was more instrumental than Lawrence of Arabia in helping establish the pre-Gulf War state of Iraq, is now so diminished in reputation that to the general public she is an almost entirely obscure figure (at least until a long overdue biopic emerges: allegedly, thankfully, Werner Herzog is onto it!). The “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt was once considered irrefutably “the most famous actress ever known” yet her fame is now reserved for scholars of fin de siecle Europe, or enthusiasts of early cinema.  This kaleidoscope of faded stars speaks much of the vagaries of fame, and the importance of leaving behind work which speaks less to the age, rather than the ages. In the poem “Ill Luck,” Baudelaire wrote:

 .

Far from the grave of celebrity, my heart, like a muffled drum,
taps out its funereal thrum towards some lonely cemetery.
Many a long buried gem, sleeps in shadowy oblivion,
far from pickaxes and drills.
In profound solitude set, many a flower,
with regret, its sweet perfume spills.
  .

But is it a question of luck? Is that the sole principle determining those who rest forever ‘with regret’ in the apathetic pall of obscurity, and those whose live on through their words and deeds, celebrated and cherished ad infinitum? It is perhaps even more relevant now, whereby even a casual conversation can be recorded with the means to ensure its immortality, if not its notoriety. If it can be made, it can be seen, it can be heard. The question is, by how many people and for how long? Will icons of our age survive their era? Will Lady Gaga and Madonna be reduced to footnotes, studied in an socio-historical context simply because in their day they had a bigger population of fans?  Referring to the anarchist-electro pop band The KLF (who infamously quit the business by firing machine gun blanks in the audience and dumping a dead sheep onstage at the Brit awards before deleting their entire back catalogue), the question was considered: what happens to footnotes in art? Do they gather dust with Ashton Gardner and Dyke, The Vapors, and the Utah Saints, or does their influence live on in unseen ways, permeating future cultures? The KLF themselves answered: ‘No, but the dust they gather is of the rarest quality. Each speck a universe awaiting creation, Big Bang just a dawn away’.” Perhaps each ‘long buried gem’ is a universe awaiting exploration, perhaps someone will be discovered, someone unknown to our own present society, symbolizing our art and cultural age long after their deaths, like our earnest hero Keats?  Considering we have little control over what will be remembered, the race amongst artists spurred by the prospect of some kind of immortality seems futile.

Be sure to read Hannah’s other Film Courage post

The Giant Sieve

No doubt it is generally  – though not uniformly true – that artists undertaking a real engagement with the world of media and arts desire success and visibility.  Addressing this directly Orwell commented “I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
However, in a world where social media bloats and distorts the significance of having an ‘opinion’  it seems that the ‘cream’ rising to the ‘top’ seem less concerned with exposing corruption and iniquity and more concerned with how large a hearing they can amass. Indeed, how close a corollary this has to art that is actually worth paying attention to is often of inverse proportion. As far as Keats was determined to be ‘remembered,’ leaving a physical impression of his short and passionate life as a meteor grazing across the sky pummels the earth after free-falling through our atmosphere,  somewhere on the other end of the spectrum may sit Syd Barrett, whose aspirations toward public visibility and engagement may not have been similarly determined.  This is a radical view for me to take, as I have long mourned his fateful – yet allegedly deliberate –  exchanging of “a walk on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage.”  In fact the shrine like monuments to these lost poets is often synonymous with the romantic ideal that those elite few possessed ‘inevitable greatness.’  This ideal is paired with and fueled by that analogous myth, that of those ‘discovered,’ pulled out of the muddy waters of obscurity by the glowing, omniscient hand of fate.

In one of Barrett’s last, relatively coherent interviews lies an enigmatic observation: “I wasn’t always this introverted.”  In light of the mythology that by age 23 he had been acid-burned into mental oblivion, this statement could be a poignant addendum to the folklore tales of crushing mandrax tablets on his head and locking girlfriends in cupboards for days on end. The inward-turned artist lost in the planetarium of his own mind. It is also no doubt an inspiration for the countless hordes of fifteen-minute pretenders who mumble about their neuroses while hiding behind thick eyeliner and carefully styled hair on late-night talk shows.  It is the classic expression of the reluctant star, thrust by their inevitable genius into a spotlight which stuns and burns. In the seemingly endless tradition of splitting Abraxas, or bifurcating the world into ‘us’ or ‘them,’ ‘this’ or ‘that,’ there are certainly artists or ‘stars’ who play out their celebrity as either extroverts bursting for success and reveling in the attendant glories of infamy (I salute you, Liberace) or those who suffer it – often with nauseating insincerity – as a terrible intrusion, a burden corroding normality in which the fawned-over protagonist becomes a “celebrated victim of their fame.” Given the context that Barrett was effectively out of the music business by virtue of his own disintegration by 1970 – long before the adoption of trendily manic (and highly visible) self-destruction –  he is less likely to be a candidate standing among the boring (and whoring) hordes that followed with their cliched crash and burn ennui.

In fact another interpretation of the intriguing “I wasn’t always this introverted” statement -given hefty substantiation by his Floyd replacement, David Gilmour – suggests that latent mental instability aside, Syd really may not have desired the life that abundant success delivered him: given today’s general desperation for ‘artists’ to attain fame at any cost, this seems like a surprising observation.  Despite his delight at their initial success, grinning for cheap publicity shots of the band high-kicking on the street and declaring ‘We want to be pop stars,’ within a few months EMI pressure to churn out commercial material had Syd decrying them in the music press.  A brazen move for a young, untested band.  It would be another two years of increasingly erratic, demonstrably bizarre behavior before Barrett was out. Clearly, latent mental illness – or at the very least mental illness wrought by his acid years – is the blanket explanation for Barrett bowing out of music. However Gilmour’s insight is fascinating, because at their heart they identify a struggle I have noticed in many artist contemporaries.  Of the most creative, prolific writers I know, the best seem loathe to try and actually galvanize their novels, songs or scripts into ‘action.’   In terms of film, where once inhibiting factors may have been the enormous cost of film stock, crews and film processing – making the film industry a casino for the landed gentry and nouveau riche industrialists, accessible technological has virtually eliminated these barriers. A virtuoso of this new world of potential is the acclaimed British director Bernard Rose. Auteur behind the cult film ‘Candyman’ and ‘Immortal Beloved’ Bernard famously bowed out of the ancien regime of the studio system to shoot whatever he wanted as the idea took him, be it on a large or small scale, whatever is appropriate – or permissible – for the production. “At last the dream of Welles and Mellies can be realized. A cinema of personal imagination not bullied and battered by corporate troglodytes.” Glancing at his work in the last five years, it seems to not be simply a dream but a manifest ethos: Rose has helmed $10+ million pictures and SAG ULB’s (at times, in the same year!). Despite wild differentiations in the types of films he makes, and the budgets that attend them, it would be extremely unlikely to find him sitting at the Chateau Marmont bemoaning a lack of opportunity to make something happen because the ‘right people’ haven’t come to the party and financed his project. He is a renegade with an attitude of practical sedition, go and make your film or shut up.

Considering this new found freedom it could be claimed that it has never been easier to separate ‘artists’ from those who just talk about it; however, including the ‘Syd’ factor prevents drawing such a clear division.  Given the pervasive effect of introversion and self-doubt as it applies to artists generally – and in this case filmmakers specifically – there is an implicit tragedy in those who now have the freedom to write/film and do not, or do not dogmatically follow the aggressive steps necessary to ensure their work is noted. It is often those whose timidity and self-deprecation prevent them from ensuring their work is visible to the public who make the most interesting, unique art; and yet those who bleat the loudest about what they have made may often lack the nuanced sensitivity of their more introspective counterparts.  Oftentimes as consumers it seems we are confronted by an unavoidable flotilla of  “art” drenched in narcissism and repetition.  Trends in music and film whereby the ‘artist’ central to the piece is primarily concerned with creating a ‘brand’ rather than contributing ideas seems more inescapable now than ever before.  Given that this is a film blog for an audience of artists and filmmakers, perhaps it’s time to appropriate Tarkovsky for a weigh in, “The director’s task is to recreate life, its movement, its contradictions, its dynamic and conflicts. It is his duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen, even if not everyone finds that truth acceptable. Of course an artist can lose his way, but even his mistakes are interesting provided they are sincere.” It is this translucent sincerity,  visible in the introspective pains of  the Sylvia Plaths and Kurt Cobains, and the bold pragmatism and determination of filmmakers like Bernard Rose, which both stand, in different places, on the same field: art for art’s sake.

Ingmar Bergman once commented that art lost its basic creative impetus once it was severed from worship, that artists formerly remained unknown, bequeathing their work to the glory of God – and that now, art “lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself”. It is an interesting idea, especially in this age of craven individualism and multi-platform commercial exposure.  Asked about his intentions as a voice in cinema, Bergman said “I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it,” reflecting upon a bygone era where artists lived and died without being “ more or less important than other artisans,” contributing their works under the mantle of total anonymity.  Exemplifying this modality is the story of the great cathedral of Chartres, which, after being struck by lightning and burnt to the ground, was rebuilt by thousands of people – master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, priests, burghers. To this day no one knows who built the cathedral of Chartres, they all remained anonymous.  This ideal of the collective building of the cathedral – art for art’s sake (or “God’s” sake in reference to the cathedral) – appealed to Bergman, and it seems utterly radical in the context of this era, where “we walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.”

Yet as much as the strident egalitarian in me would wish to identify wholly with Bergman and the ‘collective’, it is Keats – who expressly craved the validation of an audience – and those artists who write of their pain and isolation as though they alone in the world experience it, who crush and mesmerize me. In a chorus of plaintive isolation, there is unity. From the perspective of an artist whose mineral constitution speaks to this oeuvre, Emily Dickinson summated:

 .

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
  .

The inimitable playwright Alan Bennet wrote in his play ‘The History Boys,’ “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” Despite years having elapsed since I saw that play, the idea remains intact, the dead live on in what they leave for the ages, through a written word, a sculpted body or a note of music. Perhaps that is what haunts me about war, the dead carry only violence in their leaving, a suppressed cry, a drowned voice.  Art, as in all creation, sits in direct opposition to death, and sometimes, shepherded by the right people over the right generations, it can avoid it almost entirely.

As for the art of Syd Barrett, whether he chased anonymity after the first shock of success because he “cracked” or because he was congenitally predisposed to be more interested in the workings of his own mind rather than the opinions of others, he is one lost genius whose work may be resolutely found for a long time to come.  Interestingly, his sister maintained that Syd never understood why people made such a fuss over his musical work after the fact,  his joy was in the creating of it.  Perhaps standing alone, devoid of the conceit which demands praise and validation (no matter how sincerely or justifiably sought) was an artist, bruising his hands on the heavy stones of Chartres with a smile on his face. Up until his death, that July day, Syd was a devoted painter,  “but once he’s finished a painting, he burns it.”

1 I Ching: 24. Fu/Return (The Turning Point)
2 Keats, John, When I Have Fears I May Cease To Be, The Complete Poems, Penguin Books.
3 KLF, Information Sheet 23, KLF Communications.
4 Orwell, George, Why I Write, Penguin Books, 2005.
5 Waters, Roger, Lyric from Wish You Were Here, Wish You Were Here, EMI, 1975.
6Rock Mick, The Madcap Who Named Pink Floyd, Rolling Stone, Dec 1971.
7 Manson, Marilyn, Lyric from The Fight Song, Holy Wood, Interscope, 2001.
8 Rose, Bernard, origin unknown.
9Bennet, Alan, The History Boys, Macmillan Press, London, 2006.
10 Male, Andrew, The Lost Art of a Lost Artist, Mojo Magazine, Feb 2000.

ABOUT HANNAH:

Hannah Cowley is an actor/writer originally from London; she recently filmed Illeana Douglas’s “Easy to Assemble” series and wrapped John Stockwell’s “In The Blood” (2013).

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