"Their universe is far smaller than they know, a trope in Scottish comedy which is now beginning to look fundamental." So says Scottish based film critic Mark Cousins, writing in The Sunday Herald. Is there something in Scottish film comedy (and especially exemplified in Bill Forsyth's work) that suggests a small as opposed to a large comic form, and yet a smallness that can contain a much larger perspective than most so-called big comedies? If we think of the theft of ninety-odd kitchen sinks in Forsyth's That Sinking Feeling, or even the casual highway robbery in the mediocre Restless Natives, we can begin to see how a certain vein in Scottish comedy works. In each instance humour is derived not just out of the incompetence of the action, but also out of the apparent lack of ambition in the deed. There is a great Ian Hamilton Finlay artwork that sums up this Scottish attitude which goes, "small is quite beautiful". Now obviously those looking towards an independent Scotland might want Scottish cinema to suggest a larger form, a more ambitious canvas on which to express its sense of self. But can we say that Scottish cinema is miniaturist - that its humour so often lies in the smallness of things, whether the characters are aware of this smallness or not?
Sometimes this smallness is offered within a different sense of largeness than one's ego and Scotland's collective, if you like, ego in the world. This is especially evident perhaps in Fulton Mackay's character in Local Hero, where he talks about the immediate importance of working the beach, over the more abstract notion of a successful Scotland based on the oil industry. Everyone wants to sell-up but not Ben. Many of the locals may claim Ben's being selfish, looking after his own tiny concerns, but it is fairer to say Ben's actually looking after Scotland's interests and more generally the world's. He is simultaneously interested in his own day to day work looking after the beach, and the wider ecological importance of the sanctity of the land. This is in some ways a reverse of Cousins' claim that "their universe is far smaller than they know", and yet not at all inconsistent with it. It is the smallness of the immediate action and the concern for the wider world that can give perspective to one's place within that world. So perhaps we can go beyond Cousins' casual comment about Scottish characters' universe being smaller than they know, and say what is important is a perspectivist aspect to Scottish comedy.
This may help explain the relative absence of wit in Scottish film comedy, and its insignificance altogether in Forsyth's work. There is little space for humour based on the put down, on one-upmanship, or on verbal banter, where the anthropocentricity would seem to jar with a perspectival approach that says any line of dialogue is echoed as opposed to registered. For in the echoing line, humour reverberates beyond the character, creating a sense of ironic detachment that suggests any put down is secondary to its containment within a broader echo. It is there throughout the Scottish comedy, Four Eyes, where the bullish Big Al has all the best lines but we're not supposed to find them funny, so much as finding his misguided belief that they are clever, funny. So for example when he tells his poor, put-upon salesman that he should wear glasses because they make him look fifteen per cent more intelligent, we're left laughing more at the smugness of Big Al's wise-crack. This may at first seem like a registered gag, if we take into account its similarity with numerous similar ones in a film like the Australian comedy The Castle: where one dumb character says that his house is worth almost as much now as when it was bought twenty years ago. This is still however an anthropecentric comedy because the viewer very much registers the stupidity of the statement. Humour based on the malapropism works in a similar way. The character is ignorant but the audience is knowing. In much Scottish comedy, and especially in Forsyth's work, the knowingness is removed for the indeterminate and reverberating. Thus Big Al's comments aren't especially stupid, and certainly not erroneous, as the characters' comments in The Castle'soften are, and also those of a character offering a malapropism.
Often the put down of the registered gag impacts upon the character being put down. One reason why Mrs Brown finally feels more of an English film (and English comedy is capable of great wit) than a Scottish one is in the way that it offers registered lines rather than echoing ones. When for example Billy Connolly's Mr Brown corrects a character's use of who when he means whom, this impacts on the other character, it doesn't reverberate beyond the 'clever' one who offers the line and the line's receiver. It is contained anthropocentrically. One character corrects the other's grammatical error, and the put down is registered.
But usually in a certain kind of comedy if the superiority of one character over another is present, it isn't registered anthropocentically, but contained cosmically, where one character's ego - often an outsider's - clashes with an insider's more contextual perspective. In The Maggie, for example, we have the contrast between the American business tycoon and the skipper of the eponymous run down tugger that is taking his cargo along to the American's Scottish countryside home. Initially Calvin B. Marshall wants to protect his cargo and also his reputation. His company is involved in international freight transportation. If his competitors saw that he was relying on a rusty old boat to take his cargo he'd be a laughing stock, and so he gives chase. But by the end of the film the cargo ends up in the water, and Marshall's learnt a few low-key lessons about absorbing life instead of always trying to dictate it: that other things matter more than one's cargo and one's reputation. What happens here is that the perspective is bigger than the characters. In one amusing scene the Maggie skipper MacTaggart talks about outfoxing Marshall, saying Marshall will expect them to go to one place, so they'll go to another, but then Marshall will probably think they'll have thought of that and so they go to the original place. And so on. The film's point isn't so much about thinking ahead, but of the absurdity of trying to do so. Just as we've said the idea of wit has little place in Scottish cinema, might we say the same of out-manoeuvring others? In each instance are they not based on ego and not enough on perspective?
Bill Forsyth is a great filmmaker of perspectivism, and though many accuse him of coming too obviously in the wake of Ealing comedies (of which The Maggie was one, Whisky Galore another), it is more fruitful to see Forsyth as the filmmaker who has taken from Ealing what was needed to reveal a certain Scottish humorousness. In a fine profile on the director in National Heroes, Alexander Walker reckoned "his observation is directly taken from life, then conceptually refracted through the prism of his own quirky Scottish nature." Walker talks about Forsyth going on a radio show and saying he deliberately chose the soggy toast so he wouldn't be crunching on air. Walker says it is a line delivered dead seriously, "whose mockery was heard by the speaker's inward ear. It was typical of the double-takes, aural and visual" in Forsyth's work. There is no superior irony in Forsyth's films: he is more drawn to an indeterminate irony where the speaker speaks with a quizzicality towards his own words that the listener must then determine, but that the determination is almost shared. This runs contrary to the general notion of irony where the speaker offers with certitude a line that says the contrary of what the speaker means, but that the listener may take the wrong way. In such irony there is a notion of certitude; in Forsyth's indeterminate irony neither speaker nor listener can claim to know what was really meant.
It is in such an approach that humour resides much more in feeling than in motivation. Often in comedies of wit and irony, in Neil Simon comedies or Noel Coward drawing room plays, for example, does one-upmanship not prove central? In Forsyth one-upmanship has little place, because out of indeterminate irony comes a cosmic perspective. This cosmic outlook may come out of a bullish refusal to leave the beach -as with Ben in Local Hero - or it may come in Peter Capaldi's character casually reeling off his many languages without a hint of egotism in the same film, before shrugging his shoulders and saying he has a facility for languages. If Forsyth's so drawn to individuality, and the quirkiness of his characters, then this may seem contrary to a cosmic perspective, but is in fact curiously consistent with it. It is as though character individuality - Forsythian characters' famous quirkiness - is attached much less to the social world than the cosmic world. His figures are frequently permeated with the presence of the other worldly. Sometimes this is even (and maybe overly) quite mystical - as in Marina's webbed feet in Local Hero - or can shade into hints of madness, present in Forsyth's North American film, Housekeeping, where the leading character's other-worldliness arouses suspicion and fear in the more conventional around her.
Now, of course, we don't want to say the humour Forsyth practices is exclusively Scottish. After all, two of his films, Housekeeping and Breaking In, were made in the States. We could even say Thoreau's famous remark, "why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprise? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer" is more pertinent to Forsyth than any Scottish comment. But what is interesting is that Thoreau's nineteenth-century claim seems especially relevant to a late twentieth-century Scottish filmmaker. What is there in the Scottishness Forsyth pursues, and the transcendental philosophy of Thoreau, that is similar? Let us say it is the sense of living cosmically as opposed to socially, so that one's gestures and actions don't come from narrow psychological motivation, but more from a strangely cosmic emanation. In Thoreau it manifested itself in the retreat to Walden pond, and a reclusive, meaningful life instead of a social existence "frittered away by detail" and where he consequently "found nothing so companionable as solitude."
Though there are recluses in Forsyth's films - Ben's clearly in the Walden vein, and the leading character in Housekeeping hints at it - much of Forsyth's humour comes from the contrast between the cosmic emanations coming out of the individual, and the social expectations of society, This can take the form of Gregory's gangly walk and insistent need to talk to himself in Gregory's Girl, or it could tie into the deeper melancholy of Dickie Bird in Comfort and Joy, where any danger that surrounds him, as he becomes embroiled in the ice cream wars of the film's narrative, seems irrelevant next to that melancholia generated after his girlfriend leaves him at the beginning of the film.
Is there something in our notion of Scottishness that allows for this cosmic permeation, a permeation that isn't so readily available in many other countries, and that allows for this eccentricity to manifest itself? Can we even say that eccentricity is the coalescence of a curiously cosmic drive and its interface with societal expectation? Maybe that is being too ambitious, but if Forsyth's work seems very Scottish is it partially because it is peppered with eccentrics, a point? There is the shoplifting Maddy at the beginning of Comfort and Joy, pretty much all the locals in Local Hero, the curiously out of place yet absolutely at home black minister in the same film, and Robin Williams passing through time, as if more cosmically centred than temporally and socially coordinated, in Being Human. There is this idea, prevalent in Forsyth's films, but suggestively present in Scottish culture, that man can march to a different drum. And what makes this possible is smallness within largeness, not a largeness within smallness. In largeness within smallness there is anthropocentricity, and consequently usually egocentricity; in smallness within largeness there is often obliviousness, the obliviousness suggested at the beginning of this piece when Cousins says "their universe is smaller than they know." Yet this is where the apparent contradiction we talked about resolves itself. Their universe is small, but theuniverse is enormous. It is a comprehension understood by Ben in Local Hero, and learnt by both the oil company owner Happer and his man in Scotland, MacIntyre, in the same film. Just because, as Cousins says, this is a trope of Scottish comedy, nevertheless it is a learning curve more readily learnt in this instance by American characters colliding with a Scottish ontology.
We might say then that there are two things we often find in Scottish comedy, but that each arrives at the same principle. On the one hand we have characters of eccentricity arriving at a degree of normalcy (Gregory in Gregory's Girl, the central character in Housekeeping), and on the other, normal characters moving towards the healthily eccentric - McIntyre in Local Hero, the ice cream gangsters in Comfort and Joy. Then again we have the characters who vacillate between the two states - like Happer in the former film, and Dickie Bird in the latter - but the destination seems to be the same: to arrive at a state beyond the social, where motivation is weak next to the strength of a more profound permeation. It is from such a position that wit can find little place: it is too anthropocentric, too linguistic a response to the world. If wit demands clarity of thought and diction, then what is a filmmaker like Forsyth offering in its place? We might observe that it is a comedic sense in between the certitude of wit and the contingency of the pratfall. In the latter there is humour derived from the accidental, so to slip on a banana skin, for a bird to defecate on one's head, to fall through a man hole, would be to show the accidental within what Gerald Mast in Comedy and the Movies would call a film's comic climate. But in Forsyth especially there is neither quite the contingent aspect nor the comic climate. Instead we have the semi-intentional comment or action, and much more the cosmic climate. When MacIntyre stands around with a group of villagers, and one of them says that everybody mucks in in the village, MacIntyre follows with a semi non sequitur by asking who's child is in the pram. The locals respond with a curious silence. What we have here is neither the intentional line of wit, nor the contingent accident, but a scene a little like the Forsyth chewy toast joke, a situation that accepts the in-betweenness of things. It is the in-betweennesss that leaves us both amused - we are laughing at something - but unsure exactly what we're laughing at.
What we are proposing then isn't so much Mast's comic climate, but much more a 'cosmic' one which offers a notion of the comic within the contingent, but the contingent isn't the systematic contingency of the technically preconceived, but the strangely difficult to place. So, for example, in Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, the contingent moment of Benigni leaning against a window ledge and watching horrified as the plant he knocks over falls on top of the head of a dignitary down below, is diegetically contingent but technically obviously preconceived, and fits clearly within the comic climate - any pain the dignitary feels is secondary to the humour derived from the situation. But in Forsyth the comic climate is strangely indeterminate, as if shadowed by this cosmic climate that allows for emanations rather than the technically predetermined. Now Forsyth, talking to Walker about his work, in the mid-eighties, couched the aesthetic not in obvious technical terms, but almost in Walden terms, and yet again with a hint of indeterminacy, claiming his success lay in "not being married and living a good simple life." There is the suggestion here of an ethos underpinning the comedy as much as a form superimposing itself from above, from aesthetic self-consciousness. As Walker suggests, it is when Forsyth becomes self-conscious and draws a caricatural line round a character (like the marine biologist cum mermaid) that we feel the dreamer has awoken. Here the emanation gives way to the certain.
The film loses the smallness of form for the burgeoning into a greater largeness, and yet without quite becoming the certain as large comic form we often find in visual comedy. This can take the form of large visual comedy - as in the great and subtle Buster Keaton film like Steamboat Bill Jnr and The General, or more cumbersome works like 1941 or The Blues Brothers, where there is technical ingenuity creating often the comedy of disaster. Here the comic is out of reach of the characters, but very much within the technical scope of the filmmakers, taking into account our comment on Life is Beautiful. Then again, the certain can take the form of a smaller but no less and perhaps greater anthropocentricity where wit and cultural knowledge are central to the humour. Woody Allen and Neil Simon comedies come to mind - the first with their culturally codifying references to anybody from Bergman to Charlie Parker, and the latter with one-upmanship cleverness.
Yet it seems there is something in Scottish comedy, as practised by Forsyth, which escapes these conventions. It's as though the world is ever so slightly out of sync, and characters have to adjust to this climactic curiosity in the best way they can. Now in a film like Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, what is interesting is that for the first half to two-thirds of the film, Charlie's eponymous character lives in a world of reason in which he's very much in control. His life of seducing, murdering and stealing from various women is a constant logical problem that he pulls off with immense ingenuity. And then at a certain point, when a young woman touches his heart, his logistical coldness turns into a perverse tenderness, and he consequently fails to read the world with ruthless efficiency, and his timing and reasoning go all kaput. His reasoning is longer coldly logical but instead warmly lateral, as though all gesture has to be read through the emotions. This is why he can say with absolute conviction at the end of the film that, in the wider scheme of things, his murderous activities have been nothing next to those of whole countries which have pursued for years what he has practised relatively briefly: he was temporarily cold and unemotional, but haven't States been murdering coldly and unemotionally for centuries? What Chaplin offers is a twofold comedy. In the first instance, and in the first two thirds, we have a comic climate of logistical coldness, consistent with Mast's claims for comedy that there is the importance of a certain emotional distance, and, in the last third, a comic climate of lateral warmth. But in Forsyth's work there is generally a lateral warmth containing a co(s)mic climate - a tenderness that leaves any logistical aspect outside the film's thrust.
We can see this at work in Forsyth's Comfort and Joy, where the comedic and the dramatic coalesce through the central character's melancholic sensibility. If in Chaplin's film the comic climate shifts from the logistical to the logistically inept, as its sensibility stays close to its character's, in Comfort and Joy the whole film's muted tone contains any comic possibility, or, by the same token, any excessively dramatic possibility. Comedy in such an instance can never quite realise itself unless it comes through the sensibility. Consequently many of Forsyth's jokes can seem twee, but their lightness should be seen not so much as cloyingly audience friendly, but permeatingly touching, and thus gives to the world an interesting combination of lightness and heaviness. Hence many of Forsyth's characters are overly sensitive; giving the world a potential heaviness, but then almost everybody in that world is him or herself sensitive and thus lightens it again. We see this at the beginning of Comfort and Joy when Dickie Bird's girlfriend leaves, and the removal men shrug, pause and empathise with Dickie's predicament as they remove the boxes. It is there also in Gregory Girl, with Gregory's insecurities not exacerbated by the girl he fancies, though she doesn't fancy him, but alleviated as the girl sets him up with another girl who is attracted to Gregory. It is the case that Forsyth frequently looks for compromise in his films - Gregory's fling with a girl who likes him and whom he starts to like; Happer's decision to preserve the beach in Local Hero and not turn it into an oil refinery; Dickie Bird's ice cream fritter resolving the ice-cream war in Comfort and Joy - but this is compromise as coalescence of mood. It is a curious tone that is hard to place. Where Restless Natives tries too hard to soften its dramatic harshness, Forsyth's tone permeates any harshness not with softness but with sensibility.
What is the difference it might be fair to ask? Let us say Restless Natives wants to offer a conceit, but the conceit is too big for the drama, so that the film is constantly softening the harshness with a narrative plea-bargaining that arrives at the unbelievable. We're supposed to assume that tourism really would increase because tourists are being ripped off by a couple of highland robbers who just so happen to say please and thank you as they pocket the cash and valuables. On the one hand the film wants to make clear the thieves are major figures and a 'political hot potato', and on the other innocuous guys just trying to make a buck. As improbability piles on top of improbability, the film becomes more incredible as it tries to suggest their mythic status whilst keeping the tone utterly playful. Forsyth in Comfort and Joy softens an actual event - the ice cream wars in Glasgow of the early eighties - but does so quite plausibly by suggesting the wars were much more about a misunderstanding than about impossible turf warfare. Rather than offering a violence begets violence scenario, Forsyth works with his usual interest in emotional crystallisations. That means characters don't wear each other down from intractable positions, but subtly melt into different states. Forsyth often practises the antithesis of the idee fixe. Whether it is Gregory finding himself falling for a girl other than the one he thinks he loves, Happer realising he should spend more time thinking of the stars than oil refineries, or Dickie Bird saying that Maddy leaving him, though it is breaking his heart, has given him the chance to change, we see how a perspective presents itself as an option. What often fascinates Forsyth is this idea of a being capable of evolving states of consciousness, and this is possible because the being isn't in any way 'set' - the way one often is in the comedy of wit ( la Neil Simon comedies like The Odd Couple) - but capable of crystallised change. So where Restless Natives lacks Forsyth's ability to create constantly crystallising characters and consequently forces the film to be unbelievably softened narratively, Forsyth, working from his characters' emanative state, has little difficulty offering an ice-cream war with the minimum of conflict.
So we can conclude on several points here. One concerns Forsyth's interest not in an egotism that offers up individuals strongly responsible for their actions and skills, but much more beings who you feel comprehend the world as readily as themselves, and any modesty of indecision isn't just weakness of character but a feeling that the world's always bigger than they happen to be. Add to this the interface between society and what Forsyth has called in a Sight and Sound interview on Being Human, 'aloneness', and you have an emanative comedy - the comedy we suggested which comes out of an individual point of view colliding with societal expectation. As Forsyth believes, "we are all alone. No other individual has any idea how you see the world. You have no idea how I see this room or the street outside or what Sunday means to me. We are alone, but that's not a negative thing." Out of this positive thing come the collisions of people marching to their own drum. But because, as we've suggested, these 'conflicts' become perspectives, they crystallise and dissolve rather than exacerbate and become explosive. It is from this crystallised aloneness that Forsyth's sensibility comes, and hence his cosmic climate, a climate that certainly utilises comedy, but not for what is often central to the comic. This would be a state of low-key violence because climatic conventions can allow for pain to be viewed casually, through what Mast will call the necessary distance. But Forsyth looks for its antithesis. Forsyth is a humanist, certainly, but he doesn't take humanism as a given, but instead as a state worked towards out of the combination of individuality and cosmic significance. As he says, "You're going to live and die and you're going to cease, you're going to be absolute nothingness. But instead of that being a problem, celebrate it and celebrate that you are connected to every living being."
Maybe we are trying too hard to say this is a Scottish ethos when it is really relevant first and foremost to a small-scale Scottish filmmaker. However, if people often ask themselves why they want to live and work in Scotland, they could do worse than look at Forsyth's films to comprehend that feeling.
© Tony McKibbin