Sin No More Against Bill Forsyth

Bill ForsythI have long been a fan of the Scottish director Bill Forsyth. He is most remembered for two of his earlier films: Gregory’s Girl and one of the greatest movies ever made, Local Hero. Annoyingly, after that, few people seemed to care, even though he made three excellent films in quick succession: Comfort and Joy, Housekeeping, and Breaking In. And the two films after that (Being Human and Gregory’s Two Girls) have been savaged. I am here to tell you that there is a 90% chance that whatever films you watch over the course of the next month will be worse than the weakest Forsyth film, and there is a 99% chance they will be worse than his average.

Over the last week, I’ve been revisiting Forsyth’s film. It all started when I at long last got to see his first film, That Sinking Feeling. It tells the story of a bunch of unemployed youths who learn how much steel sinks are worth. From there it turns into a bizarre heist movie that is really just an excuse for spending some time with all of the colorful characters Forsyth has created. And that’s pretty much what goes on in all of his films: there is some plot that is an excuse to meet and hang out with what are always very interesting people.

After that, Forsyth made Gregory’s Girl, which was hugely popular based almost entirely on its overwhelming charm. It tells the story of Gregory’s search for a girlfriend and a kind of “girl’s union” that sees to it that he gets the right one. What makes it so enjoyable is that it portrays boys as various kinds of nerds who are focused on whatever (like one friend’s obsession with Venezuela because he’s heard there are many more women than men there), guided along by wise and practical girls who are immune to such nonsense. But mostly, there are just wonderful characters like Gregory and his ten-year-old sister Madeleine.

This theme of Forsyth’s continues in his next film[1], Local Hero. But instead of boys, it deals with men. From the owner of an oil company to the old beachcomber who stands in the way of a deal, all the men are strangely detached from the practical aspects of life. The film emphasizes the importance of the larger community to the individual. This is distinct from later films were he is more interested in sub-communities where people find meaning together outside their larger connections. I suspect this film is so well loved because it is Forsyth’s most overtly artistic film. There is lots of material to allow the viewer to speculate about meaning. But again, it is really just an excuse to hang with more wonderful characters.

Next up is probably my favorite Forsyth film, Comfort and Joy. And typically, it isn’t even available on DVD in the United States. It tells the story of a guy whose crazy girlfriend leaves him heartbroken. In attempting to get over her, he becomes involved a turf war between two ice cream truck companies. Rarely does a film combine three of my favorite things: crazy women, the meaning of life, and ice cream. Don’t pass up the chance to see this film. And right now the whole film (in 7 parts) is on YouTube. But don’t wait! It may disappear soon!

After a couple of years off, Bill Forsyth came back with his first theatrical film based on someone else’s story, Housekeeping, from the novel of the same name by Marilynne Robinson. He couldn’t have chosen better—it exemplifies the themes that clearly interest him. But it adds one that doesn’t come easy to him: the way in which the larger society can stifle the individual and keep sub-communities from existing. All of Forsyth’s films are deliberately paced, but they tend to be rather loud and chatty. Housekeeping is very quiet and arguably his most beautiful film. It also features a remarkable performance by Christine Lahti as crazy Aunt Sylvie.

Two years later, Forsyth was back to his old tricks with Breaking In. Again, he didn’t write it, but he chose well; it was written by another of our greatest modern storytellers, John Sayles (if you haven’t seen it, go watch Silver City—I’m figuring you’ve already seen The Brother from Another Planet). It is about a bored teenager who breaks into houses just to hang out. One night, he meets a professional thief when they both break into the same house at the same time. They start working together and become good friends. Here we get back to Forsyth’s fascination with the nerdy interests of men: in this case, burglary.

The last two films took five years each to see the light of day. The first was his largest budget film, Being Human starring Robin Williams with a really excellent supporting cast (John Turturro, Bill Nighy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Carlyle, Hector Elizondo, and on and on). I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. It was originally 3 hours long and the producers had it cut down to 2 hours. The director’s cut has never been released. It is clearly not Forsyth at his best, but it is a lot better than people say. Give it a watch if you can find it.

Finally we come to Gregory’s Two Girls, a sequel to Gregory’s Girl, set 20 years in the future when Gregory is a would-be radical, teaching English at his former school. I heard nothing but horrible things about this film, so I was really worried going into it. But as usual, the complaints of the critics were meaningless. I think the problem is that critics will only be happy if Forsyth makes Gregory’s Girl or (especially) Local Hero again. Gregory’s Two Girls is everything that I’ve come to expect from him: interesting characters, strange but ultimately pointless plot, and a bold and positive theme. Now I know how Forsyth could have made Gregory’s Two Girls into a film that everyone would have loved: changed the beginning and end. The opening is a most inappropriate sexual fantasy between a teacher and a student. He could have cut two minutes off it and everyone would have found it charming. Instead, they tended to find it disturbing. I think Forsyth thought it was funny as hell, and it is on a second viewing after you know what’s going to happen. People also have a problem with the ending which would likely work better in a novel than it does on the screen: it is too uncertain. But Forsyth knows what he’s doing; it isn’t a random ending.

And that’s the thing about the reactions to Forsyth: people get angry when he doesn’t provide them with the film they hoped he would make. This is my biggest criticism of film “criticism”: rather than approach a film on its own terms, the ombudsmen complain that it is not a different film. In the long run, history is kinder to the artists who maintain their idiosyncrasies. And that defines Bill Forsyth. That Sinking Feeling fully predicts Gregory’s Two Girls. And I’m glad for that. I am so tired of seeing innovative filmmakers turn into predictable Hollywood hacks.

Now go and sin no more. And watch Comfort and Joy while there’s still time!


To make it very easy for you, I’ve created a play list so you can watch all of Comfort and Joy together:

Update (28 April 2013 4:19 pm)

I just watched the whole film. There is a problem. It cuts off during the credits. There is a voice over during them where Dicky reads an add for the new product. It isn’t critical to the film, but it is a nice touch. The film is every bit as good as I remembered it. And it is a lot funnier than I had recalled. It’s brilliant.

[1] Forsyth made a TV movie Andrina based upon a George Mackay Brown short story. It has never been released in any form so far as I know.

An Incomplete Birthday

Kurt GodelJames Monroe was born this day in 1758. Portuguese painter Jose Malhoa was born in 1855. The lesser brother, Lionel Barrymore was born in 1878. Blues great Charlie Patton was born in 1891. Romance novelist and despot Saddam Hussein was born in 1937. And Bruno Kirby was born in 1949.

The great Harper Lee is 87 today. On even the most impressive days, she would be the person of the day—just not today. Not totally unreasonable conservative James Baker is 83. Novelist Terry Pratchett is 65. Once funny comedian Jay Leno is 63. And actor Penelope Cruz is 39.

But the day belongs to mathematician Kurt Godel who was born in 1906. When I was young, I worked very hard to understand his incompleteness theorems. These basically said that any axiomatic system of sufficient complexity was necessarily incomplete. Since the time of Euclid, mathematicians had hoped they could state a few postulates and create a complete system based upon this—know everything about the system. Not true, showed Godel. Here is Rudy Rucker’s non-mathematical proof from his book Infinity and the Mind:

The proof of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is so simple, and so sneaky, that it is almost embarassing to relate. His basic procedure is as follows:

  1. Someone introduces Godel to a UTM, a machine that is supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly answering any question at all.
  2. Godel asks for the program and the circuit design of the UTM. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely long. Call the program P(UTM) for Program of the Universal Truth Machine.
  3. Smiling a little, Godel writes out the following sentence: “The machine constructed on the basis of the program P(UTM) will never say that this sentence is true.” Call this sentence G for Godel. Note that G is equivalent to: “UTM will never say G is true.”
  4. Now Godel laughs his high laugh and asks UTM whether G is true or not.
  5. If UTM says G is true, then “UTM will never say G is true” is false. If “UTM will never say G is true” is false, then G is false (since G = “UTM will never say G is true”). So if UTM says G is true, then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.
  6. We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So “UTM will never say G is true” is in fact a true statement. So G is true (since G = “UTM will never say G is true”). “I know a truth that UTM can never utter,” Godel says. “I know that G is true. UTM is not truly universal.”

Of course, Godel was a nut. Many mathematicians are profoundly introverted, living largely in an unseen word of ideas. Even with my little brain, I feel very much a kinship in this way and I regret having studied physics rather than math. Regardless, I’m not crazy. Godel starved himself after his wife died because he would only trust food she had made. It is very sad. But he left us a great legacy.

Happy birthday Kurt Godel!