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.

10 thoughts on “Sin No More Against Bill Forsyth

  1. Ah! I love your film posts. Please do more. I’ve been way into Korean directors and such recently and I’ve kind of been stuck there. I’ve seen about half of the films you mention in this post, so I’ve got quite a bit to look forward to! I mean, I’m a film junky and proud to be one (favorite is Germany in Autumn (1978) – I’m a huuuuge "New German Cinema" guy).

    Now, any idea of where some good film stores in Los Angeles/SoCal (or anywhere for that matter) where I could find a copy of Germany in Autumn? I’ve been searching, on and off, for almost a decade. Hell, I guess I’ll try google again (I haven’t been trying that hard to be honest, and I’ve been craving it recently).

    Fuck the "Industry"/Hollywood.

  2. Nice pimping. Forsyth’s style is so subtle I didn’t realize I liked several movies by the same director. Now that you point them out, I remember the things that tied "Housekeeping" and "Local Hero" together.

    The John Sayles movie I make people who don’t like John Sayles movies watch is "Lone Star." It’s got a brisker, more immediate story than his movies generally do (most are about the past, and are very slow-paced.) Aside from just being a terrific murder mystery it launched the career of amazing Chris Cooper, and, um, Matthew McConaghey. (He’s good in it, I swear.) Also, evil Kris Kristofferson, so effective as an asshole you forget he’s the wonderful Kris Kristofferson.

  3. @Mike – All I really know is Wim Wenders. I get very tired of his excesses. However, [i]The American Friend[/i] and [i]Paris, Texas[/i] are among my favorite movies.

    [i]Germany in Autumn[/i] is available on disc from Netflix. It is also available on DVD and VHS at the best video store in the world:

    [url=]Movie Madness[/url]

  4. @JMF – Nice [i]pimping[/i]? What does [i]that[/i] mean?!

    I like [i]Lone Star[/i]. Actually, I like most of his films. I especially like his historical stuff like [i]Matewan[/i].

    Why is everyone so down on poor Matthew McConaughey? I know he’s kind of creepy and has been in some bad films. But I rather liked him in both [i]A Time to Kill[/i] and [i]Amistad[/i].

  5. So you’re saying you don’t like Wings of Desire (year I was born, 1987)?! Well, I can understand actually. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is without a doubt my favorite player in this genre, but he seems much less known in the US than Wim Wenders. Paris, Texis is also a big favorite of mine (great soundtrack). The American Soldier, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Fear of Fear are probably the are among the former’s most accessible films, with the American viewer in mind I mean.

    I have finally ordered a copy of Germany in Autumn! A decade after my sacred VHS copy stolen from a university library was destroyed, ironically, in a fire about a decade ago, so I am very pleased! I’ll dig up the review I wrote of it years ago for you once I get a Mac again.

  6. @Mike – In fact, I’m [i]not[/i] that fond of [i]Wings[/i]. I kind of like the opening but the end doesn’t work for me. Wenders has too much of actors talking into cameras. That happens at the end of [i]Paris[/i] too, but somehow it doesn’t annoy me so much. (Maybe because I’m just more tolerant when I get to stare at Nastassja Kinski.)

    Fassbinder sounds familiar, but I looked and none of the titles sound familiar. But it’s hard to say. A lot of my life has vanished in the mist.

    Hertzog is such a strange director. Part of me really want to dislike him and yet I am usually captivated. That’s especially true of [i]Aguirre, the Wrath of God[/i]. I’m still trying to figure it out.

    Past Kant and Goethe, I can’t say that I get real excited by the Germans. I feel very close to the French. I have no idea why.

    If you want, we could put up your review of [i]Germany in Autumn[/i] here.

  7. "Pimping" – just kind of a goofy modern synonym for "selling something." And I thought it was a funny way to describe your sale of Forsyth and Sayles, who are probably the least commercial directors, ever.

    If you’re letting readers post things for the front page, there’s an essay I’d like to do. On the three 2006 socialist films "V For Vendetta," "Children Of Men" and "Sweet Land." They came out within a few months of each other. "V" is well-done yet stupid, "Men" might be the single masterpiece of our era, and "Sweet Land" is low-budget awesomeness. It’d take me a few weeks to get the review quite right, but I think it’s one I could nail. Maybe too long for this site, though.

    Also — Mr. Cusack, mentioned here of late, broke his baby-faced cherry in "Eight Men Out."

  8. @JMF – Right. I had forgotten that Cusack was in [i]Eight Men Out[/i]. It’s interesting how people have attacked that film because they want to say that the men were just evil and that environmental factors were minor. That’s the ultimate conservative critique of society, isn’t it? We are the good people, they are the bad people, nothing can be done, so give the rich more money.

    That sounds interesting. I’d love to put it here. Length isn’t a problem. We can just add subheadings. Although it depends upon what length you are talking. Anything over 3,000 words probably would be too much. We could serialize it though. Let me know.

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