Bill Forsyth’s career illuminated the sky of ’80s cinema like a brilliant comet—bright, magnificent, and frustratingly brief. His last film, Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), made after six years of inactivity, didn’t even get released in the U.S., despite being a sequel to Gregory’s Girl (1980), one of his biggest hits. Today his name is mentioned in hushed, reverential tones by only the most devoted of cinephiles, and he's viewed almost as a cautionary tale. His battles with Hollywood studios, particularly over 1993’s ambitious and disastrous Being Human, did contribute to his exiting the stage. But looking back at his films, perhaps we should marvel less at his downfall and more at the fact that work of such lovely fragility and understated intelligence ever made an impact in the first place—particularly at a time when cinema, and comedy in particular, was becoming increasingly crass and vulgar.
Forsyth’s style and choice of subject matter present a paradox. On the surface, the films are quaint and quirky. He presents childlike figures at odds with the world around them—a common theme in ’80s cinema. But Forsyth’s films are light years away from Spielberg’s paeans to childhood and innocence. One would be hard-pressed to find a true adult in Forsyth’s body of work; everybody’s a child of some sort, unable to connect meaningfully and forever adrift. The films may be whimsical, but they are ultimately about the difficulties of functioning properly in this world.
The characters of Forsyth’s first two films were teenagers, and the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic approach to humor and despair come into sharp focus in his first fiction feature, That Sinking Feeling (1979), a low-budget comedy about a group of working-class Glasgow youths who, having reached the end of their ropes, decide to rob a stainless-steel-sink warehouse. The vignette-based humor has a devil-may-care quality, free of the usual bonds of realism. A boy who poses as a girl to create a distraction during the robbery gets carried away and begins to think he is a girl; when the truck our heroes have used to stash their stolen sinks drives off and is replaced by a truck full of baked goods, the kids bless their good fortune, thinking that the sinks have been magically transformed into cream puffs. Early scenes show Forsyth’s ability to milk even the darkest corners of the human experience for gags—one character tries to commit suicide by drowning himself in corn flakes. But That Sinking Feeling comes from a place of genuine desperation; its rough-hewn, offhand quality and see-what-sticks brand of humor suggest a cross between Ken Loach-style vérité and Richard Lester at his most playful. (It’s interesting, though not exactly surprising, to note that, years later, when Forsyth made a film about thieves in America, the class critique would all but vanish.)
That Sinking Feeling was a real gamble, shot on a shoestring in the director’s native Glasgow, which had no film industry to speak of. It didn’t get much notice, but his next film, Gregory’s Girl (1980), would put him on the map both critically and financially. It’s easy to see why, with its good-natured, coming-of-age tale of a teenager who falls for the beautiful, soccer-playing new girl at school (Dee Hepburn). But, as with That Sinking Feeling, Forsyth tempers his naturalistic shooting style with pointed, stylized characterization. Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair), the smile of a dreamer constantly pasted to his face, may be a real oddball, but those around him don’t seem any better adjusted. Indeed, the boundary between adults and children is tenuous. The school’s headmaster has a secret, bizarre passion for cakes, while the soccer coach cultivates a mustache to make himself look older. The eventual resolution is the stuff of John Hughes movies: Gregory doesn’t land his dream girl, but realizes that another girl, who has eyes for him, may be the better catch. It suggests a reconciliation of sorts: The starry-eyed Gregory has come down to earth, with the promise of a real relationship.
Although only Forsyth’s first two films dealt exclusively with actual adolescents, he never stopped exploring that world. Mac (Peter Riegert), the hero of his next film Local Hero (1983), isn’t exactly a child; he’s more of a non-entity, a blank slate who surrounds himself with material possessions to mask his loneliness. He seems like the quintessential American yuppie, a young and self-obsessed oil company employee proudly driving a Porsche. Referring to himself as a “telex man” and seemingly glued to his phone—to the point where he uses it to converse with co-workers even though they’re just paces away from him—he is incapable of meaningful relationships. More childlike is the company head, Happer (Burt Lancaster), an easily bored, rich eccentric whose interest in a Scottish site for a prospective new refinery is piqued mostly by his obsession with astronomy and finding a comet to name. (In one of the film’s running gags, Happer employs a full-time psychiatrist to hurl random insults at him as part of a bizarre therapy method.) Both Happer and Mac could be described as emotional adolescents, but they differ sharply in temperament—Happer is a dreamer with little concern for propriety, while Mac at times plays at being an adult. We might expect the film to set up Mac in opposition to the “genuine” natives of Furness Bay, the remote Scottish town he’s sent to scout for the Knox refinery. To the contrary, these folks are eager to take the money and run; when an elderly hermit threatens to block the sale, Mac has to protect the old man from the irate, greedy townspeople.
One could see the characters of Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, Forsyth’s next film, as adult versions of the oddballs we saw in the earlier films of childhood, now with full-on identity crises. The world is populated by people who have either completely regressed or are merely pretending to be grownups. Mac’s own uncertainty extends to his very name: His last name is MacIntyre (thus, “Mac”) but we’re told that wasn’t even his family’s name—his Hungarian parents had it changed to sound more American; Mac himself says he can’t even pronounce his real name. He's known by a nickname to a surname that never really existed. Forsyth recalled in an interview with Gerald Peary that he insisted Mac “not have a real first name…because he didn’t know who he was.” Somewhat similarly, Happer is the head of a company that bears someone else’s family name.
Comfort and Joy makes explicit the connection between children and adults by opening on shots of kids watching a mechanical Santa Claus in a Christmas display, then cutting to adults shopping in a department store, where we find the flighty Maddy (Eleanor David) shoplifting a series of items. Her boyfriend Alan (Bill Paterson) corners her outside and pleads with her to stop all this thievery. Later, back at home, she suddenly announces that she’s leaving him; she had meant to tell Alan before but just couldn’t find a good time.
Alan understandably seems like the adult in this situation: he is, after all, the one who tries to keep his kooky girlfriend from stealing; he’s the one who is quietly reading a book when she comes to announce she’s leaving; he’s the one who is understandably surprised by the suddenness of the whole thing. But as Maddy gathers her things, we realize that everything in the place belongs to her—and, by extension, that most of it is probably stolen, a subtle hint at Alan’s own lack of responsibility. It’s all very funny, of course, but we soon understand that, much like Mac, Alan doesn’t really know who he is. “Everything here is you,” his friend Colin (Patrick Malahide) tells him, upon visiting the now almost comically empty apartment. “You were submerged in another person’s personality. You’d become a subperson.” The conversation continues:
“There was always something unreal about you two. You were like kids, playing and fighting. It was a bit of a caper.”
“Don’t say that. I worshipped her.”
“That’s not the nicest thing you can do to somebody, is it? I hope you don’t worship me.”
“No, you’re my friend.”
As part of his post-breakup attempt to grow up, Alan, who works as a wisecracking morning DJ named “Dickie Bird” (yet another Forsythian confusion of names), asks his boss to let him do a radio documentary. But again, we sense that he’s really just playing at being an adult. “I’m not a kid. I’m a serious person. I’ve got serious friends. I think maybe I should be more serious sometimes on the air,” he insists, with all the misguided desperation with which the coach in Gregory’s Girl grew his mustache. Of course, that Alan chooses to make his “serious” documentary about ice cream wars underlines the strange in-between-ness of his endeavor. When he tells Colin about it, his friend seems puzzled: “Why don’t you ask the expert?” he jokes, pointing to his young daughter.
But Forsyth doesn’t present Alan’s dilemma as particularly special. Much as in Local Hero, identity crises are rampant in this world. The ice cream vendors all have multiple names, and the war itself turns out to hinge on the fact that one vendor is really a fish-and-chip seller attempting to get into the ice cream business. There’s even a seemingly throwaway but pointed comic gag about a celebrity look-alike contest in which each supposed look-alike looks like another celebrity. Forsyth’s twilight portrait of Glasgow is of a city where no one quite knows who they are.
The film’s title may come from a Christmas song, but it also hints at the duality between adulthood and adolescence: Is it possible to achieve both comfort and joy? Life, Forsyth seems to say, entails a constant struggle between the two extremes. Some critics have noted that Alan’s solution to the ice cream crisis—getting the warring sides together to make and sell ice cream fritters—is both anticlimactic and a little pat, but it feels right. It suggests a new equilibrium between these extremes, suggesting that a man can be, symbolically speaking, both a fry chef and an ice cream maker.
Forsyth’s next film, based on Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (1987), is on the surface a major departure—besides being an adaptation, it’s a period piece in which all the chief characters are women. It also stands apart from the rest of his work with its brooding spirit. What to make of a film, after all, that opens with a young mother abandoning her two daughters and then committing suicide? (Compare that to the comic depictions of suicide in That Sinking Feeling.)
But Housekeeping, which screens at Film Forum in New York on April 15 (followed by a conversation with Forsyth), also furthers the filmmaker’s fascination with the thin line between the world of grownups and the world of kids. The two orphaned girls, Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), are left alone with their eccentric and very childlike aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti), whose odd behavior brings them in conflict with others in their community and with one another: Ruthie finds herself drawn into Sylvie’s magical world—the two hop trains together and spend their nights outside in remote valleys, listening for spirits—while Lucille yearns to become popular at school and puts on the pretenses of growing up, eventually going off to live with a supposedly responsible family. The two sisters yet again manifest the extremes of this Forsythian world—one regressing further into childhood and the other seeking to play with the things of adulthood. (One wonders if a similar conflict happened between Sylvie and her now-dead sister.) Tonally, Forsyth walks a fine line. He doesn’t ennoble Sylvie’s world, and Lahti brings just enough melancholy to the part that her free-spiritedness never comes off as heroic. At the same time, though, the film is on Sylvie’s side; as Jonathan Rosenbaum notes, “The story unfolds with the combined immediacy and remoteness of a fairy tale,” and the film ends with a final shot that seems to echo Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, with Ruthie and her aunt heading off into the distance, a life of rootless wandering before them.
It’s hard to get a real handle on Forsyth’s American career. Housekeeping is regarded by many as a masterpiece, and it was made at a time when David Puttnam, Forsyth’s producer on Local Hero, had been given the reins at Columbia, an arrangement that didn’t last very long. Forsyth continued to make films in the U.S., but the next two were compromised works. Still, much of the director’s sensibility persists in Breaking In, written by John Sayles, the tale of veteran thief Ernie (Burt Reynolds) who runs into young, brash break-in artist Mike (Casey Siemaszko) and takes him under his wing. Initially, the two seem like classic Forsyth characters, stunted adolescents who can’t quite deal with the world. They spend their time between jobs spending their money at the track and hanging out with a couple of prostitutes. But Ernie is also wise, patient, controlled, while Mike is a loose cannon, unable to live by Ernie’s rules. It’s a sharply written little film, but Breaking In lacks the refracted quality Forsyth brought to his earlier films, where the characters’ dilemmas seemed symptomatic of the world around them, and not just isolated cases.
In 1993, Forsyth made Being Human, which should have been his most ambitious film and is instead his most forgotten. The finished work, dramatically recut after excruciating battles with the studio, is far from the director’s original vision. (It wasn’t even released in Britain.) The film presents Robin Williams as five different characters named Hector, each living in a different period in history (cavemen times, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, etc.) and each trying to find a way to reunite with his family. A 160-page third draft of the script presents a character who is perplexed and often confused by the world around him, often unable to live by its rules and struggling between his desire to get back home and his immediate needs and temptations. The idea of Forsyth working with Hollywood’s leading man-child, Robin Williams, may have initially seemed promising (this was before Williams’s notorious run of treacly awards-bait pap) but their two artistic temperaments couldn’t have been more different. The understated and moody Forsyth used whimsy to mask the bitter pills he was serving his audience, while Williams’s frenetic comic shtick depended on audiences finding his childish antics adorable. It would be interesting to see if a director’s cut of Being Human ever surfaces, but what remains of the epic tale of human alienation Forsyth intended is often lovely and profoundly touching, though just as often muddled and maudlin.
Forsyth directed only one more film after Being Human, the aforementioned sequel to Gregory’s Girl, which found Gregory still single and still reaching for the stars with his romantic longings, teaching English at his old high school and fantasizing about his students. The film adds a political angle to Forsyth’s vision: Gregory teaches his students about radical politics and urges them to be active and involved—but he shrinks when his students take him up on his offer and begin investigating one of his friends. As before, however, Gregory learns to get out of his head and starts to function in the real world—finally helping the students and, as before, establishing a new, real romantic relationship with someone who actually wants him.
Forsyth hasn’t been heard from much since. Initially, he claimed to be fully retired, uninterested in directing again after the wounds of the late ’80s and ’90s. In recent years, as interest in his work has increased (helped along by revivals of Local Hero and Gregory’s Girl, and a new print of Housekeeping), he has hinted at a comeback. Of course, it could also be that he has said all he needs to say. Films like Comfort and Joy, Local Hero, and Housekeeping don’t seem to have dated one bit in the intervening years. Their tales of stunted adolescents perhaps spoke to the deeper neuroses of their period. But, particularly as presented by Forsyth, our inability to grow up has always been part of the human condition. Our search for a life of both comfort and joy continues.
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYMarch 11–April 11, 2010 Comfort and Joy: The Bittersweet Comedies of Bill Forsyth
Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).More articles by Bilge Ebiri