Bill Forsyth: That Sinking Feeling

Sunday, April 18, 2010

That Sinking Feeling Once I got a job writing the press materials for a movie made by one of my favorite filmmakers, but he was known as a stickler, so I was worried there were going to be a lot of rewrites. In the end he just said, “It’s fine. But take out all the exclamation points. I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who talks in exclamation points.”

Bill ForsythI thought of this when I heard that Film Forum is putting on a retrospective of the films of the Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth, maker of “Gregory’s Girl,” “Local Hero,” “Housekeeping,” and “Comfort and Joy,” among other films. Forsyth is as good an example as any of someone who doesn’t speak in exclamation points. He makes what most people would call “small” movies, but they are anything but. They are unostentatious, certainly, but they have a peculiar humor that sneaks up on you. Elements of his films are so absurd, bizarre and unexpected, and often mysteriously enchanting, particularly “Local Hero.” 

If you don’t know his work, take a look at this “trailer” for “Gregory’s Girl.” It’s not a trailer in the ordinary sense, just one scene, and it’s by no means one of my favorite Forsyth scenes, but it will give you an idea. Don’t look at the “Local Hero” trailer unless you have already seen the film and want to see how a trailer can convince you not to see a great movie.

Years ago, I did the publicity for a Forsyth’s, debut feature, “That Sinking Feeling,” which came out in this country after the success of “Gregory’s Girl” and “Local Hero.” The Film Forum festival is not meant to be comprehensive, but I was disappointed that this movie wasn’t included, as it isn’t available on DVD here, and can only be seen on a PAL import or by paying $40 for a vintage VHS tape. Perhaps it plays on cable, but as far as I know, the movie mainly exists here in the memories of the people who saw it, and that’s too bad because it’s a gem.

The story is about a bunch of unemployed teenagers in Glasgow who decide to steal sinks from a local plumber’s warehouse. The plan is extremely intricate, involving, among other things, having two of the boys dress up as women to distract the guards, and a drug that will knock out a driver so they can use his van for their getaway vehicle. The boys rehearsed elaborate semaphore-like arm gestures, so they can communicate soundlessly during the heist. I have fond memories of them practicing the one for “Start Loading” (it sounded more like “STAHRT LOH-dn”) over and over and over. (Of course the joke was that when they actually executed the caper and did the “STAHRT LOH-dn” gesture, one kid had no idea what it meant). There was also the boy who brought out a toilet instead of a sink and is sternly told that “We agreed we wouldn’t take these as they’d be too easy to trace!” I love his response: “But it would be a pairfect gift for me mum!”

Fencing the sinks turns out to be a bit harder than the crew had planned, however one did find a home at an art gallery as a Duchampian found object. The sleeping potion worked a little too well on the driver, and a doctor predicted he wouldn’t wake up for decades. The nurse becomes very excited, noting that the driver would be a billionaire after all those years of sick pay.

I miss this movie. I hope someone gets around to putting it out on DVD here. When technology shifts from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray and beyond, there are too many movies that get left by the wayside, and that’s a shame.

But it’s “Local Hero” that is most people’s favorite Bill Forsyth films, and as great as it is, I think one of the major reasons people love it so much is that it ends in such a stirring way, with Knopfler’s “Going Home” theme. It sends you out of the theatre with this intensely bittersweet feeling of sadness and elation.  The movie is funny and enchanting all the way through, but I think it’s the ending that sticks with you the most. None of the other Forsyth films have anything like this. Forsyth told me that it was producer David Putnam who said the movie should end with a “happy song.” I think Forsyth was ultimately very pleased with it, but I don’t think it’s an idea he would have come up with on his own. It’s his one exclamation point in a career without them, but in this case, I’m glad it’s there.

 

Here’s a wee video recently done about Bill for his Scottish Lifetime Achievement Award.