Ice Cream Wars

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I just had the great pleasure of interviewing Bill Forsyth for a forthcoming project, yet to be announced, which prompted me to revisit COMFORT AND JOY, his 1984 film set in Glasgow at Christmas and dealing with a local radio DJ (Bill Paterson, a great actor known to non-UK peoples, I guess, for THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN and THE WITCHES) who tried to intervene in a turf war which has broken out between rival gangs of ice cream van operators. On the DVD’s commentary track, Forsyth talks about how this story was inspired by real events, which sadly overtook the film somewhat, so that a seemingly comic notion ended in real-life murder. The idea was to address the problem of violence through an absurdist lens, but nothing is too silly for human beings to kill each other over. The film’s radio background allows Forsyth to echo the street-fighting vendors’ battles with international conflicts (perhaps a touch unsubtly).

Forsyth also talks about the apparent oddity of a film set at Christmas dealing with ice cream vans, pointing out Scotland’s notoriously high sugar intake, and describing scenes of men in shirtsleeves queuing in the snow for their double fudge. I also spotted packets of Askit for sale in the Mr. Bunny ice cream van. I’m not sure, but I don’t recall Edinburgh ice cream vans selling medicine. Must be a Glasgow thing.

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Weird thing about Bill Paterson — brilliant actor, but it’s uncomfortable watching him do love scenes. With your actual movie stars, it’s never uncomfortable (unless the scene is badly written, which certainly isn’t the problem here). So I guess Bill P. isn’t a star. But he’s still just about Scotland’s most watchable human.

My recollection of the film is that it slightly underperformed, and was adversely compared to GREGORY’S GIRL (everyone in Scotland’s favourite Scottish film) and LOCAL HERO (a wildly beloved film all over). I remember Forsyth appearing on the Wogan chat show to promote it, (and talking about “the pornography of violence,” not a phrase often used on BBC light entertainment) I guess because there was no big name attached to help sell it. The story simply didn’t allow for a Burt Lancaster type star turn, although given the Scots-Italian characters, surely Tom Conti SHOULD have been in it, and maybe an actual Italian star could have been wooed? C.P. Grogan and Alex Norton (returning from GREGORY’S GIRL) are great, but don’t quite convince as Italian speakers.

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Shoulder pads! Guess the decade. 

The real problem is the narrative — Forsyth is excellent at throwaway jokes, and the observational stuff about Christmas melancholy and the hero’s wayward girlfriend are great. The story takes a long time to get going, and Mark Knofler’s sax score (not nearly as good as his LOCAL HERO work or even THE PRINCESS BRIDE) seems to drag it down further — it feels like the same cue played over and over again. Once the GODFATHER pastiche comes in, it feels like Forsyth isn’t particularly engaged or inspired by it. He’s actually spoken out against story, he doesn’t like it to dominate. But the plot here has actual twists, and demands a resolution, and threatens to take over, and push the characters into scenes they can’t be themselves in. All the best stuff is in the side-details.

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Currently my favourite cinematic image, ever.

But these are often magnificent. The use of ice cream vans, sinisterly jingling their way through the outlying estates, is funny and cinematic (it’s great seeing familiar places rendered kind of epic). There are hilarious cameos by comedians Rikki Fulton (Paterson’s suspicious boss) and Arnold Brown (a petulant shrink), who bring the same kind of erratic performance style that characterised Chic Murray’s work in GREGORY’S GIRL. There’s a gag involving the recording of an ice cream van jingle which is one of the greatest, stupidest, and longest-set-up gags in screen history.

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There should be a whole series of feature films about this guy. Check out his reading material!

There’s also Chris Menges’ fantastic photography. Menges, a natural light fetishist, unobtrusively makes ’80s Glasgow beautiful, a task which ought to be impossible, inconceivable, and not even desirable. I’m a little mad at Menges: he quit being one of the greatest cinematographers, the natural heir to Almendros, to be an OK director. It was cinema’s loss, on the whole.

Forsyth followed this with HOUSEKEEPING, underrated at the time (by me, definitely), but possibly his masterpiece. COMFORT AND JOY, for all its pleasures, perhaps works best if seen as a necessary stepping stone. It’s less soothing, more discordant and unsettling than its predecessors, and often it’s the attempts to ingratiate or play to the crowd which feel less effective, and the tonally uncomfortable or difficult bits that seem successful. having utterly mastered a particular tone very early on, Forsyth was setting himself challenges, pushing himself into areas where nothing could be taken for granted (BEING HUMAN), not an easy path to take.

I want to follow him on this journey and revisit more of these films…

Comfort And Joy [DVD]

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7 Responses to “Ice Cream Wars”

  1. I haven’t watched it in years, but I seem to remember my biggest problem was with how little was resolved. SPOILER Patterson just gives the factions the recipe for Baked Alaska and that’s it. Things carry on. It’s both too pat, and not pat enough. With Local Hero, you could leave things hanging on a ringing phonebox because the journey has been such a pleasure.
    IIRC Forsyth talked about how there was originally more of a subplot with Patterson and the Italian girl, not a romance but a promise of something more, but he cut it out.

    My favorite bit of trivia (and I hope I remember this right) is that the shop-lifting girl, who leaves at the beginning, was based on Forsyth’s real ex-girlfriend, right down to the moving out without telling him. Only in cruel reality, she and Forsyth got back together a few years after Comfort and Joy. Maybe at the time, when the feeling were more raw, Forsyth couldn’t offer Dicky Bird that much hope.

    This film captures an aspect of dreams that so few other films do. The way that our stupid subconscious tries to give us the impossible happy ending we went (e.g. Bird’s recurring dreams of his girlfriend coming back) which just makes us more depressed when we wake up.
    The only other example. of this I can think of is the Blackadder III episode with the dictionary, where he’s granted a last minute reprieve, but then Baldrick turns into an Alsatian

  2. A quick trip to Netflix with an eye to revisiting some of these was very disheartening. Only “Gregory’s Girl” is available, and only streaming. The eighties TV show “Tales of the Gold Monkey” is listed on the Forsyth page, but Netflix has confused Bill Forsyth with the American actor William Forsythe. So it’s possible that they have confused Forsyth’s “Comfort and Joy” (not available) with the (all too available) 2004 film of the same name: “Single woman Jane Berry is focused on advancing her career and spending a fortune on shoes. But after a car accident, Jane awakens to discover that she’s a married, stay-at-home mom with two kids and a penchant for charity work. Is she dreaming?” If I order the latter, maybe I’ll get the former? Almost certainly not, yet my finger hovers over the button even as we speak…

  3. You remembered right, James, except it took Mr F 29 years to get back together with that girl!

    There’s a tormenting dream like that in The Accidental Tourist when William Hurt dreams a phone call from his dead son. “Dad, you never came to get me.” “But… we thught you were dead.” Beautifully played by Hurt.

    Best buy the UK DVD, Jeff. Not cheap, but it has a good commentary track and nobody’s tried to dub the Scottish accents. The BFI have also kindly released That Sinking Feeling, which is the *really* rare one. Well-known here in Scotland, not anywhere else.

  4. Love Comfort and Joy. It’s among my top Xmas movie favorites, right alongside Christmas Holiday and Brazil

  5. Those opening scenes of festive shoppers gauping at animatronic window displays could almost have come right out of Brazil!

  6. It may have been 29 years for Bill, but it’s still one of the few times where reality trumps film. I’d also argue it’s a happier romantic ending than Bill’s own Gregory got 20 years later (but that’s for another Forysth entry)

    My own favorite darker Christmas films include Batman Returns, Mr Arkadin, Shooting the Past and Mathew Jacobs’s Mothertime with Gina McKee

  7. I haven;t seen the last two.

    The Apartment is pretty dark…

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