Archive for Bill Forsyth

Ski Bums

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by dcairns


After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.

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I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.

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Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

Ants in Your Plants of 1941

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2015 by dcairns

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Today I was supposed to be in New York but flight got pushed back. Something to do with a slight snowfall. Daniel Riccuito of The Chiseler reports that the sky is basically solid snowflakes, drifting UPWARDS. Which sounds fine — the ground will be cleared in no time. It’s just the sky you have to worry about. Walk in a crouch, New York, and you’ll be alright. But I can see how an atmosphere composed entirely of frozen water would make air traffic problematic.

So I go tomorrow, arriving at the Walter Reade Theater hopefully just in time for the 3,15 screening of NATAN as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. I will be lugging my luggage, tired and wired, but hopefully coherent enough for a cogent Q&A. And then another screening 8.45 the same day. Hope to see you there, weather permitting.

Meanwhile, there is time to tell you about SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. I made a video essay for this, aided by editor Stephen Horne and graphic designer Danny Carr who gets a special shout-out here for an amazing 40s-style animated title sequence, sampled above. Since the Coen Brothers swiped one title from John L. Sullivan’s fictional filmography (O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?) I wanted to grab another. It was this or HEY-HEY IN THE HAY LOFT. The conversations then came to be about what a title for such a film might consist of. Danny surpassed all expectations by combining the pull-back-thru-lettering device of THE PALM BEACH STORY with the animated characters of THE LADY EVE, all in a convincing early forties style despite working with computer rather than cel animation. I’m blown away by his work.

The piece also features an interview with Bill Forsyth, a fan of the film who explains how it influenced him. This was folded into my script after I wrote it, much as I did with Richard Lester’s interview for my A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. One of these days I’ll manage to do the interview first and then write the VO around it, like a sane person.

You can pre-order this magnificent product here —

Sullivan’s Travels [Blu-ray]

I’m really chuffed with how it turned out!

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Ice Cream Wars

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2014 by dcairns

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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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