Archive for Bill Forsyth

Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…


Cockleshell Hero

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2015 by dcairns


I like to think that some Americans, and other friendly foreigners, seeing LOCAL HERO and loving it as most everyone seems to, wonder “Who is THIS guy?” when they see Fulton McKay as the aged beachcomber, the stumbling block in the plans of Burt Lancaster’s oil consortium (represented by Peter Riegert) to buy up the coastline of a quaint Scottish island.

Knowing a bit about writer-director Bill Forsyth’s methods, I see McKay’s old Ben as a particularly successful bit of writing. Forsyth loves character and dialogue and rather despises plot. Ben, by bringing the plot to an impasse which necessitates negotiation, forces talk to happen. And because Ben isn’t interested in negotiating, he keeps changing the subject. His digressions have dramatic value since they’re stopping the protagonist achieving his task, but through them Forsyth can enjoy what he’s really interested in, which is the talk itself.


To British audiences, McKay was a familiar figure for one key role, though his career, in television particularly, was extensive. But it’s as McKay (pronounced Mick-EYE) in the TV show Porridge that he made his big impression. McKay was a tough, sardonic prison warden, the bete noir of the show’s convict heroes (Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale — father of Kate). McKay the actor played McKay the character sympathetically, even though he’s a bit of a hard case and the show’s nominal antagonist (though other, more vicious criminals could also make things tough for the heroes). He did a lot of lopsided smiling and quite a bit of one eye goggling, one eye squinting, like James Finlayson but subtler. Everyone, after all, is subtler than James Finlayson.

It’s in these roles of the seventies and eighties that FM made his mark on my memories, so I was intrigued to see him in THE BRAVE DON’T CRY, the last film produced by documentarist John Grierson, a Scottish-set film from 1951, directed by Philip Leacock (brother of documentarian Richard). A young McKay seemed inconceivable, since he’d seemed old when I was a kid. Would he even be recognizable, or would time have only kitted him out with all those attributes I knew so well further down the line?


Fulton McKay is COMPLETELY recognizable, and what’s more the same qualities that served him so well in later life work quite nicely for the younger thesp. The way he crosses a room in wide shot, he’s immediately himself — something to do with the way his head bobbles ever so slightly, a cocky bobble — his head flares out like a cork and his neck is slender, so i guess a certain amount of jiggle is inevitable. His lips are very thin and his smile is oddly angular — uniquely, his mouth has more than the conventional two corners. And it only goes up on one side.


Terrific actor. In the movie, he’s trapped down a mine with a group of other miners, his father killed in the subsidence. Lots of emoting to do. Then he breaks a leg. He’s not having a good day. The claustrophobic tension is strong, even on rather wobbly sets. I wish he’d done more movies — he’s very funny in Stephen Frears’ first feature, GUMSHOE, with Albert Finney — but at least he was always busy. It may be his best work is buried amid all that ephemeral TV. Likely it happened on stage in some rep theatre on a rainy day, seen by twenty people. But what we do have is pretty wonderful.

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.


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.


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.