Archive for Bill Forsyth

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]

Archives

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2014 by dcairns

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Spent the week shuttling between teaching and editing, and also managed to see a movie-themed musical (of which more later) and visited the Bill Forsyth Archive, in the keeping of Edinburgh University Library. I wasn’t able to leaf through the treasures therein at this stage, but I chatted with the librarian and  a vague plan of action was devised.

If I can come up with a project which justifies searching the archive — and this meets with Mr. F.’s approval — I could then get some funding from the university or maybe elsewhere, which could partly go towards paying to have the archive properly catalogued and stored. It’s all in banana boxes right now, and there are delicate items such as, for instance, all the continuity Polaroids from LOCAL HERO, which are chemically fragile and could do with being more carefully preserved.

I was very interested in the correspondence, including perhaps the notorious but little-seen “Dear Bill” letters, which practically toppled the Scottish Film Production Fund. It’s a tale of long-ago and the principles involved may not want to see it hashed out again, but if the true hiftory of Scottish cinema ever comes to be written it would make a juicy chapter.

Basically, Bill was invited to sit on the board of said august organisation, a prestigious but under-funded body (in those pre-National Lottery days) dispensing small amounts of development and production money to Scottish films. Disturbed by what he saw, Bill began a correspondence with Eddie Dick, the board’s chairman and “gatekeeper,” the one who decided, as I recall, whether projects should even be considered by the board. After a while, Bill felt he wasn’t getting anywhere and went public, releasing the “Dear Bill” letters to the press. I never saw any extracts, only the summaries provided in The Scotsman and elsewhere, but they appear to have been Hot Stuff. The key phrases, as interpreted by the newsprint hacks, were “cronyism” and “a lack of transparency.”

This was greeted with a certain amount of glee by those of us who had not been allowed to feed at the trough. It was I, it can now be revealed, who had first dubbed the origanisation “The Scottish Film Prevention Fund,” which caught on fairly fast and may have eventually led to them changing their name to Scottish Screen. The initials made that one too easy. It’s now part of something called Creative Scotland, and nobody has bothered to spoof that name, they just say it in a depressed, vaguely sarcastic way.

Now, a lack of transparency does not mean anything fishy is going on, it just means that from the outside, nobody can tell. I would have to say that this charge was completely justified. It’s difficult for a funding organisation to be fully transparent — nobody will ever know why Ken Russell and Spike Milligan never got BBC commissions in their later years, even if rejection letters were written giving reasons. But Scottish filmmakers were deeply suspicious of the SFPF. Nobody except Bill Forsyth was going public about it, because everybody else hoped they might one day be given funding, and didn’t want “to bite the hand that might one day feed them,” as I recall The Scotsman putting it.

“Cronyism” is a more concrete charge. The problem was that it was considered perfectly OK for a senior Scottish film bod to sit upon the board, making funding decisions, while also applying to that board for money. If you did this and your project came up for discussion, you simply stepped out of the room while the rest of the board weighed the projects’ merits, then you came back in and were greeted by smiling faces. Nothing untoward about that, surely?

The reason this had happened was that the Scottish film industry was and still is very small, so it would be impossible to find qualified people to consider applications if being on the board prevented you from applying for funds for your own project. My producer at the time, Nigel Harper, suggested a very simple solution to this would be to have a one-year moratorium, if moratorium is the word I want, and a rapidly-changing board so that people could keep their projects active AND be on the board but not at the same time. This would also mean that if your worst enemy was on the board, nixing all your movie epics, you could console yourself that they wouldn’t always be there.

I think the problem is now solved by having the decisions made mainly by full-time bureaucrats…

Curiously enough, Eddie Dick, the victim of the Forsythian ire, is now a film producer, and responsible for the Scottish side of LET US PREY, the horror film Fiona and I co-wrote. I did ask him about the “Dear Bill” Affair once, but he just muttered something about Bill being “not like his films.”

I just did an interview with Mr. Forsyth and found him exactly like his films — gentle, funny, wry, intelligent, a touch melancholic, thoughtful and generous. Still, I suppose nobody can be like that ALL the time.

I hope somebody gets into the Forsyth Archive and gets it all catalogued and produces a really good project. This blog post might prevent it from being me, I don’t know.

I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the banana boxes, but I did snap Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Josephine Baker. (Paolozzi was an Edinburgh-born sculptor who also starred in the early Free Cinema short, TOGETHER.)

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