The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
You can sell movie tickets telling people that the story of a human life is too complex and changeable to ever even begin to catch hold of, and that we are helpless mortals who don’t have the slightest idea what is best for us, and that wry acceptance of a mixed-to-dark fate is the closest we can come to sustained happiness – you can make back your film’s budget doing all of this, but it’s a lot of work, and even if you do it with supreme delicacy, with images of startling beauty and comfort, and with good jokes you are still swimming against a very hard tide; and that in a nutshell is the story of Bill Forsyth’s filmmaking career..
To put it another way, here is a list of the top 100 highest grossing films of all time adjusted for inflation. If you were to try to make a movie that excluded as much as possible of the animating spirit of these films, while retaining appeal to a broad audience—in other words not arthouse—then you would, perhaps, end up with something like Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (which did have wide appeal) or his Breaking In (which did not). Going further, if you were to take over seventy million 2021 dollars and spend them on reconceptualizing the Hollywood epic in order to argue that the true triumph of the human spirit comes in the small acts of decency we are able to commit while remaining for the most part implacably bound by our respective minuscule spheres of self-interest, then you might end up in the vicinity of Forsyth’s Being Human (barely seen).
To put it a third way (and then I’ll move on), there is a quiet current within the history of film that runs directly counter to the spectacle and apotheosis that come so naturally to a medium that in its iconic format consists of the world’s most beautiful people transformed into gigantic silvery angels blazing out of the darkness. This current is diverse—as diverse as any other genre, the action movie or thriller, although there is a unifying spirit which I suppose you could call meditativeness; and it has its public successes and failures just like the mainstream it runs against—its successes are often critical successes, and they dot, for example, the results of the 2012 Sight and Sound survey.1 All this to say that there was a tradition waiting for Forsyth if he had wanted to embrace it, one with defined aesthetic standards, awards to bestow, funds for the advancement of culture to be tapped. That he rejected this safe harbor, while remaining completely misaligned with the commercially dominant Hollywood ethos and eventually even with the Scottish film scene that he had been responsible for galvanizing, is a testament to the contrary-wise inward-twisting heart of his work.
On expectations. In Forsyth’s best known film, Local Hero, there is an early scene in which two characters are driving their car into a small village and have to avoid hitting a dog in the road. During filming someone suggested to Forsyth that the dog should bark to call attention to itself. Forsyth recoiled at the idea. Every time you see a dog in a movie, he said, it barks. The dog remained silent.
Also on expectations. Forsyth was born in Glasgow in 1946, the son of a warehouse worker. He was very shy—“not fit to be around people,” as he put it. He grew up reading books, disliking movies, hoping to become a writer. At seventeen he answered a help wanted ad for a local film production company because he needed a job. He worked cutting film, running the projector, as a cameraman, as a sound recorder; eventually he launched his own small production company. He went to London for a short while to attend film school, while keeping up his work, but couldn’t balance work and his studies and returned to Glasgow. By his thirties he decided that he wanted to make, as it were, real movies. Having no money and not knowing any actors, he had the idea of using teenagers who would, according to his concept, cost less and be more tractable. He began hanging around the Glasgow Youth Theatre but was too shy to talk to anyone. He was told by the theatre director that he had to talk to someone. The idea of telling a bunch of teenagers that he wanted to make a movie caused him to have a minor existential breakdown, but he did it. He wrote one script, couldn’t get the money to make it (he pitched the British Film Institute, they decided to make Sting’s Treacle and Brimstone instead, and it’s hard to argue with that title), wrote another script, and painstakingly raised around ten-thousand dollars. He shot on the hoof around the streets of Glasgow; the teenage boys in the cast would disappear into the pubs after each wrap and need to be rousted out again for the next scene. When he was finished he had made the first full-length fictional film ever produced in Scotland by Scottish people with Scottish money – Bill Forsyth and his crew and the youth of the Glasgow Youth Theatre were the Scottish film industry. The movie, That Sinking Feeling, showed at the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival to absolute delight. Doors began to open for him.
That Sinking Feeling is a complete and mature aesthetic statement; while Forsyth would keep expanding his sphere of interests and techniques, nothing present in his first movie would ever be abandoned or overturned. Already there is the episodic elliptical structure– short scenes that coalesce towards a plot while constantly tugging against narrative centralization; the sensitivity to a given specific location, it’s weather, sounds, nature, structures, eccentrics; the focus on evening and morning light; the insistence that characters be human and be roughly average in their humanity, without special pleading as protagonists; the obsession with the thinginess of things (Forsyth’s earliest formative filmic experience was being shown Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in high school, one of the great thing-centric movies, and he seems to have taken that admiration for the inanimate deeply to heart; a short illustrative list of objects that do work in his films: portable electric toothbrush (in duet with can opener), string of Christmas lights, tape deck, telephone booth, attic trap door, scale model of the Scottish coast, chargeable suitcase, BMW 323i Baur convertible, pair of thigh-high leather boots, headlamp, cell phone, large rusty mildly phallic spring.). There are gags—Forsyth’s hook as a filmmaker is his incredibly profuse and varied comic gift, and his early films especially are wall-to-wall running jokes, pratfalls, groaners, sight gags, graveyard humor, sketches, absurdism, awkwardness.
The plot of That Sinking Feeling follows a group of poor young men, bleakly bemused by their failure, entering an underemployed adulthood in a Glasgow that alternates between elaborate nineteenth century rubble and brutalist-lite apartment blocks. Egged on by Ronnie (Robert Buchanan), their least ineffective member, the boys plot to break into a plumbing supply warehouse, aiming to make off with a haul of easily fungible stainless-steel sinks. The film is structured according to three principles, which form the bedrock for Forsyth’s work going forward—reversal, pacifism, and irrelevance.
In his interviews, in his art, and in his commentaries on his art, Forsyth shows a deep suspicion of anything asserted positively; in one interview, noting his own ignorance of soccer, he says that he doesn’t know one end of a soccer field (“pitch”) from another, then quickly critiques his own use of idiom—that two ends of a soccer field are, of course, “quite similar.” In his films this tendency expresses itself as a desire to reverse the found wisdom of genre conventions and audience demands; there is often the sense of a keen eye searching each corner of a scene for anything routine that might be inverted. That the end result of this endless begrudging is an aura of serenity is a function of the central role conflict and tension play in conventional storytelling. Good guys, bad guys, mysteries, solutions, suspense, release—these are the ultimate shibboleths that Forsyth grumpily dismisses as standard-issue manipulation. Take for example the penultimate section of That Sinking Feeling, during which the boys pull off their caper. A caper, in capable conventional hands, is a precision machine for generating tension and relief, and proceeds with the repetitive satisfaction of a pop song: plan/complication/adaptation/complication/conclusion. Forsyth’s response is to kick the whole thing into a formless heap. The boy’s plan for the theft is pure silliness—they use a knockout potion on a truck driver so they can steal his truck so that they can load the truck with the sinks, which they obtain by distracting the night guard by having two of their members dress as women thus beguiling him; nevertheless the entire thing goes off without a hitch or a breath of tension, and the only real complication they face is the truck driver’s stubborn refusal to wake up.
Forsyth is usually at war with his plots, because he works, at least nominally, within established genres whose underpinnings he must, of course, subvert. He has described the issue as being one of character versus plot; that the requisites of plotting distract from the worthier work of exploring thoughts and emotion. I can’t help feeling though that the constant eddy of irrelevance that breaks up the surface of his films is an expression of pure playfulness—the playful side of his intransigence. After the theft of the sinks, instead of focusing on how the boys might sell them, or how it affects their relationships, the film becomes increasingly preoccupied by the poor drugged-out truck driver (who is free-standing but non-responsive, and whose arm remains frozen in the action of holding a coffee mug). Eventually he ends up in the hospital, where a doctor diagnoses him as being in a state of suspended animation, scheduled to wake up in 2068.
As for Ronnie and his accomplices, through a series of mishaps the truck carrying their stolen sinks becomes switched with an identical truck carrying pastries. They take it in stride and enjoy the pastries; the first example of Forsyth’s interest in acceptance, both as a response to the world and as an artistic device that allows him to explore dark emotions—want, disappointment, self-lying, disconnection—in films that maintain an utter lightness.
That Sinking Feeling gave Forsyth the chance to have a career. His next film, Gregory’s Girl released in 1981, gave him that career. It grossed over twenty-five million pounds (over one-hundred and twenty million dollars adjusted for inflation) off a budget of two-hundred thousand pounds, and became a cultural touchstone in Great Britain; a clip played during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London.
It is his happiest film, finding the sweetness in melancholy, nostalgia, and inertia, a teenage romance in which the children are wise, the adults are children, and the teenagers themselves are in a constant gentle turmoil of self-creation. The idea for the script came to Forsyth, oddly, from Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, a short early novel charged through with adolescent sturm und drang, about a high school athlete in love with two different classmates. Forsyth was attracted to the idea of taking agency away from the central male character and giving it to the women, coring out the sentiment and inserting his trademark passivity.
Moving on from the dank Glasgow ambiance of his previous film, Forsyth shot Gregory’s Girl in Cumbernauld, a fast-growing town whose recently built housing estates and shopping malls fit with his theme of adolescence; he was attracted to the idea that the trees in the local park would be around the same age as his teenage cast. He worked with many of the same actors from That Sinking Feeling: Robert Buchanan as a sadsack whose efforts to meet girls become increasingly deluded, Billy Greenlees as a boy obsessed with cookery, and John Gordon Sinclair as the titular Gregory. Sinclair, nineteen at the time of filming, presents as the graceful side of awkwardness; his spasms of frustration and bobbing anxiety are surface expressions of a placid good nature.
The early 80s were a fumbling high point of the teen sex-comedy; people wanted to know what was going on with the youth, the portraits film fed back to them were unstable. The Blue Lagoon, mystical and primitivist, came out in 1980; Fast Times at Ridgemont High, quotidian and nervy, and Porky’s, priapic and panoptic, came out in 1982. Gregory’s Girl opens with Gregory and his friends spying on a nurse undressing (their amorality here is not lost on Forsyth, whose years later quasi-sequel would present a reckoning)—there is a shot of her bare breasts, undercut a moment later when a passing tween remarks in a gruff burr “lot of fuss for a bit of tit.” With that the physical possibility of sex is dismissed. The characters are aware of sex, they talk about sex, and one of them—the sole high school graduate in the group, a hilariously declassee precursor to Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson—even claims to have had it. But its attractions and dangers are not real for them.
Largely, Gregory’s Girl is an idyl—it is no coincidence that at one point a passage from A Midsummer’s Night Dream is recited in English class. At the film’s beginning Gregory is demoted to goalkeeper on his soccer team; his unruffled response, a grin and thumbs up, sets the tone. He is replaced by the team’s only female member, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), and promptly falls in love with her. His efforts to attract Dorothy provide a thread of action through scenes that are mainly low-pressure exposition of character and place, done with delicate attention to detail; the best part of the film are its byways. My favorite scenes are those with the rare adult characters, whom Forsyth makes youthfully vulnerable. The soccer team’s coach, deals with bullying from fellow staff, tends to his garden, and in one perfect sequence has his efforts to impart soccer wisdom to Dorothy dissolve into a wordless, rapt dance. And Gregory’s one encounter with his father is a gentle reminder of the human stakes of unremarkable life—the father going from scolding his son for minor delinquency, to remarking on how little he’s seen him lately, to making a date to meet for breakfast later in the week (his wistful expression tells us he doesn’t expect the date to be kept).
The film ends with a bravura sequence that takes Gregory through a long summer evening into night, as he goes on what he thinks is a date with Dorothy only to be passed from girl to girl until he ends up with a secret admirer (Clare Grogin) who takes him in hand; by going with the flow he gets what is good for him. In the film’s final scene we see Dorothy at last, alone, jogging through the night in her soccer gear—the only character who has known what she wanted and steadfastly pursued it, and perhaps Forsyth’s stand-in.
If Gregory’s Girl is an idyl, then Local Hero is an idyl with a before and after. With the success of Gregory’s Girl Forsyth was approached by David Puttnam, an independent producer who specialized in prestige films and had just come off a hit with Chariots of Fire. Puttnam felt that if Forsyth could come up with a story that involved an American traveling to Scotland, then they would be able to raise Hollywood money for a substantial budget. There was (and still is) an offshore oil drilling boom in Scotland, and that became the plot: an American oilman travels to a Scottish small town, the fictional Ferness, in order to buy the whole thing up for drilling. To add the necessary Forsyth inversion, the townspeople would be savvy bargainers eager to sell up, and the oilman would, under the village’s rural influence, become a mooncalf. Warner Brother bought US distribution rights for one-and-a-half million dollars, with further funding on offer after Burt Lancaster signed on as the oil tycoon and astronomical obsessive Felix Happer (so named to suggest that he is happy).
MacIntyre (Peter Reigert) is Happer’s catspaw, sent from Houston to Scotland to deal with the villagers; the idea is that MacIntyre, having Scottish ancestry, will be trusted by the natives. His Scottish blood however is purely nominal—we learn that his roots are in Hungary. He is a nonentity, a mid-level operator and uncharismatic hustler, mildly respected and not much thought of, primarily valued for something—his name—he had nothing to do with. Happer by contrast is larger than life, his office reached by a floating silver staircase, so surfeited with earthly achievements that his remaining ambition is to name a comet after himself. Apparently Ferness is well-situated for star-gazing; MacIntyre is admonished to watch the sky.
Arriving in Scotland MacIntyre picks up a natty, nervous young assistant, Danny (Peter Capaldi in his first role), who speaks a myriad of languages but none of his local Gaelic. The two of them visit the local Knox lab, which contains one of Forsyth’s most appealing things – a scale model of the Scottish coast around Ferness, lapped by water deep enough to dive into. The portion representing Ferness itself is detachable and can be swapped out for a dainty model oil refinery, complete with a little flare burning like a birthday candle. Also at the lab is Marina, a perhaps too aptly-named marine researcher whom Danny is immediately infatuated with and who is one of the film’s pair of unattainable women.
The film’s entire theme in fact is unattainability—this is another Forsythian lesson on the vanity of human agency. Arriving in Ferness MacIntyre meets up with local factotum Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), who owns the village inn, tends bar at the pub, is a certified accountant, deals in wild game, and is in the early throws of a passionate marriage to Stella (Jennifer Black). Urquhart is the leader in the plot to exploit the oilmen, and is the town’s chief negotiator. His pas de deux with MacIntyre is the smaller sphere around which the film’s globe of images and themes turns. Both men want what the other has, but not symmetrically. Urquhart is a happy man who would like to get rich, MacIntyre is an unhappy man who is beginning to admit he is unhappy—he wants Urquhart’s happiness and (gently, not actionably) his wife; he wants his life.
It’s worth pausing here to question why exactly MacIntyre thinks he can be happy by throwing his old life away and starting fresh in Ferness, because this is a very misunderstood film. The conventional view is well represented by Robert Ebert’s very positive review: Ferness is a wonderful place, and this is a film about whether it will be destroyed by greed or saved by humankind’s better angels. It is true that Ferness is seductively beautiful; all of Local Hero is ravishing, and the felty duns, grays, greens, pinks and violets of Ferness’ oceanside setting, washed by Mark Knopfler’ melty score, are bliss. But it is a staged bliss, an othered Scotland no more real than Vincente Minelli’s Brigadoon, or Powell and Pressburger’s Isle of Kiloran.2 Grasping at stage dressing will not solve MacIntyre’s problems. At film’s end the only person whose wishes are fulfilled is Felix Happer, because he is a billionaire (Marina’s wishes have also been fulfilled but it’s not entirely clear by then if she’s a person or the spirit of the land). Power gets what it wants, and the rest of the characters continue on as they were. Urquhart is still a happy, not very pecunious innkeeper with a loving marriage; MacIntyre is back in Houston, maybe a bit wiser, or maybe a bit more deluded. The famous final shot shows him placing a call to the bright red phone box that links Ferness to the outside world. It rings and rings and no one picks up—and this was in response to Warner Brothers asking for the ending to be made a little more uplifting.
Yet Local Hero is beloved, and is a lovable film, a complete balm to the soul. Critic Stephen Metcalf has called it “the last movie I’d like to watch before wheeling off to eternity.” A lot of the pleasure comes from how well Bill Forsyth does enjoyable things—how good his jokes are, his timing, his ability to use a short scene to suggest years of life and history, the way the film’s themes resonate with each other; and how little he includes of that standard, grinding plot machinery that places obstacles just for the sake of obstacles, that maneuvers characters into conflict like tweezered beetles (the only truly unsympathetic character in the film is an “abuse therapist” (Norman Chancer) who ambushes Happer with insults in an attempt to unblock him).
But Local Hero wouldn’t have the dreamy, deep feeling it does without its darkness. It is healing to be presented with an existentialism that invokes feelings of intrigue and tentativeness rather than disgust and withdrawal.
Local Hero was a commercial success and critical darling. Forsyth became exasperated with the reception—my impression is that whatever response to his films becomes most accepted he will reject. He disliked being seen as a whimsicalist and he felt that there was a perception in Scotland that he was participating in stereotypes rather than subverting them. His response was to make something spikey and slightly out of control.
Comfort and Joy is sneakily Forsyth’s most complex film, with a plot that branches out from a single, personal hurt into many different moods, from grand philosophy to cartoonish fun. It is also his Christmas film (released in August). In the grey run-up to the holidays, radio DJ Allan “Dicky” Bird (Bill Paterson) is out with his girlfriend (Eleanor David); she shoplifts, he watches. In the car he grouses and she condescends to him. Back home he reads a paperback novel while she glides around their apartment, placing objects in a cardboard box. Two men come in, the packing intensifies. It’s a breakup. Dicky, staid and middle-aged, has lost his madcap younger woman, the spark and play in his life.
The blow knocks Allan out of his own life for a while. At the radio station he does his patter and records jingles for his sponsors. After hours he drives around Glasgow in a lovely gray gloaming, one of the great cinematic capturings of a city in time. Occasionally he meets up with a friend (Patrick Malahide) whose stable family life counterpoints Allan’s drift. The natural question is, how and when will Allan heal, and what changes in his life will allow him to do so? And so of course this is precisely the question that Forsyth won’t answer. Allan will not meet another woman and craft a new, more mature and generative relationship; he will not discover a hidden passion; he will not spiral into a crisis whose resolution will offer a shot at redeeming a wasted life. Instead he becomes involved in a farcical conflict between opposing ice cream salesmen.
Now, the Glasgow ice cream wars were a real thing. In the early 1980s rival gangs used ice cream vans as fronts to sell drugs. Turf wars erupted, people died. Forsyth claims to have been aware of none of this; Peter Capaldi, who apparently descends from ice cream nobility, mentioned the general fact of the conflict to him, and Forsyth adapted the idea as an anarchic counterweight to the story of Allan’s malaise. In Forsyth’s version, the ice cream wars are between vendors whose interest is strictly ice cream; when they do finally resort to violence, the fighting is carried out with enormous wooden mallets (of the type wielded by Bug Bunny) and no serious harm is done to anyone. Allan falls into the middle of all this for twisty reasons—first he becomes infatuated with a female ice cream scooper (Clare Grogan) and follows her truck; then he is recognized in turn as a minor local celebrity, and recruited, first by one side and then the other, to broker peace in what turns out to be a rift within a single large ice cream family. It’s all very baroque compared to the cleanness of Forsyth’s first three films, and Allan’s eventually solution to the conflict (everyone gets together to sell a new fried-ice-cream product) is almost a dusting of the hands—“yes this is very silly, but anyway we’re finished now.”
It’s easy to pay attention to all of the stuff happening in Comfort and Joy (and I’ve glossed over major aspects, such as a work politics subplot) and think that something has happened to Allan—but this isn’t the case. He finishes the movie unchanged; the fundamental question posed within the film’s first few minutes, of how he will build himself back up after being dumped, hasn’t been answered at all.3 It’s a radical bit of misdirection that echoes the theme of Comfort and Joy’s predecessor Local Hero. Both films are about men who are, simply, sad; who do a lot of different things without addressing that sadness, and who we suspect may just go on being sad until they die. Comfort and Joy is the more restless film; watching it I have the sense of being jostled around, of some scenes being too short and others too long, of tones being rifled through and ideas being picked up and put down. But it is really only offering a more clamorous gloss on the ideas worked out in Local Hero. The two films work well as companion pieces, and together they conclude the early, most personal period of Forsyth’s career.
In 1986, when he was forty, Bill Forsyth began a characteristically hesitant, feinting journey towards Hollywood. His relationship with mainstream commercial filmmaking had always been complex. He did not have the deep childhood sediment of moviegoing that has inflected so many directors; his own big burst of movie watching came in his early twenties, and was focused on the French New Wave—Godard especially. Later an early collaborator (Charles Gormley) suggested that Forsyth should build his familiarity with the Hollywood canon. Since this was pre-VCR, Forsyth would make audio cassette tapes of classic movies when they played on TV so he could study them later—circumstances that you have to imagine gave him a somewhat removed appreciation for these films.4 He was not a frequent filmgoer in later life; in a 1989 interview with Terry Gross he said “I don’t get much satisfaction out of watching movies,” and called the medium “manipulative.” At the same time he has consistently wanted to find what I would call a middlebrow audience, the kind of audience that in the 80s at least could let a filmmaker go on making movies at a few million dollars a pop, earning back their budgets and occasionally breaking through to the mass market. Or as he said in an interview with Rita Kempley: “I think there should be room for a filmmaker like me in the commercial marketplace. I'm not an obscure kind of artist or anything."
Forsyth’s impatient response to Local Hero moved his films in a direction that made financing harder. Comfort and Joy lost money. For his next project he optioned the rights to Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping, then struggled for two years to raise the five-million-dollar budget. After he’d gotten a commitment from Cannon based on Diane Keaton agreeing to star, she dropped out at the last moment and Cannon followed suite. David Puttnam, now head of Columbia, stepped in at the last moment, allowing filming to go forward. These kinds of industry pressures and dislocations would only grow.
While several of Forsyth’s films are lost classics, Housekeeping is the one most likely to be rehabilitated as a Lost Classic.5 Filmed in British Columbia and set in the 1950s, it is a straight, respectful adaption of the novel; it feels literary and has some hallmarks of Academy Award nominee filmmaking: engagement with social issues, straightforward natural beauty, and more conflict and emotionality than Forsyth would usually admit to. This is not in any way to condemn Housekeeping as compromised—I should be clear that I love this movie. But Forsyth set out to bring to life Robinson’s vision, and succeeded. His own contributions are not marginal but in the margins—sly touches like an excellent joke involving a head of lettuce (the lettuce is Robinson’s, the joke Forsyth’s), and a general gentle darkening of the tone; and of course it is his ability as a scriptwriter and filmmaker that underpins everything and allows him to translate her novel so naturally to film.
Housekeeping is a film about two girls and a woman. Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill) are teenage sisters; after their mother commits suicide they fall into the care of their aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti). Together they live in a fey old house in a small town in the Pacific Northwest; the town borders a deep cold lake, and crossing the lake is a raised railroad track. Years ago a train plunged from the track into the lake, and among those dead was Sylvie’s father, the girls’ grandfather. Within this well-constructed world of signs and symbols the girls and Sylvie struggle to adjust to each other. Sylvie is a wanderer, dreamer, child of nature. She hoards cans and stacks of newspaper. She does not keep track of time or of the children in her care. Lucille feels neglected, and eventually socially contaminated by her aunt’s strangeness. She leaves to go live with a sympathetic teacher. Ruth draws closer to Sylvie and becomes strange herself.
There is a genuine tension running through the latter half of the film, as the community begins to detect Sylvie’s otherness, and weighs what to do about it. The audience is implicated as well—what would we do about it? Lahti, in one of my favorite performances, is brilliant in giving a full portrait of a spirit that is not in tune with what is being asked of it. Her Sylvie has a complex inner world and an outer freedom of action to offer Ruth, but she can’t offer things like a daily hot breakfast, a clean and tidy space to live, or the security of a routine.
In one late scene the local sheriff (Bill Smillie) checks on Ruth while she is in the middle of a nighttime game of hide-and-seek with Sylvie, hiding in the woods around their house; the desperation of the two women to prove their happiness and mutual care, set against his entirely reasonable suspicion, is excruciating. Forsyth is empathic throughout. He has said that he is hesitant to make films about children, because movies about children tend towards sentimentality; but Housekeeping captures just what it is that makes us sentimental about children—their vulnerability, their possibility, the sheer responsibility of dealing with something so delicate and with so much potential. Everyone wants Ruth to, in essence, flourish—Sylvie, her sister Lucille, her teachers, her neighbors, the vague but powerful authorities represented by the sheriff. But how can we know what is best for a child? When Sylvie and Ruth flee from their community, into the night across the railroad tracks, disappearing into blackness, it represents a question being posed to the audience; not catharsis.
Housekeeping lost about four million dollars; Forsyth felt that his career was nearing a decision point: “I can't get away with making $6- or $7-million movies with the kind of audience that my past movies have reached. I've just got to find an audience—or retreat. And I'm quite happy to retreat, I'm happy to go back to Scotland and make smaller movies…” His next project was a crime film, based on a script by John Sayles (although Forsyth did extensive rewrites, with Sayles’ blessing). The result, Breaking In, has familiar bones: Ernie Mullins (Burt Reynolds),6 a grizzled old safecracker, takes on arrogant young gun Mike (Casey Siemaszko) as his apprentice. Over time the two bond and the relationship shades towards father-son. Working together, they plan one last big score. The studio, Samuel Goldwyn, wanted to play the story as something light and fun. Forsyth did not–he wanted to emphasize the fact that these men were in fact criminals, bad people who deserved punishment. The Studio and Forsyth wrangled back and forth—in one instance the studio wanted Mike, who gets caught by the police near the end of the film, to be let off with a light sentence; Forsyth wanted a longer sentence that acknowledged the seriousness of his crimes. They compromised on nine years.
Forsyth has called Breaking In “an awkward little movie,” and it does at times feel dented and bent by studio interference—the tone of Ernie and Mike’s relationships whipsaws back and forth from scene to scene, and there is a poorly-developed romance plot. But it is still a complete pleasure to watch, a measured portrait of small-scale immorality, a comedy about the nature not of evil but of less-good-than-most.
It also has my favorite sequence in any Forsyth film, a perfect summation of his stance against narrative manipulation.7 For their first heist together, Ernie and Mike target a local grocery store. They climb up onto the roof, cut through the ceiling, lower a rope, and begin to climb down inside. Waiting for them at the bottom is an alert Doberman Pinscher. We tense up, waiting for a beat of fear, violence, conflict. But—the Doberman is indifferent. It wanders aimlessly while Ernie and Mike burgle the store. But again—it turns out there is a second, identical Doberman. Drama ensues, as Ernie and Mike mistake the second, hostile Doberman, for the first? No—the second Doberman is also indifferent. Somewhere locked in this scene is a deep, enlightening secret; yet its koan-like structure is also emblematic of a film that is unwilling to deliver the kinds of open-handed pleasures that the audience for a Burt Reynolds’ crime caper may have expected. Breaking In also lost about four million dollars.
The logical next step would have been for Forsyth to, as he’d planned, move to Scotland to make smaller films. Instead he became involved in a cautionary tale. Being Human, his final film with Hollywood backing (Warner Bros. this time), has an aggressively anti-commercial premise: five vignettes, each taken from a different era of human history, all of them subtle and downbeat, linked thematically but with no overarching plot (the idea came to Forsyth while he was on a phone call with Bill Murray). It was budgeted at twenty million dollars, equivalent to seventy million today. There was absolutely no way that a film with this premise, directed by Bill Forsyth, was going to make any appreciable fraction of that amount. And so inevitably the studio began to try to twist the film into something that could make twenty million dollars. This was impossible, and the experience made everyone involved, it seems, angry and sad. The shoot, moreover, was subject to intense studio oversight in order to keep the budget from creeping up. At one point the fourth vignette, meant to be set in the jungle, had to be moved to the desert after the studio refused to authorize funding for malaria insurance. Forsyth likened the experience of making the film to being a fifth columnist, engaged in a secret war with his own ostensible side.
The film that came out of the process was 160 minutes long and resolutely unviable as a means of generating profits. David Cairns, writing here on Notebook, describes what happened next:
"Can anyone tell me what this film is supposed to be about?" demanded Warners head Terry Semel after an unsuccessful test screening. Forsyth leaned forward to speak. "Not you," snapped Semel.
The film was locked in purgatory. Eventually 40 minutes were cut, a poorly recorded voice-over added, and it was dumped into theatres without promotion or support. The opening credits are a biting announcement of utter studio indifferences—white letters on a black background, done in such a way as to make you suddenly realize the level of thought and care put into the white letters on a black background that open other, more gently treated movies.
There is a narrative of Being Human as a flop, a botch and a disaster. This is not true. It was a commercial failure, and there were some harsh reviews (Owen Gleiberman gave it an F in Entertainment Weekly). But there were also many balanced, thoughtful reviews, and the film itself is good. Robin Williams plays a nebbish everyman named Hector who appears in five different incarnations: a caveman, a Roman slave, a Crusader, a shipwrecked Enlightenment merchant, and a sketchy landlord living in modern-day New York City. In the caveman section Hector’s wife and children are kidnapped by raiders; in each subsequent vignette he is seeking to reunify with his family—although this drive falters at times, especially when the opportunity to construct a new, alternate family arises. There is also an ongoing theme of slavery and mastery. Hector begins in a state of nature, in Rome he is a slave, on the Crusades he is free but oppressed, in the Enlightenment he is a slaveholder himself, and in modern times he is both free and enmeshed in a web of financial, legal, and emotional obligations. The density of themes, and the strange way that the concepts of family and slavery/mastery are placed in tension, gives the film the feeling of a dream that hovers just outside interpretation.
With the exception of the caveman sequence (which was apparently filmed on a very rushed schedule), each vignette is drawn with the brio, specificity, and in-media-res quality of a good short story. The Enlightenment sequence in particular is wonderfully deadpan. Here Hector is part of a large, disparate group shipwrecked on what looks like the Namibian coast. Facing a long trek through the desert to reach safety they are, it seems, all going to die. Hector refuses to acknowledge the inevitable, and his bumbling attempts to see to earthly matters that are all too soon going to become completely irrelevant (ingratiating himself with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be one of the shipwrecked, finding a comfortable pair of boots) are as precisely human as the film’s title promises.
After Being Human Forsyth returned to Scotland and made one more film before lapsing into silence. Gregory’s Two Girls, a pitch-black sequel to Gregory’s Girl, is widely seen as a late-career misfire and… I don’t quite know what to say about it. Forsyth was leery of making a straight sequel, and wanted to obtain as much separation as he could from the original. The result is that the carefree, warm Gregory of the first film is now grown up (and played by a middle-aged John Gordon Sinclair) into a charmless attempted sex offender; the plot is a busy affair concerning his attempt to draw closer to a high school girl by helping her obtain evidence that a local tech company is surreptitiously producing torture equipment for despots.
Conceptually the movie is interesting. Forsyth is a long-standing admirer of Nabokov,8 and Gregory’s Two Girls takes up one of Lolita’s themes: the link between sexual morality and morality writ large. To return to teen sex-comedies for a moment, these films (not all of them but many of them) sometimes slide into a worldview in which boys who spy on and exploit girls and women are, nonetheless, good people. The sins related to sexual imperatives are excusable, because these imperatives are too strong to resist (or because resisting them somehow attenuates one’s humanity – renders one bloodless and inert). In Gregory’s Two Girls Forsyth places himself firmly against this idea. Gregory might seem to live a morally upstanding life—he is a teacher attempting to inculcate his charges with ideas of social and economic justice—but his romantic pursuit of a girl in one of his classes corrupts everything within and around him. It is only towards the end of the film, when he firmly rejects said pursuit, that he can begin to reclaim his status as a valid moral actor; and even then it is implied that he will have to pay a heavy restitution before doing so.
But despite the originality and seriousness of this concept, this is the only Forsyth movie that I would not choose to watch again. It doesn’t feel like it is coming to life the way it should. It looks flat, the soundtrack is uninteresting, the characters seem to have thematic imperatives rather than human motives, the jokes are not sharp. It could be that the central bleakness of its conceit has seeped out into the film’s overall aesthetic, that the sense of thinness and productive exhaustion is the point. The sequel to one of the most joyful films ever made becomes, in Forsyth’s contrary hands, an anti-enjoyment.
Gregory’s Two Girls came out in 1999, and was the last film Forsyth directed. He is now 74 years old, and it seems unlikely he will direct another. He continues to write scripts and look for projects but there has ceased to be a fit between what he wants to do and what the market will bear. The era of small budget, small profit, moderate appeal films is over, or in remission. Tellingly, Forsyth has received requests from producers to repackage his unmade film scripts as TV shows; serialized television is now the home for accessible experimentation.
He does not seem troubled by this long silence at the end of his career. At the end of a semi-elegiac interview with Film Talk in 2015 he was asked “What has filmmaking given you in your life, what has your career brought you personally?” He answered, in part:
“I had working-class parents, and their life was not their own, in a sense that they needed to work, they needed to maintain a job throughout their lives. I have moved on from that in two ways, in the sense that I’ve been in control of my life. I’ve been in control of when I work and when I don’t work. I’ve also created my own work, and I didn’t have a real job. Apart from filming, I never had to leave home each morning to go to work. It sounds like a small thing, but to me, it’s a big thing. I never had to put myself in a workplace the way that my parents and so many people had to…. That’s what the film business has given me: it has given me time, my life, a space to learn and to be creative.”