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April 24, 2006

Bill Forsyth's "Comfort and Joy"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Scrolling through the TV schedule, I noticed that a too-rare treat will be showing on the Sundance Channel at 7 a.m. Eastern time this Wednesday: Bill Forsyth's 1984 Scottish comedy "Comfort and Joy." Set the Tivo. The movie -- a small-scale but sweet and moving gem -- isn't available on DVD in this country, and hasn't been easy to find generally since its original theatrical release.

It's a movie with a distinctive and unusual tone. The tone is, in fact, the real point of the movie. Where the entertainment business today is selling empirically-obvious, easy-to-categorize experiences -- effects, technology, star power, concepts, themes, edginess -- "Comfort and Joy" is a bemused tone poem with many loose ends. Another thing that makes the movie unusual by contempo standards is how hard it is to describe or capture the movie's tone. Bittersweet? Melancholy yet optimistic? In any case, the film is an oddball work, and maybe even a one-of-a-kind small classic: eccentric yet subdued, quiet and realistic yet full of beauty and mood.

Part of the reason it's so hard to fix a label to the film's mood is that its mood is unstable -- it's a shifting mixture of many different moods. Back in the day, we filmbuffs often said about movies like "Comfort and Joy" that they were about "fugitive" moods and moments. By this, we meant to suggest tones, moods, and moments that were slippery -- ones that by their nature came and went. Robert Altman, for instance, often describes what he tries to do as "capturing lightning in a bottle." It was even thought by some buffs that this was part of the strange and marvelous nature of movies: that, despite the money, the clunkiness of the technology, and the egos, the occasonal movie still manages to capture and convey something of the slipping-through-your-fingers quality that's such a touching and essential part of life.

(A question that has come up recently, during the computer years, is whether this magical ability is dependent on celluloid. I'm not alone in wondering whether video picks up and passes along poetry in anything like the same way that celluloid sometimes does. Video and computers are, of course, perfectly amazing where effects and information are concerned. But do they resonate to the very nature of life as celluloid once did?)

In any case, it's this kind of of fugitive emotional music -- a music that happens as much in your imagination as it does on the screen -- that is what "Comfort and Joy" is selling.

I hope a brief bit of reminiscing and pontification will be indulged. (I promise it leads back to "Comfort and Joy.") There was a lot to dislike -- as well as a lot that was ego-and-drug-fueled and plain crazy -- about the movies of the 1960s and '70s. I'm happy to join in the occasional bout of jeering myself. But there were some lovely things about the popular culture of the era too. If the hostility to and condescension towards the mainstream were often a drag, the willingness to leave the mainstream behind and see where dream and whim could carry you sometimes resulted in marvels.

When conventional standards were abandoned, beauty was sometimes found in surprising places: in different physical types than were usual, perhaps even in everyday people and everyday life. Different kinds of emotional tones were tried out and explored. A film might be imperfect -- but maybe there was something to be said for imperfection. Moods were allowed to mix, and unusual feelings were summoned up.

Popular music, movies, magazines, and novels sometimes put you in touch with facets of experience that could really bring you up short. Thoughts half-thought, dreams half-dreamed, people whose lives moved you but whom you might never run across again ... You read or watched or listened to these works less to be blown away by wowee spectacles or to have fun playing with databases, and more to sample and try things out.

Historical note: The period in American movies that I'm describing (and that, admittedly, filmbuff types tend to make far too much of) was a short one. A very short one. It can be startling to remember that it lasted for only a decade: from "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "Easy Rider" (1969) on one end to "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977) on the other. With the triumph of the summer blockbusters, movies -- and popular culture generally -- began a rapid return to the usual: selling stardom, energy, glitz, effects -- the usual easily-categorized experiences, only now given a rock-video jolt. The willingness to "go with a mood" evaporated. God bless you if that's what moved you -- but maybe you should pursue your passions elsewhere, eh? Ideas and concepts of beauty reverted to the usual, if with more variety in the lightness or darkness of the skin tones. Happy ("up endings") and sad ("down endings") went their separate ways, seldom to meet again. Labels and packaging prevailed once again over content and tone.

During the early 1980s, as the business of popular culture was returning to the usual, the Scotsman Bill Forsyth kept alive a more-open, dreamier kind of filmmaking. He made a small handful of quiet, quirkily-wayward comedies that were also very beautiful. Although he was best-known for his coming-of-age comedy "Gregory's Girl," the films of his that I really love are "Local Hero" (about a tightly-wound American businessman whose emotions unravel during a business visit to an isolated Scottish town), "Housekeeping" (about an eccentric small-town aunt), and "Comfort and Joy." These are all lowkey, warm, and humane movies. They also manage to be clear-eyed and completely accessible, yet (in tonal terms) completely out of the mainstream.

"Comfort and Joy" strikes me as the richest of these movies. As small-scale as it is, it's as poignant and quirky as Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." (If I remember right, Forsyth was a huge fan of "McCabe." His movie "Housekeeping" is almost an homage to "McCabe.") If you can imagine a movie that combines the kind of droll, minor-key amusingness of an Ealing Comedy with a Jean Renoir-style open visual and emotional beauty, you start to come close to the mixture that is "Comfort and Joy."

Forsyth wrote the script and directed. He was helped immensely by the brilliant and soulful (yet non-showy) cinematography of Chris Menges; by a relaxed, and tender cast led by Bill Paterson; and by a wonderfully evocative score by Mark Knopfler. They all entered into the spirit of the project completely, and they all did their inspired best to find the beauty in what's usually considered inconsequential: daily life, and everyday people and dramas. Set in Glasgow, the film features Bill Paterson as an early-morning DJ who, ditched by his girlfriend as the holidays approach, gets involved in a Mafia war over ice cream.

For four or five years, Bill Forsyth looked like one of the world's most distinctive filmmakers. His eccentricity and dreaminess seemed unforced. And his films looked easy: He wasn't a filmmaker who showed the effort. Ideas seemed to arrive to him on a wave of pure, if quiet, inspiration, and he seemed to move his ideas onto the screen with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of love. I suppose I shouldn't resist the corny statement: Almost alone, and without bombast or politics, Forsyth kept alive the '70s-style movie-dream: that despite everything, a movie might be a vehicle for personal expression; and that, despite everything, there was something magic and poetic in the very nature of the movie medium.

Then, poof, it all dried up. In the mid-'80s, Forsyth followed the producer David Puttnam to America. In 1987 he made a beautiful (maybe too beautiful) film of Marilynne Robinson's "Housekeeping," with Christine Lahti in the lead. He made "Breaking In," a minor if pleasantly oddball caper film. Then, in 1993 came his fiasco -- "Being Human," a big-budget statement movie that the studio took away from him and cut. (It didn't look to me like it had much promise anyway.) Since then, Forsyth has barely been heard of. I see that in 1999 he made a sequel to "Gregory's Girl." But the film vanished without a trace, and almost no one who has seen it seems to have enjoyed it.

What happened? I find myself wondering about this question and coming up with irresponsible possible answers. Had Forsyth relied on booze and/or drugs? Did he have a breakdown? My pet theory is that he felt so burned by the time he spent working with stars and budgets that he fell out of love with movies.

But perhaps -- given that his feelings were stirred by out-of-the-mainstreamness and by unstable moods -- it was inevitable that filmmaking and Bill Forsyth should part ways. Are feature-scaled narrative films really the right place for love-motivated, dreamy artists to work? It's a vicious and competitive field, after all. Maybe poetry, painting, or music would be a more suitable vehicle for the quieter talents. Speaking as a spectator, though, I'm grateful for the people who have tried to bring some personal and artistic qualities to the medium. (I'm especially grateful to the ones who have done so without making too self-righteous a point of it. And few talented film directors have been as quiet as Bill Forsyth.) A buff who first fell for film in the '60s and '70s, I've managed to remain interested in movies since that time. But when Bill Forsyth dropped out of the field, so did some of my own feelings about the medium.

I hope I haven't made too much of "Comfort and Joy." After all, the movie is, when less excitedly considered, just a sweetly eccentric comedy with a surprising amount of feeling and visual beauty in it. On the other hand: What's small about such an achievement? Short version: If you're touched by the early music of Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, or if you love listening to the sad songs of Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Iris Dement, then you might get a similar sweet/painful kick out of "Comfort and Joy."

I see that "Local Hero" can be bought for $6.95. "Housekeeping" isn't available on DVD either. If your DVD player is up to the challenge, you can buy the UK edition of "Comfort and Joy" here. I wonder what the Forsyth commentary track is like. Here's the Sundance page for "Comfort and Joy." Gerald Peary interviewed Forsyth back in 1985. Christopher Meir does some worthwhile and informative (if lengthy) filmcrit here. Here's a CD by Mark Knopfler that I love. Here's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," my favorite movie. Murky, impressionistic, shocking ... I wonder if the film works at all on DVD. I'm scared to find out.



posted by Michael at April 24, 2006


Thanks for reminding me of how peurile I was 20 years ago -- I totally didn't get "Local Hero" at the time.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 25, 2006 4:08 AM

Yes - "Comfort and Joy" is a wonderful little movie.

But movies like this are still being made.

Right now, we don't have anything like the American movie scene of '67 to '77 (or the French movie scene of the 1930s to pick another Golden Age), but we do have "Bill Forsyths"- guys making quirky, personal, low-key, tonally complex movies full of 1970s-style movie magic. And even though these movies do get championed by film critics, they still tend to get lost amid the growing heaps of media product.

It's kind of weird: on the one hand, services like Netflix makes it easier than ever to keep up with obscure, out-of-the-mainstream movies. On the other, there's just so much stuff out there that figuring out what's worth keeping up with seems to take a lot more effort than it used to.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on April 25, 2006 9:28 AM

Steve -- Dude, "Local Hero" is 23 years ago now. Gives pause, doesn't it? And what a great idea for a blog posting: terrific movies you didn't "get" the first time around. My own most shameful example is "Melvin and Howard," which totally didn't impress me at first, even though I was already a big Jonathan Demme fan. Luckily, friends ridiculed me, so I tried it again, and "got" it to the point where it became one of my faves of that era.

JH -- Good to see you back in the blogosphere. I thought we'd lost you to the RPG world. I agree that there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in movies at this point. Where we part company is on whether it's "'70s-style" interesting stuff. I just don't see it. Want to volunteer some names and titles?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 25, 2006 10:24 AM

I can't understand why Being Human tanked so spectacularly.

IFC runs it once in a while, and from what I saw it's a charming-enough, moderately amusing little flick - although something of a shaggy dog story, admitedly. Maybe not a given person's cup of tea, but hardly a disaster. Yet the reviews I've read are downright hostile - who can possibly gin up hostility over such a modest little film? - and IMDB says it cost $30 million but only brought back a million and a half. Eesh.

Among the current crowd, I think the closest to the Bill Forsythe/Hal Ashby mindset is Wes Anderson.

Posted by: Brian on April 25, 2006 10:31 AM

Well, anyone whose favorite movie is "McCabe" is ok in my book. It's one of about five movies that are in rotation as my own favorite, along with "Chinatown", "Blue Velvet", "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" (the shorter version). So that's four from the 70s and one from the 80s. The only thing from the last 20 years that comes close to being in that league is "Mulholland Drive", another Lynch masterpiece. I remember the Forsyth movies fondly, if not well, although I think I preferred "Local Hero" to "Comfort and Joy". All of his Big Four are wonderful. The only title I can come up with offhand that might seem really impressive to a Forsyth fan is Phil Morrison's absolutely wonderful first movie, "Junebug". Give it a try.

Posted by: Michael on April 25, 2006 10:59 AM

Junebug? No, wait--JUNEBUG!?!?!!???

Okay, I missed it in the theater. But I totally didn't get it on DVD. It just came off as painfully quirky. Twee, even. As in, "Jesus, Brenton--turn that thing off now and do me before I stab my eyes out."

Does this mean I have to try again?

For the record, I am the one person in urban North America who hates Wes Anderson.

But I loved "Comfort and Joy" and "Local Hero" when they came out. I prefer "Nashville" to "McCabe" and I'd swap out "Blue Velvet" for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", but I'm feeling your picks, man.

So I really have to watch that loathesome turd "Junebug" again?

Posted by: communicatrix on April 25, 2006 11:38 AM

"Comfort and Joy" is probably the only movie I've ever seen that, without making a big deal out of it, gets at exactly how privately, incommunicably painful it is to get dumped by somebody you're still very much involved with...and also makes the point of how life goes busily on around this ever-so-slowly healing wound. All without being a downer, in fact, while being quite entertaining. It's a wonder. It's probably a more grown up movie than my favorite by Forsythe, "Local Hero," but, hey, I've never claimed to be anything but puerile. (Also, the whole ice-cream war subplot is a bit lame, but you can't have everything.)

P.S. I hope you do penance daily for not getting " Melvyn & Howard"--heck, even I knew that was a great one on the first viewing.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 25, 2006 11:43 AM

Communicatrix: Actually you're at least the second person in urban North America who hates Wes Anderson. "Rushmore" had a few good moments, but it's been all downhill from there. I actually walked out of "The Life Aquatic". My affinity for "Junebug" may be a Southern thing, and I don't think your opinion of it would improve on a second viewing. Your reaction to it is sorta like my reaction to "Me and You and Everyone We Know".

Posted by: Michael on April 25, 2006 11:59 AM

Hi Michael - I haven't quite given up on the blogosphere, although my energy/enthusiasm for participating in it swings pretty wildly.

"70s style" can be a tricky, slippery concept. From a purely style p.o.v., "Mean Streets" is very different from "California Split": the first is edgy, insistent, show-offy, and breathtaking, the second is laid-back, meandering, subtle, and quietly devastating. But what makes them both "70s style" (IMO, of course) is that they both have a quirky, personal, idiosyncratic approach that feels honestly and organically worked out. By honest and organic, I mean both movies feel like they are figuring out where they need to go as they are going along. They don't feel over- and/or pre- determined.

Now, I don't think there's a lot of movies being made today that fit these criteria. But there are some - possibly because there's just so many movies being made, that a few of them are going to fit into my "70s style" category.

I also think that there's more of these types of movies being made now than there were in the 1980s - or, at least, thanks to services like Netflix, these kinds of movies are more accessible than they were in the 1980s.

With that in mind, I'd reccommend "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" - a very Bill Forsyth-ish black comedy - and "Junebug", which doesn't quite work, but has a handful of scenes that achieve the kind of "movie magic" that I think you're talking about.

But here's what I mean about these movies getting lost and needing some effort to track down: I never would have heard about (let alone watched) "Wilbur Want to Kill Himself" if a friend of ours hadn't seen it at a film festival and told me to catch up with it on DVD (it didn't open anywhere near where I was living at the time) and I would never have seen "Junebug" if I hadn't been dragged to it by some friends - though it had received good reviews, they were the kind of reviews I'm generally suspicious of. (Also, I should note that it took a couple of months of reflection for me to really appreciate how good parts of "Junebug" really are). I "lucked into" seeing both of them. Where the "luck" is that I have friends who are willing to put a lot more effort into keeping up with movies than I am.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on April 25, 2006 12:01 PM

Brian -- The hostility to "Being Human" is a little weird, isn't it? What do you suppose provoked people? It's not as though the press was lying in wait, ready to take Bill Forsyth down ...

Michael -- I'll have to give "Junebug" a try, thanks for the rec. That's a nice list of favorite movies, btw...

Colleen -- You and I were made to be moviegoing buds. I hate hate hate that self-adoring twerp Wes Anderson.

FvB - Private and incommunicable are really good words for discussing "Comfort and Joy," and Bill Forsyth's movies generally, tks. Wish I'd thought of them myself.

JH -- Well, you've got your fans in the blogosphere, so don't be shy about joining in. "'70s style" is a funny phrase, isn't it? For me it has to do with ambition and hopefulness probably more than anything else. It's amusing how the "wannabe-a-'70s's-movie" has become a kind of genre in its own right, and the "wannabe a '70s director" has become its own kind of being-a-director. I haven't been too fond of most such attempts and/or most such directors, though I liked "George Washington" quite a lot. But I'm much less of a fan of PT Anderson and David O. Russell etc than many are. Thanks for the "Wilbur" rec -- I'd never even heard of it. You're right: it's helpful to have friends out there doing the footwork for you. A funny thing about the impact of Netflix (and bargain bins) on me has been that I've lost all connection with current movies. Free to roam, I turn out to explore whatever I'm curious about, which is seldom the present. The most Forsyth-esque movie I've seen has been a little ultra-quirky, ultra-charming Aussie comedy, "Love Serenade." But I see that was already ten years ago. Yikes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 25, 2006 7:40 PM

I just have to say that 2Blowhards is the dreamiest site on the internets.


Posted by: communicatrix on April 25, 2006 9:10 PM

For the record, Comfort and Joy is also the title for an unrelated 2003 flick. And the 1984 version is not available through Blockbuster Online. (sigh!).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on April 26, 2006 6:51 AM

Thanks Michael for an excellent post about one of my favorite filmmakers. I've long wondered where he's gone. I'm not claiming any special ability but I "got" all his movies on first viewing--meaning I loved them immediately. (I first saw "Gregory's Girl" on cable way back when it came out and caught it every time the channel repeated it over the week.) The films mentioned here are definitely a "big four," but here's a small vote for "That Sinking Feeling,"-- a beginning effort but charming nevertheless.

Posted by: Kenneth FitzGerald on April 26, 2006 12:49 PM

Michael – Another provocative post. A few musings: I think that DVDs often improve, or at least, impeccably render black and white films. The recent remastered releases of “The Third Man,” “The 39 Steps,” Trouble in Paradise,” and “My Man Godfrey,” among others, are things of beauty. You can actually make out details that were blurry in most prints that ended up on television or revival houses over the years. On the other hand, there are some color films that are somewhat muted, washed out, or just wrong in their renderings in some places, no matter how diligent the technicians were when the discs were mastered. Ironically, some animated films, especially computer animation like “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” work best in the transition from big screen to DVD, but it looks like we will have to live with a certain level of compromise with respect to live action films. But for me, even a muted DVD is better than some of the scratchy and taped-together prints of great movies that I have sometimes watched over the years.

You link two very interesting filmmakers. I agree that Altman and Forsyth’s works are often best described as tone poems, and “McCabe and Mrs Miller” (not bad on DVD since the color palette is subdued to begin with, especially with respect to the interior scenes) and “Comfort and Joy” are two wonderful films. For all his surface surliness, Altman often deals with the theme on how difficult it is for people, no matter how strong or sensitive, to build a sustaining community; and Forsyth’s films have a strong sense of place in which Glasgow or other locales are as much a character as the actors in the film.

It’s too bad that “Comfort and Joy” is not easily available here. DVD region coding is just plain stupid, and pointlessly prevents people from discovering – and supporting – a wider range of films.

By the way, even though I agree with you that the period of 70s and early 80s was an amazingly creative time for film, I think that there are great films to be found today, and also that one year in particular – 1999 – stands as one of the most creative single years in the history of the movies, with a range of films of outstanding depth and creativity: “The Matrix,” “Topsy Turvy,” “Fight Club,” “Being John Malkovich,” “All About My Mother,” “Three Kings,” Disney’s “Tarzan” and even “Magnolia.” I think that six of the top ten box office films of that year (“Phantom Menace excepted”) could be described as excellent, a rare percentage. And looking back over many critics’ and bloggers’ top ten lists for that year, I am surprised at how often I could look at a list that included a different set of films and say, “I don’t have a problem with this list.”

Posted by: Alec on April 26, 2006 5:49 PM

Alec: Aaaaah, 1999! The Truman Show, Go, Election, Princess Mononoke, The Talented Mr. Ripley, South Park, The Iron Giant, Run Lola Run, The Limey, The Insider, Toy Story 2, Office Space, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, and the only Matrix movie that didn't suck. It was a year so great that the much-awaited returns of Stanley Kubrick and the Star Wars franchise were considered the runts of the litter. While I didn't like everything that came out, it was nice having enough qualified candidates to choose from, wasn't it? Lately my attempts at year-end top ten lists have only managed four or five films!

Posted by: Brian on April 27, 2006 6:58 AM

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