Comfort and Joy

July 6, 2012

A writer-director named Bill Forsyth has been carving out a special niche for himself in world cinema. Over the last five years, the Scotsman has been delighting audiences with such wonderful pieces of skewed whimsy as That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, and Local Hero.

These films share Forsyth’s absolutely dry sense of humor, as well as his feeling for low-key ensemble acting. Miraculously, without ever seeming drippy or cute (and without ever tooting their own horn about it), they manage to make you feel exceptionally good.

His newest film, Comfort and Joy, carries on this tradition, I’m glad to say. Forsyth, working in his native Glasgow, has this time decided to show us how funny a series of personal disasters can be.

The disasters happen to Alan Bird (Bill Paterson), a disc jockey known to one and all as “Dickie” Bird. It’s Christmas week, but let heaven and nature not sing. Out of a clear blue sky, Dickie’s girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything in their apartment. A friend visits and insists that this represents a new chance for Dickie to define himself.

Dickie’s not so sure. Frankly, he feels utterly at sea—until one night, he witnesses something that galvanizes him. When he spots a pretty girl (Clare Grogan) in an ice cream truck, he follows the truck until it stops, whereupon he buys a cone and saunters away. Suddenly, the truck is attacked by hooded vandals who bash out the windows. One of them pauses long enough to ask Dickie for his autograph.

It’s the beginning of an adventure in espionage. It turns out rival ice cream companies are warring. The Mr. McCool people control the city, and the upstart Mr. Bunny organization is cutting in. Dickie becomes a liaison between the two factions, risking life and limb—well, maybe only limb—to find a solution.

Meanwhile, he’s communicating strange coded messages during his morning radio show: “Mr. Bunny, meet me tonight at the usual place—it’s urgent.” People are starting to wonder about good old Dickie.

You can sense that Forsyth and his marvelous group of actors are working with the merest wisps of plot. What they capture so beautifully are the details that make up the lives of these characters—ways of talking, of eating, of exchanging concern. Absurd elements always find their way into Forsyth’s movies, but he keeps them from being stupid by never violating the dramatic underpinnings of his situations.

For instance, this Dickie Bird fellow has an enjoyably madcap time of it, but Forsyth doesn’t let his loneliness be forgotten—much of Bird’s spirit at this time comes from his desire to fill up empty hours with something alive and risky.

Forsyth has said the film was partially inspired by the music of Mark Knopfler, the leader of the rock bad Dire Straits, who composed the evocative score for Comfort and Joy (as he did with Local Hero).

Although the title seems to be ironic at the beginning of the film—when even the birds are mistreating Bird by bombing his car—at the end we see that a lot of people have found comfort and joy along the way. And the title is also a perfect description of the film’s effect on an audience. It’s not a blockbuster, it won’t win Oscars, but Comfort and Joy is going to make you feel just fine.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

Perhaps you sense that I love Bill Forsyth’s films. I remember being underwhelmed at first about this one—what, you mean it isn’t at the level of Local Hero?—but it’s a lovely picture anyway. The (mostly) absence of Forsyth from the world cinema stage is one of the great losses in movies of the last 30 years.

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Housekeeping

June 17, 2011

We have come to identify director Bill Forsyth with the gently peculiar comedy of films such as Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl, and Comfort and Joy. Those movies, and their wonderfully skewed, bittersweet way of seeing, qualified Scotsman Forsyth as one of the current cinema’s most cherishable creators.

We might have suspected that when Forsyth turned his attention to more serious material, his view would be equally offbeat. His newest film is an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and the subject matter is perfectly pitched to Forsyth’s interests: The theme is eccentricity.

The main characters are two adolescent sisters, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill). Orphaned by their mother’s suicide, they take up residence in the fictional town of Fingerbone, somewhere in the wilderness of Washington state (filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, which also served as the setting for Roxanne). This gorgeous location provides the backdrop for the incidents that haunt their imaginations; such as Fingerbone Lake, which serves as a grave for the passengers of a train that went off track and broke through the ice one long-ago winter, or the mountains that drew their famously restless grandfather to the area.

Here they are joined by their Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti, of Swing Shift), and she is the vehicle for the eccentricity.

Aunt Sylvie is different. Her behavior seems slyly whimsical at times; she happily watches television through her neighbor’s window, she collects stacks of newspapers for no discernable reason, and she’s liable to say such subliminally odd things as, “I love traveling by train—especially in the passenger car.”

But Aunt Sylvie is not one of those terminally cute characters who waltz into a child’s life and contrive to change it. She is a darker creation entirely, a perpetual wanderer and outsider who sometimes frightens her teenage charges. At the heart of her, there is something restless and disturbed, although she is caring toward her nieces.

Her presence affects the girls. Lucille, bright and outgoing, is embarrassed by Sylvie’s behavior; she can’t understand why their aunt enjoys sleeping on a park bench in the middle of the day. The more introspective Ruth begins to gravitate toward Sylvie’s method of choosing the road not taken. Their split is exemplified in Lucille’s destruction of some dry flowers preserved in a book. Pragmatic Lucille can’t see the value in a bunch of dead flowers; soulful Ruth looks on in horror.

Housekeeping is a strange movie, in sympathy with those who are drawn to “life’s other side,” in Woody Guthrie’s phrase. But Forsyth refuses to romanticize the call of the road and cry of the train whistle; the stakes are high, the consequences are potentially dangerous. You can’t help but imagine a difficult future for Sylvie and Ruth as they follow their wanderlust; the film’s superb last shot does not present an easy resolution.

But it is natural that Forsyth should cast his feelings with the eccentrics; an indulgence for peculiarity informs his films (provides his governing stylistic method, in fact), and he usually sides with outsiders. At one point the straight-ahead Lucille tells her sisters, “You spend too much time looking out of windows,” as the real world passes. This is a film for people who look out of windows.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

Bill Forsyth: A man who made some lovely films and then apparently got disillusioned with the whole thing. And yet rotten people get movies made all the time. I have to say I have not seen this film since it came out, which is a bummer for me, and it has been gently forgotten in a general way out there. Will a Criterion release change all that? It could, but people say that about dozens of movies (Criterion is the genie’s lamp for cinephiles), and mostly it doesn’t go that way.