Film 2018: Gregory’s Girl


Oh, but this takes me back.
I first saw Gregory’s Girl in the cinema either late in 1980 or early 1981, and during the first half of the Eighties I would go on to pay to see it again a good five times, either in its own rate or as the bottom half of probably the best cinema bill I ever saw, supporting Chariots of Fire (not half bad a film to watch multiple times). In those days before VHS and DVD, even with more films shown on general TV channels than we get nowadays, that’s what you had to do.
Gregory’s Girl was the second film from Scottish Director and Writer Bill Forsyth, and I’m semi-certain that I was lucky enough to see his first, That Sinking Feeling, one Sunday BBC2 night before catching this. Several of That Sinking Feeling‘s cast, former members of Glasgow Youth Theatre, reappear in Gregory, mainly in supporting roles, with only one of the three principal roles a former alumni. This is the title role of Gregory Underwood, played by John Gordon Sinclair (credited under his real name of Gordon John Sinclair: Equity, eh?).
The other two main parts go to Dee Hepburn (discovered dancing in a TV commercial) and Altered Images singer Clare Grogan (credited under her original spelling of Claire but mostly known in her acting career as C.P. Grogan: Equity, eh?). They’re also supported by a cast of adults, in minor but vital roles, mostly teachers, amongst whom is best known is comedian Chic Murray, making a peach of a cameo as the Headmaster.
The film is a time-bubble, the hairstyles of the boys and the skirt-lengths of the girls locking it into place as inexorably as anything produced during the Swinging Sixties. It’s gentle, unhurried, almost meandering, a miniaturist of a film composed of small scenes and moments, not all of which are connected to the theme, that give it a very naturalist tone, as well as allowing for some brilliant, low-key absurdism. It’s a shoestring film, in which members of the cast brought their own clothes in to wear.
But though perhaps its archaic nature isn’t solely confined to the look of things, it’s also timeless. It’s a film – very much a boy’s film, mind you – about that time when boys are just starting to notice that girls are different from them but also to start wanting to get some idea of what that difference entails. Forsyth’s individuality lies in directing that urge away from the simply sexual by overlaying with that peculiar teenage anxiety about everything you don’t know – what do you talk to girls about, anyway? – and concentrating on that innocence without any overt crudity.
Girls are, of course, different. For one thing, they’re already much more mature, more sophisticated, and that’s another way in which this is a boy’s film. It’s about the first stage of a journey on which the girls are already three bus-stops ahead.
Reducing the story to a simple outline involves stripping away much of the subtlety and all of the wonderful irrelevance, but let’s do that anyway. Gregory, a Fourth Year boy, gangly, awkward, head-in-the-clouds, is non-scoring striker for a school football team that’s just lost eight matches in a row. Coach Phil Menzies (Jake D’Arcy: real name John Sinclair: Equity, eh?) is growing despondent. He drops goalkeeper Andy (Robert Buchanan), shoves Gregory into the nets and holds trials for a new striker.
The trials are invaded by Dorothy (Hepburn), who, despite being a girl, is better than all the rest out together. She makes the team. She’s also attractive, with long hair, a neat figure and great legs. Gregory is smitten. Being a boy of that age, as well as being particularly awkward in himself, he does nothing more at first than go on about her to his friends, Andy, silent Charlie and Steve, the star of cookery classes.
But, under the tutelage of his precocious and utterly calm 10-year old sister Madeleine (Allison Forster), Gregory manages to work up the nerve to ask Dorothy out. On a date. Which she readily accepts, despite it being abundantly clear, without nastiness or anything overt, that she isn’t interested in him in the slightest.
So we’re not surprised that Dorothy doesn’t turn up. However, Carol does. She gets Gregory to walk her to the chipshop, where she hands him over to Margo. Who gets him to walk a bit further to where we already know Susan (Grogan) is dressed up rather nicely and waiting for him. We’ve had only one scene where Dorothy and Susan talk, during dissection in Biology classes, into which it’s slipped, casually, that Susan thinks Gregory has a nice laugh. And there’s been a second scene, silent, through windows, of the pair discussing something that we now understand, even as Susan explains to Gregory: It’s just the way girls work. They help each other.
So Susan and Gregory go down the Country Park, and Gregory still doesn’t know what to talk about, until he stops trying to please her and indulges his silly self in a wonderfully subtle visual pun, because he shows Susan how to dance, by lying down on your back, shuffling your shoulders and waving your arms about, and she lies down beside him, and gives in to the moment, and the music starts up and they ‘dance’ on towards sunset, relaxed in each other’s company, for isn’t the term ‘horizontal dancing’ another euphemism for sex?
And it takes them into that first stage of the relationship, where the thrill is being around someone, sharing things that, however unimportant they may be, are important because they’re shared, and become cause for giggles unintelligible to outsiders: A million and nine: How come you know all the good numbers?
By then, they’re kissing, and whilst it’s perhaps a touch psychologically improbable this soon, Gregory’s relaxed enough to make jokes about it, though his joke – that’s better, you’ve finally stopped kissing me like I was your aunt at Xmas: (kiss): but what’s my aunt going to say when I kiss her at Xmas? – is perfectly in Gregory’s wheelhouse.
Meanwhile, Dorothy jogs on her evening run, perfectly self-contained, not even thinking of Gregory, whilst Madeleine sums it all up by sympathising with her daft, awkward, but somehow not all that bad, hope for him yet brother: Poor Gregory. It’s awful being in Love. Especially when you don’t know which girl you’re in love with.
Even an outline of the story requires so many details even as it leaves so many more out. And some of these are little moments of sheer genius, a few seconds of film that build up this real world into something as real and absurd as the one we lie in every day, below the radar of events. And that’s without the touches that envelop the world that means nothing to Gregory and his misdirected romance.
Late on, there’s a silent cameo of Phil Menzies – who has only been seen as obsessed with his football – inside a greenhouse, tending plants, spraying them and, guess what, talking to them. There’s a found moment, when Chic Murray, hired for only one scene as the Head, was noodling a jaunty little melody on a piano in the rehearsal room that Forsyth had him do for the film: about thirty seconds of serene absorption, nifty little fingerwork, then a turn, as much to the camera as to the kids looking in the door, and the golden words, “Off you go, you small boys.”
And there’s the penguin. Everyone mentions the penguin. It’s still hilarious, nearly forty years later, a moment of inspiration, of genius.
I’ve alluded throughout this review to this being a boy’s story and it’s got to be acknowledged. Good as it is, sweet and funny and kind as it is, this is all about Gregory, and even the two young women of the story, in all their self-sufficiency, their obviously greater maturity, their effortless independence, are only a part of the story as defined in their relationship with Gregory.
The film would fail the Bechdel Test with a crunch. There are very few conversations between the women and none that don’t relate to the men – boys rather – around them. And whilst Susan acts upon her own agency, with the help of her friends, it is only to get herself a boyfriend, and the best that can be said of it is, and this is where the Oldham Coliseum adaptation crashed so spectacularly, it is Gregory specifically in whom she is interested.
True, the girls are positioned as being more mature than the boys, who are all comic figures to one degree or another, are treated more respectfully, especially Dorothy, who is always well aware of her own qualities. But ultimately, this is about Gregory, and what he wants and what he learns and Susan is his reward for looking a little below the surface. It’s still a wonderful film, whose refusal to go beyond a typically ignorant, near cartoon view of sex and dating (on the boy’s side) is what gives it wisdom at it’s core, and you can argue that it’s major problem in this respect was that nobody was making (or being allowed to make?) anything comparable from a female perspective. But in this day and age, I’m just that little bit too aware that this is a boy’s story.
Still, it’s one of the few to really represent my bit of boy’s life, without the Susan in it? I was very like Gregory in some respects, even down to the football lack-of-talent.
John Gordon Sinclair has gone on to a long and bust career. I’ve not followed it, and especially not watched the apparently awful twenty-years-later sequel, Gregory’s Two Girls. What I have seen him in suggests that this film still is, and probably always will be, the best thing he’s ever done.
Dee Hepburn still acts, and was in Crossroads for four years. At first, her career was held up by crippling shyness, especially as the tabloid press wanted to see her as a fit bird in sexy clothing, which she loathed,
Clare Grogan was successful with Altered Images, and was in Red Dwarf. She still performs and she’s still bloody gorgeous.
Bill Forsyth made two more Scotland set films, both highly regarded (one of which we’ll have here one Sunday) before moving to America, which killed his career. He hasn’t directed since Gregory’s Two Girls.
In a list of ten films I would take with me to a desert island, Gregory’s Girl is a must.

Film 2018: The Prestige


I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.

As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.

Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.

What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.

Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.

Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.

Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.

Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.

I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.

So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.

Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.

Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.

I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.

This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.

Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.

I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.

But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.

Film 2018: Airplane!


Something simple for a working Sunday, like I said.

Airplane! was the third film by the writer director team of Jerry Abrahams, David and Jerry Drucker, and probably their biggest hit. It was a spoof of disaster movies in general – a biiiig fad in the mid/late-Seventies – and of the Airport franchise in particular, these being a justly forgotten series of films featuring an entire soap opera of personal stories set in an airport experiencing a disaster.

Airplane! made a star again of Leslie Neilson for the rest of his life, playing the straight funny man who was always more serious than his role even as everything was collapsing around him, and usually because of him. And it was a key film in the throw-a-lot-of-jokes-at-the-wall-and-don’t-wait-to-see-if-any-of-them-stick genre.

I’d first heard of the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker combo through Barry Norman’s championing of their low budget, brilliantly raucous and extremely silly first film, The Kentucky Fried Movie (later this year) in 1978, though the script for Airplane! was an earlier effort, based very directly on the 1957 film Zero Hour! I’ve never (knowingly) seen that film, and I know from experience that films like Arplane! are so much funnier when you’re familiar with what’s being parodied and can see how exact the joke is,

But you don’t really need that much knowledge to get along. The film throws everything at you and doesn’t wait. Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges play no-nonsense characters, Stack in particular playing his image whilst Bridges sends his up to a greater extent, and there are cameos all over.

The story is simple: passengers on a flight from LA to Chicago are badly affected by food-poisoning, including all the crew. A substitute pilot is needed to land the plane and this is Ted Stryker (Robert Hays, a newcomer). Ted was a fighter pilot in the War but is traumatised by his experiences: he’s only on the plane as it is because he’s pursuing his stewardess girlfriend, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) after she has decided to leave him. Once he gets the plane down safely, it rekindles their love.

But who needs a story? It’s only a framework on which to overload all sorts of absurd jokes: puns, sight gags, gross outs, deadpan, extreme bad taste, you name it, Airplane! has it somewhere.

And it also has the semi-legendary Leslie Neilson exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious? I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” that’s used judiciously in the film and is always warmly familiar.

I haven’t watched this in ages, and I enjoyed it still, but it’s starting to feel a little sluggish now, as the pace of comedy has accelerated in the past couple of decades, and the Saturday Night Fever scene has dated seriously now, and is much too long.

But it’s simply funny, and it’ll stay funny for a long time yet. I’d rather re-watch it immediately than go to work…

 

Film 2018: Introduction


I have an uncounted number of DVDs, both TV and film. In order to make maximum use of minimum space, these are packed neatly into plastic bags, stacked one on top of another, with other things stacked on top of them. This means that I can barely see my DVDs, let alone choose to play them.

This has long since given me cause for concern, along why-have-them-if-you-never-use-them lines. But no more. I have decided that in 2018, I shall watch at least one film per week, probably but not definitely on Sundays. And, being a card-carrying blogger, I shall blog these films as I watch them, one by one.

Yes, my dear, card-carrying audience, once again you are to be guarantors to my promise, holding me to my commitment, ensuring that I do not break my word, for to do so would break our solemn covenant. Some of you may even care.

Shortly, I will delve through the bags and start to build a pile. Films only, single affairs, no box-sets (unless I’ve got too few to last me a whole year). Ideally, I would like a Film-Selecting Elf to come in once a week to shuffle something to the top that I have not personally chosen but in the absence of anything so useful, I intend to try to make the choice as random as possible.

Some of this stuff hasn’t even been watched a second time since I got it, you know.

So, welcome to Film 2018 (if the BB|C aren’t using it, I will). Bring your own bags of maltesers, milk shakes and bottles of caffeine-free Diet Coke, don’t drop the straws on the floor, and anyone caught trying to sneak in popcorn will be handed over to Sauron, ok?

Later: Well, would you credit it? Discounting box-sets, there are exactly 53 films to watch, counting the one I got this Xmas and haven’t sat down to yet. So, if I watch that before 2017 leaves us, that’s one a week. Sounds like a plan to me.