The late 1970s and early 1980s occupy a strange realm in our current affections of nostalgia. While openly acknowledged as a problematic era for politics, riots and race/police relations being at an all time low, there has been a steady but gradual yearning for the age’s art. This isn’t just in the traditional sense of nostalgia but quite a specific relationship; the era is currently being defined as a new golden-age of the teenager. While this may seem vague, it’s clear that the people who did grow up in the era of Prog vs. Punk, Tom Baker’s Doctor Who and endless Arthur C. Clarke paperbacks are now in charge of a vast number of media outlets.
With this in mind, we come to Bill Forsyth’s debut feature film, That Sinking Feeling (1979); a zero budget escapade of wit, charm and a foresighted adherence to this teenage nostalgia. Forsyth is already known to have cracked this world, chiefly with his most famous film Gregory’s Girl (1981), but there’s something far more surreal and absurd about his debut film that actually captures these themes more succinctly. This a perfect blend of a natural social realism but, instead of the preaching mechanics of the purely political variety, That Sinking Feeling adds a healthy sense of Jonathan Coe comedy; the film is in essence an austerity Glasgow version of The Rotter’s Club only made without the distance to allow for nostalgia to grow.
The film follows Ronnie (Robert Buchanan) , an unemployed teenager looking to make money quickly. He lives in the grey, damp streets of Glasgow; an endless merge of wasteland and council blocks with a seemingly infinite amount of puddles. Out of this husk comes the optimism of an idea; to steal and sell a number of kitchen sinks for some profit. It’s the sort of madcap nonsense that people can be nostalgic about but That Sinking Feeling manages to convey this wonderful ridiculousness without the knowledge that such things would be looked back upon with a wry smile. Therein lies its brilliance.
As Ronnie forms his gang of misfits, the film preoccupies itself with sketching out the members in a strange, proto-Ealing way. They seem like an even more disgruntled Lavender Hill Mob but with more delusions and less money. In another sense That Sinking Feeling has the strange sense of meta-fiction. Its renowned for being made on a strikingly low budget and yet the quality of the film suggests that the making of it wasn’t entirely all that different from the gang’s plan of theft. The only major difference is Forsyth got away with it in a ramshackle kind of way completely and hit the big-time.
As the plan gets set into action, the film genuinely wrestles with the absurd from one member requiring to concoct a drug that will put a driver of the van they need to sleep. The film places much emphasis on this as it become clear that the chemical he has made will make the driver sleep for over one hundred years. Add to this the surreal image of a cat, having taken some of the same chemical, being treated in hospital too and film almost pushes its boat out a little too far. This is brought back down to earth with equally absurd rouse of fooling the security guard at the kitchen plant into thinking two of the extremely laddish boys are actually cleaning ladies.
Though this is just as silly, it’s the preparation and character fallout from this that is most amusing and endlessly teenage. When trying to plan on getting the clothes and the lipstick needed to pass as a cleaning lady, the character accidently convinces his girlfriend he’s a transvestite and the appearance of Ronnie with a bra for him doesn’t help matters. The character’s later incredulous reaction to his partner in crime getting hit on by the security guard is equally funny as well as refreshingly modern in its outlook of less simplified visions of masculine wants and realities.
In the end, their plan has to fail at some point but this essential to Forsyth’s vision. For, with the failing, instead of emotional recompense or demoralisation, there’s a wonderful sense of optimism as the lads plan another job. Forsyth’s happy endings are not necessarily the best outcome possible but, vitally, making the best of what they have. In the era of Loachian despair, brutal Thatcherism and social unrest, this must not only have come as a complete surprise but a breath of fresh air and a unknowing look to the future of a broader and more successful Scottish cinema.
The BFI Flipside release of the film is probably the most packed edition out on the label for some time. The film has been scanned for High Definition presentation but, most importantly has had its original dub reinstated and the aspect ratio corrected. In an age where accents and local quality mark out British film, it seems nigh-on unthinkable to imagine a dub being made simply for “difficult” accents to be understood by Americans. It is, however, an interesting avenue of exploration and the release’s essay booklet includes a interesting piece on this history by Douglas Weir.
Alongside this are several short films, all with some connection with Forsyth. Being one of the few directors who worked his way up the ladder, Roeg-like in his success, these films show a variety of different sides of the director in various roles. John Schorstein’s KH-4 (1969) and Mirror (1970) show Forsyth in young acting roles, the former being edited by him as well. Glasgow seems to be a city running through most of the films on the release, the best being the documentary, Glasgow 1980 (1971). This is again edited by Forsyth but stands out for its parallel optimism for the city shared with That Sinking Feeling.
Perhaps best of all is the commentary track with Forsyth and critic, Mark Kermode. Kermode’s passion for very particular films often means that, at some point, he has helped them along with getting a wider audience and release (see his tireless campaign to get Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) out in its complete form). This shows in the release which has his name scattered all over it as well as the commentary track which is extremely enjoyable. He exhibits a relationship with the film that is becoming more common today, similar to Geoff Dyer’s with Stalker (1979) or Mark Gatiss’ with classic horror cinema (the latter producing a commentary track for an Arrow release of Theatre of Blood (1973) later next month). This type of presence is most welcome on such releases, not only because their endless passion is addictive and enjoyable to be around but because, like many films released on the Flipside label, they deserve a far wider audience than they’ve ever got.
That Sinking Feeling is out on duel format on the 21st of April.