916. Gregory's Girl (1981, Bill Forsyth)

screened Saturday April 8 2007 on MGM DVD in Weehawken, NJ TSPDT rank #677 IMDb

I intend to keep this entry relatively brief, for several reasons. My last epic entry on The Sorrow and the Pity took a lot of hours and effort, so I could use a bit of a breather. Also, Gregory's Girl was a bit of a letdown. Light and breezy, perhaps it suffers after being viewed right after a massive WWII documentary, but even on its own comic terms I was left a bit wanting. Placing film under the well-worn category of coming-of-age teen sex comedy, the best argument I can make for it was that it was a touchstone of the genre. Entering the market right before the genre exploded to dominate 80s' Hollywood, I wonder just how much influence it had as an art-house import on the likes of John Hughes and some of the more humanistic entries in the genre. It seems like a refreshingly innocent counterpart to the hornier and more mean-spirited come-uppance games played by National Lampoon's Animal House and Porky's. On the other hand, there's more than a few moments in this film that strike me as sweetly off-beat to the point of being simple minded, and eccentric to a fault. In this way it seems in today's context to be all too related to much of the middling fare that comes to Sundance straining to be likeably off-center - call it Napoleon McDynamite. It's literally up to its armpits in quirkiness:

A peek at its original trailer from its US release (included as an extra on the MGM DVD) will give you an idea of its humor and worldview - as well as an interesting glance at how trailers for low-budget films were cut back in the day. This is one of the better moments of the film, but don't be fooled by the clever camera trick -- the rest of the film, shot in cut-and-dry TV movie style, hardly has this kind of cinematic ingenuity.


In lieu of further analysis on my part, I defer to Andrew Higson's informed and equitable take on the film from the ever-valuabe site Film Reference:

Forsyth was a key figure in the revival of British film production in the 1980s, and Gregory's Girl was both a popular and critical success. Forsyth's British work has been compared to the Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s, with his typically light comic touch, his sense of character and detail, his quirky protagonists, and his ability to find the surreal in the most everyday people and situations.

His work—and Gregory's Girl is no exception—can also be seen as typical of a particular approach to the construction of a national cinema in a Britain overwhelmed by the popularity of Hollywood films: the production of low-budget films with correspondingly modest production values and low-key drama, aimed at the domestic market and the international art market rather than going for broke on the major American circuits; the casting of good character actors rather than big-name stars; the making of tasteful romances for all the family, which carefully resist indulging in the excesses of Hollywood melodrama; and the emphasis on a decidedly ordinary and specifically local or regional setting and milieu, rather than on the internationally recognizable metropolitan centre.

The film thus works within strongly enunciated British cinematic traditions, with something more than a nod to television drama in terms of the carefully limited scope of the action and the clean-cut, uncomplicated mise-en-scène, and a narrative structure (several simple stories, cleverly interwoven) reminiscent of soap opera. The film also owes something to television advertising, with its focus on suburban consumer-land, inhabited by "ideal families" living in modern gadget-laden houses.

The main narrative situates the film as a melodrama: gawky adolescent Gregory attempts to win the favours of the far more sophisticated Dorothy, while a conspiracy of girls effortlessly organises for him to become hitched to a far more suitable partner in Susan. But a quick look at the final four images of the film reveals a much broader filmic system, which also enables the film to articulate a network of interlocking social worlds. First there is a shot of Gregory and Susan kissing, the conventional happy ending of melodrama. In the second shot, we see Gregory and his sister, in a final incantation of the perfection and permanence of the family, in its nice, ordinary, suburban security. Thirdly, there is a reprise of the delightful running gag of Gregory's friend Andy, and his pal, this time seen hitching to Caracas in search of "girls." Forsyth, like Tati, is a master of the running gag, which produces its comedy through narrative redundance and eccentric characterisation, as with Andy's search for girls, or the lost penguins, or the burly headteacher secretively playing whimsical tunes on the piano.

The final shot of the film repeats another recurrent image: Dorothy, running alone in the dark, a fleeting image of the impossible object of desire, accompanied by the now familiar, dream-like music. Dorothy's character is highly ambiguous, since she is both a sweet, innocent, asexual girl, and a version of the femme fatale (the most dangerous figure in the film's conspiracy of women), wherein female sexuality becomes a threateningly seductive but unattainable enigma, a mystery, both for Gregory and for the implied spectator who is equally kept apart from understanding the ways and means of the female sex. The film, in this sense, reproduces the point of view of the adolescent male.

The film is structured around inversions and reversals: children act like adults, younger siblings act like older ones, etc. But the most important of these is the reversal of gender roles. The only characters that are confident, assured and in control are the girls.

- From the Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio on Forsyth

This point about gender reversals is probably the most intriguing thing I find about the movie -- but as Higson seems to imply above, the film seems less interested in exploring this phenomena as a manifestation of social change than as leaving it as another manifestation of his idyllic Scottish suburb viewed sideways.

This site features an impressive collection of trivia on the film's cast, production and locations, including mention of how the film was post-dubbed in softer Scottish accents for its US release. The MGM DVD has two soundtracks, one marked "English" and the other "Scots-Gaelic:"



English (this clip also happens to be a good example of the inverting of gender roles mentioned above that Forsyth repeatedly employs:


And if you're curious about the difference in pronunciation of the word "brassiere":

In English (this, the opening scene which looks like it was cribbed from Porky's, really threw me off in terms of what this film would be like. The rest of the film is not nearly as vulgar. To me it speaks of a tonal inconsistency that Forsyth lives and dies by in this picture -- his later, better films I've seen, Local Hero (TSPDT #384) and Housekeeping don't sacrifice an underlying sense of unity for the sake of getting a rise from the audience.) [youtube]E_zOTfU9jiA[/youtube]



Apparently it worked as the film was well received by both art-house audiences and critics upon its stateside release:

Writer-Director Bill Forsyth, working inexpensively on his native heath, is not one to confront life headlong and headon. He is a jogger not a sprinter, a man content to chug amiably along observing the world through a series of sidelong glances instead of driving single-mindedly toward a narrow goal.

- from Richard Schickel's first-run review in Time, 1982.

Also see Roger Ebert's first-run review in the Chicago Sun-Times and Vincent Canby's first-run review in the New York Times.

. Glenn Erickson's DVD Savant review mentions how the film played on the late great Channel Z in Los Angeles .

More on Bill Forsyth:

Leaving documentary production in 1977, Forsyth wrote the scripts for Gregory's Girl and That Sinking Feeling in the hope of breaking into feature films. Obtaining finance, however, proved frustrating and problematic. The BFI Production Board rejected Gregory's Girl three times. Forsyth later observed, "I remember one torment of a meeting when I tried to explain that Gregory's Girl was really a structuralist comedy... I suspect my script was too conventional although nobody actually told me as much.".

- From Screen Online's bio on Forsyth

Q- Gregory's Girl was your breakout hit in the USA. Were you happy with the reception?

A- It was three years after I'd finished the script for Gregory's Girl that I got to make it, but I prefer That Sinking Feeling as a film. I'm not fond of any of my films in an intimate way, but Gregory's Girl would be number 4 on my list.

- From Gerald Peary's 1985 interview with Forsyth

"I think we're basically all odd. I think we all have a tension between what we think we are and what other people think we are. Everyone is like that and I just tend to highlight it. I think I could make a detective story, or something conventional like that, and end up having odd characters in it too. Strangeness is in everyone, it's just a matter of whether you choose to reveal it or not."

Forsyth, from this page of amusing Forsyth quotes