Review: 'That Sinking Feeling'

That Sinking Feeling (1979) was a ground-breaking debut: shot on a minuscule budget (according to its director it was the "cheapest feature film ever made"), it signalled the birth of a truly indigenous Scottish film industry. Made by the Whiteinch born-and-bred Bill Forsyth with funds entirely raised in Scotland, it was shot in Glasgow with local talent - largely amateur actors from the art project Glasgow Youth Theatre.

Image courtesy of BFI

Image courtesy of BFI

The film is ostensibly a comedy heist: a group of unemployed teenagers come up with a plan which involves stealing stainless steel sinks from a local warehouse. As in other Bill Forsyth films though, plot only matters to an extent, with the whimsical aspect is undercut by bitter detail (the boys' hopelessness), and its narrative refusing to stick to a conventional linear structure.

In the opening sequence, Glasgow looks for the most part desolate, a city whose skyline, dominated by high-rises, is repeatedly revealed in the long establishing shots. The desolation of the landscape is soon matched by a story of unemployment and deprivation: when trying to purchase a hamburger and a coffee, Vic (John Hughes) realises that he cannot pay the 45 pence the lady in the van is requesting. The scene in which we first meet the leader of the teenage gang, Ronnie (Robert Buchanan), is of a similarly bleak tone: his speech to the equestrian statue of Lord Roberts situated in Kelvingrove Park starts off in a semi-jovial tone as the teenager ponders "You’ve got to make the most of what life offers you" and tries to reflect on what assets he and the Field Marshall may have in common; the pitch soon shifts when he looks at the statue’s plaque and exclaims, "Oh wait a minute, I don’t see that many O-levels there (…) How did you do it? And why don’t I have a job?" To emphasise his point, he violently kicks the (physical and metaphorical) barrier that separates him from his 'interlocutor'.

This is not to say that That Sinking Feeling is about mere social realism – the continuous interplay between comedy and seriousness constantly downplays any sense of hefty political commentary. Contrasting elements come together in unexpected way – as in the scene when Wal (Billy Greenlees) ends up selling his sinks to the art collector (and Blasted local hero - Ed.) Richard Demarco (played by himself), his goods mistaken for the "Latest development of the New York School".

It is perhaps telling that the only two characters that make a tangible gain out of the plan are Wal and fellow gang member Alan (James Ramsey), who manages to buy an electric guitar with his share of the money. Whilst one can be accused of imposing a meaning that isn't there, it is very tempting to imagine that Bill Forsyth is trying to promote artistic creativity as a way out of post-industrial drabness. In a way, with Postcard Records currently being celebrated with a book, a film, and a reissue of Josef K's The Only Fun in Town (due in May), it is hard not to re-imagine the late 1970s and early 1980s as a time that kick-started the diverse and unprecedented cultural outpouring that has taken place in Scotland in the last 30 years. 

That Sinking Feeling also represents a clear break in the way Scottish men (and specifically Glaswegian men) are represented: instead of the romanticised brutality of the 'hard man', we are faced with a subtler depiction of a masculinity in crisis. Forsyth's teenagers are awkward and confused; when compared with their female counterparts, they clearly appear to lack their wisdom and self-assurance. It is a thematic preoccupation that the director will continue exploring throughout his career - perhaps it is no surprise that the coolest character ever to emerge from his ouvre is the audacious, bobbed-haired Susan (played by Claire Grogan) who, with a little help from her girlfriends, outfoxes John Gordon Sinclair's Gregory with a cunning, if slightly convoluted plan. 

Bill Forsyth went on to direct Gregory's Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984), perhaps the films he is best known for. Many viewers familiar with these might be unaware of his raw, extremely inventive debut, so we should be very grateful to ever-great BFI Flipside for finally releasing That Sinking Feeling (with the original Glaswegian dialogue track that was bizarrely missing from the 2009 2Entertain DVD version) in a definitive format. This edition is packed with special features: four short films involving Bill Forsyth in either acting, editing, or directing capacity; an audio commentary by the director and Mark Kermode; an interview with lead actor Robert Buchanan; another very entertaining interview where Forsyth discusses the DIY ways in which he funded his film. The booklet comes with a short essay by David Archibald (lecturer at the University of Glasgow), a contribution by Douglas Weir (technical producer at the BFI), and a 1981 article that Bill Forsyth wrote for Sight & Sound. 

That Sinking Feeling  might be one of my favourite films ever; for all its imperfections (if you are after sleek story telling, look elsewhere) it captures a certain spark that comes with being young with vivid, piercing attention to detail. Some of this is certainly be tied to of its late 1970s Glasgow setting, but despite its specificity (or maybe because of it) it also takes on an universal appeal - a fairy tale for underdogs everywhere. 

'That Sinking Feeling' is released by BFI Flipside on 21st April. There will be a launch screening with special guests at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Tuesday 15th April at 6.30. Tickets can be purchased here.