Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago

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Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago
"Moody, poignant and rich in humour, the documentary unfolds with something of the character of a shaggy dog story." | Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

He’s a celebrated author and poet known by film fans for writing the books that became David Lynch’s Wild At Heart and Alex de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango, along with the screenplay for Lost Highway, but to most people Barry Gifford is probably best known for his semi-autobiographical stories about a boy named Roy growing up in Chicago in the Fifties and Sixties. Rob Christopher’s film combines the author’s own musings on this work with excerpts from the stories narrated through the combined talents of Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor, who bring to life iconic characters and help to paint a picture of a vanished world.

“You’re basically writing history, keeping track of the times,” Gifford says a friend once told him. It’s the observational detail in his writing that makes it compelling and Christopher aims to take the same approach here, not just telling tales but building up a world. He’s interested, of course, in the points where Gifford’s life and Roy’s intersect, but also in the spirit of the times and the very close-knit community they inhabited. Much of this is brought to life through animation – simple line art at first, thick streaks of black ink on a white background, and then something gradually more complex, exhibiting shades of grey, which seems to reflect the increasing sophistication of the boys at the heart of it. The effect is like reading a book and gradually developing more solid mental images of the people and places it depicts.

There is plenty to Gifford’s story that will keep an audience engaged. He recalls the father who, seeing an opportunity presented by Prohibiton, studied pharmacology so that he could make money selling drugs on the black market, and the ambitious career developments that followed this, strange and obscured as they were from a child’s perspective. He reflects on the experience of meeting a young woman – perhaps the fist he ever held in his arms – on the day the news broke that President Kennedy had been assassinated; and on the frightening experience of seeing his mother targeted with racist abuse when he had never realised that some people perceived her as black. All these stories blur into Roy’s, that layer of fictionalisation giving the author the freedom to confront events that might have been impossible to talk about more directly. There’s a deep sense of nostalgia to it but Gifford is under no illusions about the cruelty of that world.

Moody, poignant and rich in humour, the documentary unfolds with something of the character of a shaggy dog story. Where it’s going is not as important as the rhythm, the imagery (both shown and imagined) and the sense of how accumulated experiences shape the life of a man, be he real or fictional. Perhaps the difference doesn’t among to much. Christopher suggests that we are all made of stories. In a city like Chicago, one might believe that, and this immersive film will take you there. You don’t need to be a fan of Gifford’s work to enjoy it, but you’ll be ready to hunt that down when you leave.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2020
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A documentary that brings to life Barry Gifford’s autobiographical collection The Roy Stories, capturing a childhood in a vanished 1950s Chicago through a jazzy, impressionistic combination of beguiling archive footage, animation and spoken word.

Director: Rob Christopher

Year: 2019

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2020

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