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Filmmaker Forsyth: enchanting audiences with whimsy, mystery

Filmmakers know they've made the grade when distributors start digging out their early, overlooked movies and putting them on the market. Bill Forsyth has reached this august position on the strength of ''Local Hero'' and ''Gregory's Girl,'' two surprise hits of the '80s. His latest picture to arrive on American screens, That Sinking Feeling, was made back in 1979 for just a few thousand British pounds.

It's a minor work from any standpoint. Yet it shares the friendly, rough-hewn quality that viewers cheered in the more recent Forsyth movies. The filmmaker himself likes it more than his others. ''It has a kind of atmosphere,'' he says, his brogue as thick and gentle as the spectacular Scottish mists of ''Local Hero.''

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All three Forsyth films have a meandering, slightly off-kilter structure that's unlike anything else on the current scene. ''That Sinking Feeling'' uses it to spin a slight, whimsical yarn about bored Glasgow teens who try to spice up their lives by pulling off an unlikely robbery. At times, the action recalls the oddball romance of ''Gregory's Girl,'' with its bemused hero who never seems quite sure what's going on. There are also moments when the mood becomes slightly dark, hinting at the delicate sense of mystery that enriches ''Local Hero.''

Forsyth dropped by New York not long ago to beat the drum for ''That Sinking Feeling'' and to pick up the New York Film Critics Circle award for best screenplay, bestowed on the worthy ''Local Hero'' last month. Visiting his hotel suite, I found him a soft-spoken man with a wry wit, a modest manner, and a shy smile half hidden behind a short, unpresumptuous beard.

He never aimed to be a filmmaker, it turns out. While growing up in Glasgow he was ''keen on self-improvement, always reading books and all,'' but had no specific goals in mind. His career began when he stumbled on a want ad for a movie-company apprentice. He learned his trade first from the technical side, assisting with industrial documentaries - the furthest possible cry from his dizzy, unpredictable fiction films.

Wanting to try his hand at a regular movie, he wrote the screenplay for ''Gregory's Girl,'' throwing in a sports theme and a love story to make it ''commercial.'' But not commercial enough: He couldn't raise the money to get it produced, even though his actors - young members of a local theater club - were willing to work cheap.

Hating to waste their energy, he dashed off the script for ''That Sinking Feeling'' and cadged production money from Glasgow merchants, pitching it as a social-work project that would keep the kids off the streets. Ragged edges and all, the finished product developed for him a small reputation - enough to launch ''Gregory's Girl'' at last and pave the way for ''Local Hero,'' which sported an ample budget and the Hollywood-star presence of Burt Lancaster.

Despite his haphazard beginnings as a filmmaker, Forsyth has developed a strong individual style based on sound ideas. He has no misgivings about the loose plots of his pictures, since ''stories don't happen to characters, they grow out of characters.'' And he doesn't mind if a tale gets a bit fantastical, since ''realness'' - the human essence of a situation, logical or not - means more than literal ''reality'' to him.

The next Forsyth picture, called ''Comfort and Joy,'' will deal with a radio performer in his ''second adolescence,'' taking stock of his life and getting mixed up with unlikely characters. The film will have ''thriller aspects,'' says Forsyth, who surprised himself by setting most of the action at night.

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Will it be a comedy at heart, like its predecessors? ''I thought it was when I wrote it,'' said Forsyth. ''I wasn't so sure when we filmed it. And now I'm pretty sure it's not. . . .'' Beat Generation author

Burroughs, directed by Howard Brookner, is a roller-coaster ride through the life and work of author William S. Burroughs, exemplar of the Beat Generation and one of the granddaddies of bad taste in American literature. Shown at last year's New York Film Festival, it has now joined the meager list of feature-length documentaries that find their way into commercial distribution, however briefly.

Brookner uses many techniques to explore his subject, from simple interview footage to a bizarre reenactment of a scene from the nightmarish novel ''Naked Lunch.''

There's rarely a dull moment if you can take his persistently peculiar personality - not to mention his cheery disdain for every convention ever invented, and his insinuating voice, which drones on and on like a weird parody of itself. But the film never really gets below the surface of its subject, probing the undercurrents of sadness and missed opportunity that run beneath the lurid details of Burroughs's biography.

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