' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Local Hero (1983)

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Local Hero (1983)

The fictional Scottish town Ferness at the center of “Local Hero”, while thankfully not stereotypically presented as a pocket of backward thinking rubes like these sorts of movies are wont to do, still feels out of time. And that is appropriate because “Local Hero” itself feels out of time too. It is not simply that the film often feels apart from its 1980s setting, but that it feels apart from the various genres it seems to inhabit. The film is not as supine as a simple fantasy nor as obvious as a fish out of water comedy or as grave as a drama. No, it swims along its own wavelength. If that wavelength is not exactly magical realism, because it never gives itself over to make believe and never even passes itself off as a parable despite environmental urges on the periphery, it nevertheless comes across a little fantastical. And that, I think, is because no movie so astutely, effortlessly captures the, shall we say, spirituality that goes hand-in-hand with traveling, where a place intrinsically surrounds and then overwhelms you, until you find yourself standing in the middle of it, wishing you could remain there forever.

“Local Hero” turns on a business trip undertaken by Houston’s Knox Oil and Gas exec MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) at the behest of his overlord, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), to acquire Ferness in order to erect an oil refinery on their beach. MacIntyre is chosen on account of his ostensibly Scottish surname, which isn’t really the case since his family changed its name, an early signifier of the lie that our emergently heroic, in his own leisurely way, exec is living. MacIntyre is introduced calling co-workers on the phone even though they can see one another from across the office, eating lunch at the vending machine, and more connected to his Porsche than any human being. We see him in the Porsche in the very first scene, cruising the freeway amidst so many skyscrapers, talk radio blasting. This moment works as a wonderful contrast against a later shot across the pond of he and local Knox rep Danny (Peter Capaldi) stopping progress on account of fog and sleeping in their car for the night. When they awake, the fog has lifted. Eventually, metaphorically, the fog will lift from MacIntyre too.

It is a testament to Forsythe’s direction that MacIntyre’s character shift is not simply explicated in dialogue or virtue of any kind of clear-cut inciting incident. Rather the place itself just sort of seems to wash over him, evoked in the way he eventually ditches his suit for a cable-knit sweater and lets a beard grow in, as if his change has bubbled up from the inside-out. That place, meanwhile, is not presented as a mere postcard. Even if the aurora borealis and a few comets illuminate the night sky, in the morning that same sky is dotted by practicing fighter jets, a paradise compromised. These warplanes play directly into the townfolk not only not being opposed to the sale but actively rooting for it, represented by Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the innkeeper but also the town accountant, a reveal in which the comedy is deliberately undercut by the straightforward way MacIntyre receives it.

If this American might initally leave Urquhart a little skeptical, he is never exactly cold, and by the end the two have become something akin to friends. This is best seen in a mid-movie sequence where the town gathers for a dance. Here, through music and character interaction, you glean the sadness and sweetness at the center of Ferness, where custom might bind them together but also suggests why time is running out. Still, like any hardened traveler who suddenly feels his heart lifted, MacIntyre cannot help but be moved. And he confesses a desire at switching places with Urquhart, which Lawson has his character meet with a good-natured nod, like he has heard it all before. For an instant, you wonder if the scotch they are drinking might be a smokey elixir to making MacIntyre’s wish come true.

If we are conditioned from so many movies before to expect the sale to be called off in the end, particularly when it turns out the beach is owned by an old man who refuses to sell, “Local Hero” actually finds a way around this without compromising its narrative integrity. Oh, Happer might swoop in to the save the day at the end, but his character is more than a deus ex machina. He is introduced not in any grand manner but sound asleep, snoring through a meeting outlining the acquisition, as if he has already checked out from the business he ostensibly oversees. If he has, he nevertheless cannot rid himself of it, which is what the aversion therapist following him around seems intended to help correct, by repeatedly invading Happer’s space to call him unkind names in the movie’s most obvious nod toward broad comedy. But what really saves Happer is the sky, where he is constantly looking, even if it is more often a make-believe one in something like a faux observatory he has installed in his office. And when he arrives in Ferness, the solution he fashions is agreeably casual in its obviousness rather than making a big fuss about how it all works out.

It all works out for everyone except for MacIntyre, which is “Local Hero’s” real twist, if you want to call it that. Because as the movie winds down, Happer asks MacIntyre to head back to Houston, deliberately rendered as the one moment in a slow burn movie that feels brusque. MacIntyre does not want to leave, of course, but he is duty bound. And the concluding juxtaposition of the glittering but impersonal Houston skyline with the red phone booth of Ferness evokes the spell travel casts so quietly but so searingly that it’s enough to make anyone who has ever fallen for some faraway place weep.

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