Friday, July 22, 2011

Local Hero

One of my favorite movies is "Local Hero".  It is an environmental film, in more ways than one.  You say "environmental" and people think about saving the whales, and there is definitely that element in the film.  An oil company wants to tear apart a town on the beautiful west coast of northern Scotland in order to build a deep-water refinery close to the North Sea oil fields for shipment of refined fuel back to America.  The beauty of the place, the people, and their simple communal way of life slowly overcomes these more corporate needs to win the day and preserve the beauty of the coastline.   

Yet there is also an element of putting a man who is comfortable and successful in one environment - urban, corporate, upper-middle-class life driven by money and materialism - and dropping him in a very different place - more wild, more affected by the rhythms of nature - and it transforms him.  He becomes more his true self.  He finds the path.  The experience transforms him. 

Mac in Houston - before he leaves for Scotland
Mac has a great job, by current American standards.  He is in M&A at a large oil company headquartered in Houston.  He owns a Porsche, has a big office, has lots of money in stocks, and brokers large land deals representing the oil company.  He gets chosen for the Scotland deal because his name is MacIntyre - a Scottish name to be sure.  But his Hungarian parents changed their name to MacIntyre when they immigrated here to be "more American".  This is true for so many people who came to these shores.  So who is Mac really?  He doesn't even have his own name.    

By every measure that our modern society equates with happiness and success, Mac should be very happy.  Yet we find out that he is not.  He has no intimacy in his life; no love; no connection with people.  No friendships, even at work.  He is a man consumed by the corporate ladder.  His whole life is geared toward world domination by his own employer.  There are so many people - good people - like this in America.  These are the guys and girls who are willing to move to all corners of the earth (read: America and Western Europe only) in order to get that next promotion, that next raise.  Because that is what they blindly see as the way to get ahead.  But where are they going?  Why?  These questions are left unanswered by these people. 

Mac's transformation begins on the journey to Ferness, the Scottish town he has to acquire.  He comes to buy the entire town, all the property from the coast line to a mile inland.  It takes nearly two days to get there, and at one point on the drive from Aberdeen, there is so much fog on the mountain road that he has to merely stop driving in the middle of the road.  Can you imagine that?  Being in a place so remote that you can just stop in the middle of the road with no cars coming or going for hours on end?  Just thinking about that gives me a sense of peace. 

Gordon and Stella
 Mac arrives in town of Ferness to find Gordon Urquhart, the town's chief accountant, hotelier, and restauranteur, among his other duties.  Gordon is married to Stella, a woman who represents the ideal for Mac.  Why does Gordon have Stella when Mac doesn't?  The movie goes a long way in explaining why.  Women love a man comfortable in his own skin who knows who he really is.  Gordon knows that; Mac doesn't, though in the course of his cinematic journey in this film he discovers who he is in his bones. 

Ferness along the beach
In order to enhance his negotiating position, Gordon suggests slyly to Mac that he spend a few days in the town, getting to know the landscape and the people.  Here Gordon shows he is a far better businessman and negotiator than Mac.  Just because you have a Porsche and make more money than someone else does not mean that you are better or smarter than anyone else.  Corporate life can become a form of indentured servitude where everything in your life is defined by your position on the ladder.  People just go to sleep and surrender too many decisions to large corporations.  At the end of the day - in America there is capital and there is labor.  All employees of corporations are labor.  In this case, Gordon is capital and Mac is labor.  Gordon's businesses may be comparatively small - but he owns them.  He is an entrepreneur - a master of his own fate.  Mac is a salaried employee who is probably three paychecks away from being broke (like so many of us Americans).  
Gordon and Mac, after a night of whiskey at the Ceili
By the time of the Ceili (pronounced KHAY-lee), which is a Gaelic word for a party, Mac has realized that Gordon has somehow discovered the secret of happiness, while he on the other hand is miserable.  He also feels that Gordon is his best friend in the world.  In the pivotal moment in the film, shown above, a drunken Mac begs Gordon to participate in a new negotiation - to discuss terms for swapping identities.  Mac gets to be Gordon, with his "little bits of business" and with his wife Stella, and Gordon gets to be Mac, with his big-time job, his Houston apartment, his stock portfolio, and his Porsche.  Then he pees on the floor.  Gordon says, "Sure, Mac."  And really he is just showing compassion in saying that to Mac.  He knows he has already won in life. 

This film is rich with sub-plots and I am only choosing one of them.  It is really more of a meditation than a film.  Its richness is like an old book, or a fine smooth 42-year-old whiskey on a cool quiet night.  You need time with this film to let it sink into your bones.  Local Hero has changed my life for the better and it has put my priorities into perspective. 

Mac has been given a gift - the ability to see his life for what it is by being allowed to go somewhere completely different to what he is used to.  In our own lives we should all try to leave our comfort zone at times, just to see what it is like.  Because taking chances like this can be transformative. 

Let me add one musical note.  Mark Knopfler recorded the soundtrack for this work.  It is an excellent soundtrack, and Knopfler is Scottish, so I'm sure his heritage played an important role in his work.  While his work could on the surface be considered an homage to Vangelis' excellent soundtrack for "Chariots of Fire," I do think it stands on its own as an excellent and essential component of the film.  I love films where the music is a part of the story, and I believe that in the case of Local Hero, this is assuredly so.  Knopfler is as much a part of this story as Peter Reigert is. 

Mahalo ;)=~

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