LOCAL HERO and the End of Travel

The following was originally written for a regrettably unrealized other blog project.

* * *

Luc Sante described nostalgia as “a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future,” which is a slippery, really smart-sounding, hard-to-argue-with sort of claim. And I’m not sure he’s wrong. I’m also not sure if Sante would agree that premature nostalgia is even a thing, but I do, and a good thing at that, compared to the regular variety—the feeling that hits us when we’re on the verge of losing something or leaving somewhere, the rare urgent impulse to take it all in.

Premature nostalgia is perhaps most common to travelers—a melancholic appreciation for where one is that an impending departure drives home (pun intended). You can occasionally find it elsewhere, at a high school graduation or a play’s closing night. But rarely are life’s departures so obvious. Travel time is finite time, and the end of a trip underscores the non-negotiable impermanence of nearly everything. The redeeming feature of nostalgia, then, at least a mutant form: in a minor panic, we feel vividly present, compelled to use well our life allotment.

Director Bill Forsyth’s 1983 cult hit Local Hero articulates this feeling more precisely than any other film I’ve seen. Peter Reigert (Animal House) stars as MacIntyre, a mid-level employee at a Texas oil company. MacIntyre’s boss (Burt Lancaster) has sent him to Scotland in order to buy out the inhabitants of a small village on which he hopes to build a refinery. As one might expect, the many comforts of coastal small town life quickly seduce MacIntyre—the widespread friendliness, the relaxed speed at which people seem to live. In other instances, though, Local Hero sidesteps the clichés of the cynical-businessman-life-change movie. Sure, lovable native eccentrics pepper MacIntyre’s new surroundings, including a young Peter “Fuckity-bye” Capaldi, playing a walking Orange Juice song. But the local townspeople are also reasonably willing to sell, most of them totally amenable to uprooting themselves in exchange for some extra material comfort.

It never quite comes to that. By the end of Local Hero, Lancaster’s oilman and the smalltowners have found a third way, one which satisfies all parties involved without wreaking environmental damage over coastal Scotland. All parties except MacIntyre, that is, who the film leaves palpably depressed. He returns to Texas having learned what he’s been missing in life, but nowhere near getting what he’s searching for.

Reigert doesn’t deliver a flashy performance as MacIntyre–a bit like late-period Bill Murray, he’s all muted emotions, faint malaise and irritation–but his acting suits Local Hero‘s somber third-act turn. He’s likable, decent-seeming, and more importantly, convincing as a dude who has failed to take proper charge of his life. On one of his last nights in town, MacIntyre pleads with Gordon (Denis Lawson), a local hotel owner and unofficial town leader, to switch places with him before he heads back, a gesture as moving as it is illogical. After failing to convince Gordon, MacIntyre returns to his Texas apartment, where he dials a phone booth back in Scotland–to no answer. It’s a small-scale shock (this is really how this movie ends?), and a reminder of the feelings that attend leaving a place you’ve grown to love.

During the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I took part in a trip across Europe organized by my Western Civ instructor. Among the classmates with whom I traveled was a girl, let’s call her Emma, the fidgety daughter of well-intentioned helicopter parents. Emma had never previously been out of the country, and had rarely been far from her parents’ sight. She did not learn to drink during the trip, or sleep with an Italian man, or get a tattoo of Millet’s “Gleaners” after visiting the Musée d’Orsay. But she did stay up late most nights playing cards with friends, and figured out bus schedules in unfamiliar languages , and just generally went a few good weeks without having to answer to the people she’d answered to most days of her life. To all appearances, this was a revelation for her. Our first day back in the states, Emma wept, and I mean wept, in the baggage claim area of the Des Moines airport. Whether or not she has seen Local Hero–we haven’t talked in years now–the film belongs to her and people like her. It’s a weirdly, almost unfairly sad movie, but in that sadness there’s kindness, a quiet sympathy for people in perpetual motion.

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15 Comments on “LOCAL HERO and the End of Travel”

  1. […] Here are some thoughts on Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, which just happens to be my favorite film of all time. If you've never seen it, I would encourage you to send this link to yourself and save it for when you've finally watched the movie, which you should ABSOLUTELY DO AS SOON AS IT IS POSSIBLE FOR YOU. If you have seen it, you're cleared to click: the post does a really good job of explaining why the movie is so magical. @ 1:30 pm […]

  2. LMcKNash Says:

    Plus the soundtrack, Mark Knopfler at his understated best.

  3. […] A post in praise of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero: […]

  4. […] #Caribbean #Travel #Trip http://bit.ly/fT4zZ1 Enjoyable reading about the adorable Local Hero: http://malapropist.com/2011/03/11/local-hero-and-the-end-of-travel/ And voilu00e0! JFK. Thank You travel gods. awake studio dot com u00bb New Travel Sketchbook […]

  5. Jim Says:

    Good job. You can never heap too much praise on Local Hero, one of my two or three favorite movies ever. You’re totally right about the pain of nostalgia and how that both makes the movie work and makes it hurt.

  6. TVA Says:

    What a great reminder of why Local Hero was my favorite movie in college… Great review essay.

    I took my own trip to Europe in college before spending a semester in Wales, and I made a sort of pilgrimage to the town in Scotland where the movie was filmed (which wasn’t that easy to do before the Internet posted every last bus schedule and travel tip imaginable). Turned out to be a wistful trip (with some premature nostalgia, too), as I was alone and it started raining hard just as i got to the red phone booth. But an unforgettable trip.

  7. ned Says:

    Thank you, and I came here from the Awl, for reminding me about this movie. It has been years since I last watched it, but…now I feel compelled to watch it.

  8. Chris_H Says:

    Just rented this based on your recommendation — it was as great as you said. Thanks.

  9. […] @AlexBalk of @theawl, an encomium for Local Hero, one of the most wonderful movies […]

  10. Stephen Day Says:

    ..but does anybody know the title of the accordian music played at every meal-time in the hotel dining room. I am trying to outdo a work colleague for obscure knowledge of what is our very favourite film.

    Oh and has anyone recognised Stella playing as John Rebus’s boss in the detective thrillers on Alibi and other channels

  11. […] I did, after all, watch it twice while living in Scotland last year… Balk was linking to a short musing on the film and the nostalgia of travel, which I’d recommend reading even if you insist […]

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