Robert Galvin | Mail Tribune.
In the village of Pennan on the Aberdeenshire coast of Scotland, a red, glass-windowed telephone box marks a solitary vigil … a guardian between the encroach of society and the aurora-borealis horizon above the oft-treacherous North Sea.
For nearly 40 years, the telephone box — it is decidedly NOT a “phone booth” — has been one of the most unlikely tourist attractions in Scotland … or anywhere else.
Thousands have come to Pennan (pop. 50, give or take) to visit the box — to have their pictures taken next to it, to make a phone call, to attempt to recapture the well of emotional attachment that began when last they saw it.
When the indispensable Alissa Corman sounded her own clarion call recently, asking her cohorts and co-workers to submit movie choices for the cover story in this week’s Tempo, I immediately found myself on the Aberdeenshire coast — and my last sight of the telephone.
It was ringing. And ringing. And ringing some more. It was pre-dawn in Scotland, and the early evening on the other end of the call in the Houston, Texas, high-rise apartment of “Mac” MacIntyre — the junior executive of Knox Oil and Gas who is the unlikely protagonist of the 1983 cult classic “Local Hero.”
Mac was chosen to go to Pennan (dubbed “Ferness” in the film) to negotiate a deal to buy the town because of the misassumption that, because of his surname, he was Scottish (he actually comes from a line of Hungarians).
He also has a secondary assignment from the company’s owner, Felix Happer, to watch the skies over Ferness, particularly near the constellation of Virgo — and to call Happer immediately if he spots anything unusual.
Which is how Mac, and the audience, meets the telephone box.
Deciding which movies people should watch during a quarantine is a trickier nut to crack than you might think.
Go the route of mindless entertainment, unbridled joy, pure escapism? Get people lost in the tension of a thriller, root for heroines and outcasts against impossible odds, or maybe just let folks settle in for an hour or two of non-stop laughs or goofiness?
Although my thoughts first went to “Local Hero,” I put it aside for a moment to consider other possibilities.
The next name to come up was “The Wrong Trousers” — the Oscar-winning 1993 stop-motion short starring Wallace & Gromit, and featuring a dastardly penguin and one of the great train scenes of any film … even those that aren’t a mere 30 minutes long.
“The Wrong Trousers” brings tears to the eyes and a stitch to the side. You’ll want to watch it again immediately, but err on the side of caution — wait an hour before diving back in.
I almost (you’ll thank me later) suggested the 2008 version of the stage musical “Mamma Mia!” … a nonsensical guilty pleasure not just for the ABBA soundtrack, but for how the Meryl Streep-led cast of stars threw themselves into the material without regard for life and limb, or reputation.
But when deadline approached and Alissa’s call needed to be answered, I was on my way to Scotland.
I have an internet-friend named Martyn — a playwright and proud Scot — and more than once we have gone at it online about the relative merits of what we agree on are writer-director Bill Forsyth’s two best films … “Local Hero” and “Gregory’s Girl.”
I will bore Martyn on-end propping up “Local Hero,” with him responding politely but defiantly explaining how and why and where I have gone wrong with my thinking, and that “Gregory’s Girl” — a comedy about young love and soccer — is far superior.
When he tires of the latest round of the debate, he drops the rhetorical hammer.
“You’re an American. I get it,” he’ll type. “All Americans prefer ‘Local Hero’ because it puts Americans front-and-center. You won’t understand until you become a Scot.”
Martyn, however, is in the midst of rewrite-hell on his latest play, so I win this round.
When we last saw Mac MacIntyre, he was calling the telephone box and — despite the time difference — hopeful that someone would pick up.
“Local Hero” is about how the typical brash junior exec would get to that point.
Well, it involves the stars in the Ferness sky … and a rabbit … and a baby that no one seems to claim parentage of … and a motorcycle that roars through town exactly once a day … and (maybe) a mermaid.
It involves townspeople nearly unanimous in their desire to sell their property to the oil company and move away, and the lone holdout … a man named Knox who owns the beach.
But those are plot points. They get us from A to somewhere close to Z. Forsyth isn’t interested in that journey forward; “Local Hero” is about the journey inward — primarily for Mac, but also for those in his orbit.
Burt Lancaster (in the twilight, character role phase of his career) plays Happer the oil baron as a seeker of truth trapped in the shell of society-enforced protocol. Mac wants to learn the business from him; Happer wants to share other lessons.
Forsyth’s dialogue is sharp and casual.
“We won’t have anywhere to call home,” the town accountant says about the company’s offer, “but we’ll be stinkin’ rich.”
In the end, though, “Local Hero” — backed by a transcendent score from Mark Knopfler — takes us somewhere we haven’t been, then sends us home somehow changed.
And it’s about that phone call.
Story goes that the ending was a compromise with the film’s financial backers … but if so, it plays like found poetry.
It has the ring of truth.