Local Hero (1983): Nothing Local About It

I just love how desultory  film exploration works: one day, you’re watching a ‘modern’ rom-com, the next you’re sticking your head into a small British thing of the 80s which turns out to be a superior version of She’s the Man (2006). And before you know it, there is another Bill Forsyth movie on your screen which turns out to be just a peach!

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At first sight, Local Hero should make you worry. As the imdb synopsis puts it:

An American oil company sends a man to Scotland to buy up an entire village where they want to build a refinery. But things don’t go as expected.

The problem with this isn’t so much that we’re all so worried about the unscrupulous scenario that promises to unfold. Rather, it’s that any “things don’t go as expected” take poses a serious threat of being awkward, mushy and just plain irritating. I mean, unless it’s a story of resistance, it’s a story of conversion, and while the former is at worst dull, the latter can put a dent in your faith in humanity.

Fortunately, Forsyth pulls off a spectacular feat in framing a story which mixes elements of both aforementioned scenarios with such tranquility and understated affection that it becomes pleasurable to get taken in by it. The movie never pushes an agenda, the lead characters are not wholly absurd, while the larger community is engaged and engaging. These elements become so easily stereotyped that when it doesn’t happen, you have to wonder whether the world is still turning. Beyond a disciplined script, I always find that pacing and mood-building are key. The execution thereof is not as handy as it appears, with cinematography and sound (mixing and theme – hello, Mark Knopfler) clearing the path, but not quite ensuring success. For as much as any woman or man enjoys subtlety, it’s best to avoid being subtly bored.

Beyond these rather general observations of why Local Hero just works, what really distinguishes it is its ability to fill the canvas of small town Scotland with rituals and routines that contrast the modern world we depart from. It doesn’t hammer it in crudely, but rather takes the time to find the little things that instill said feeling, with well placed eccentricities and avoiding ridiculous moments of forced introspection. And the humor of it all, tinging across the dialogue in a situationally astute manner, is something special. Just reading through the quotes, I get an urge to share the bunch of them! Here’s only one:

Rev. Macpherson: You want to buy my church?
MacIntyre: Not as a going concern.

There are so many little things that work, commenting on how connected people can be, at a time when…well, there’s always a time like that, but the point is that Local Hero takes you out of it and makes you feel lovely all over.

Too much?

Okay then, taking a step back. There are some occasional imperfections, where things get too real or preachy for my taste. With comments like:

Townsman: I thought all this money would make me feel different.

To be fair, the scene does say more about how the expectation of having to feel differently because you are rich can depress you if you don’t feel differently, which is a fair point, applicable to a whole host of collisions between personal/social expectations. But still, it comes across as an artificial comment and seems to fit even less a few scenes later.

Perhaps the harshest criticism one can bring is aimed at the movie’s suggestion that oil companies can be the good guys. Most of the larger oil spills in recent memory came after the 1983 release of Local Hero, but the arguments around displacing a village to set up an oil refinery are more complex than it is Forsyth’s scope to explore here. Of course, the biggest ‘problem’ is casting someone as likable as Burt Lancaster in the role of the big honcho, a prickly character that gets its share of ironic flak, yet remains mostly respectable and even endearing.

Moving beyond such real life nit-picking, it is worth offering a nod to the rest of the cast as well, especially Peter Riegert, with a deadpan performance in the leading role, and Peter Capaldi, as to goofy aid, in only his second acting credit. Given the subdued nature of the movie, there aren’t many opportunities for star-making turns, yet it all fits together nicely.

Local Hero has many moments where it is film at its best. Even more so, moments where it just is, weightless to the core without becoming trivial. A proper bout of escapism that lingers, as prescribed by both commercial and artistic prophets of the medium. The only toll it requires is a tad of patience and the willingness to take part.

*****

Cinema Timis, Timisoara (RO)

Of the three cinemas I grew up visiting on a regular basis, Cinema Timis is the last one standing. Not quite honorably, but standing nonetheless.

Located a mere fifty meters from the landmark cathedral of Timisoara, the single screen cinema is housed at the ground floor of some of the pitiful condominiums that ’embellish’ Piata Operei, the “birthplace of Romanian democracy”. Well, not long ago, Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015) argued that the illicit film trade during the last decade of communist Romania, alongside an industrious dubbing factory in the person of Margareta Nistor, paved the way for the changes that were to come. While such a claim is rather generous and attributes too much power to B movies from all around the world, there you have it: communism, film, freedom, all encapsulated in Cinema Timis.

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Count ’em and weep.

Until my most recent visit there, earlier this week, it had been a year or two since the last film I had seen at Timis. It should sound something like Tee-mee-sh, the name of both the local county and a river at the outskirts of Timisoara – not to be confused with the Bega river, which you would most likely encounter during a city tour. But I digress.

The state of the cinema had not improved in the mean time: some sort of administrative affairs were taking place in the foyer, the adjacent club was fortunately closed (when it isn’t, you’ve got an additional soundtrack in the mix) and there wasn’t even a semblance of the usual cinema treats commerce. Last time, a couple of Fantas and Sprites were languishing in an unplugged cooler and some cheesy popcorn was stashed under the ticket collection desk. For all that had changed, the advanced functional decrepitude strangling the place to a mechanical subsistence of little to no ambition, I still recognized the staff of days gone by, idly sitting behind the glass pane of the ticket office and chatting away, waiting to sell five to ten tickets for a mid-day screening of Fúsi (2015). Seating capacity is 624.

And that’s the beauty of it, the antidote to mall cinema outings for movies that give even the mainstream a bad name. Often, Timis opted to show mainstream movies that had been released months before in primary locations, with faint hopes of jumping on some commercial longtail or, perhaps, doubling down on the nostalgia factor. Either way, the odds of financial sustainability were about as high as those for Shyamlan directing another relevant movie. Art-house films or ignored releases at least give the cinema a chance to carve some sort of identity, which would surely have better odds of success if at least one of the weekly screenings was organized as a special event, to spin it into something desirable outside the niche film geeks.

Once inside, I was surprised to see that the movie was being projected using a home theater projector, rather than the usual cinema projector located behind wood paneling at the back of the room. Well, nothing against improvisation and the image quality was no worse than it had been in the past, so the flexibility of using digital sources (probably at some reduced cost, too) is not something to scoff at. The buzzing that came off the sound system was a bother in the (many) contemplative moments of Fusi, but still on the right side of deal-breaker. So there we were, six of us, gathered to explore the solitude of the Icelandic virgin mountain, for a total income of 36 RON at 6 RON a ticket. Still twice to three times cheaper than a mall alternative.

In the moments as the credits were rolling and I was resurfacing from Fusi’s misery, I recalled my most vivid memory of the place, dating over ten years ago. Finding Nemo (2003) was showing and I had somehow managed to convince the girl I was hopelessly enamoured with to join me. And just as Bruce, the reformed fish-eating shark, menacingly crossed the screen, she gave out an audible yelp and jumped into my arms! Well, she probably grabbed my arm, or at least grazed it, or something, but it felt like so.much.more.

Obviously, I do wish Timis can survive in the long term, or at least until Finding Dory (2016) is released and I plot my next romantic conquest, but it seems unlikely. After Cinema Capitol and Cinema Studio, both in the vicinity of Timis, shut their doors, the latter following some appalling legislative and bureaucratic knot-making, the city is left with ever fewer alternative cinema venues. The only thriving options are bar-screenings, which regularly present quality movies, but are ultimately just a lesser version of the complete cinema experience. Most likely it will have to be worse, before it all gets better, but until then, do take the time to visit the past at Cinema Timis, every once in a while.

Taxi (2015): A Journey Around Censorship

Somewhere, in the corner of my mind, the information about Jafar Panahi’s predicament was lying around unguarded. His 2010 jail sentence and twenty year ban from filmmaking were a result of what was deemed as propaganda against the Iranian government. Obviously, it has not hindered him in producing three movies since, all smuggled outside the country and released at the Cannes and Berlin festivals before receiving wider distribution. The story of the man is fascinating enough, but it is his artistic and humanistic sensibilities that make Taxi a memorable experience.

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In a world…full of taxis.

Filmed via a number of small cameras, some fixed within the taxi itself, some carried around by other protagonists, the story sees Panahi acting as a cab driver and encountering pieces of the Iranian Weltanschauung. The irony of his position is highlighted as his first passenger criticizes his geographical orientation, noticing that something must have gone seriously wrong for Panahi in order for him to have to resort to something he has no clue about. And after a short argument between passengers about whether stealing the wheels off a car should warrant the death penalty or not, “just to send a message”, you get the sense of how easily people become desensitized to such matters if only they are faced with them frequently enough. Paradoxically, the man suggesting this course of action is a “freelancer” himself, but more of a Robin Hood mold, which apparently should exempt him from a similar punishment.

This contradiction between wrong and right is explored throughout the journey, as Panahi encounters a series of colourful characters: a man selling pirated international films (who actually recognizes the director and takes quick advantage of him), a woman weeping over her dying husband, two older women fighting for their lives, an old neighbour who had recently been the victim of a robbery, a woman suffering a similar fate of marginalization due to the her political views, and Panahi’s niece, who is just being introduced to what “publishable films” are in Iran.

Panahi strikes a fine balance between some more comical aspects of Iranian life and the very dire need for self expression, that is severely limited. The humanism that pervades Taxi poses the same question repeatedly: what causes crime and who is a criminal within Iranian society? Drawing from a well of personal experience, he manages to create an endearing context for all his protagonists and their tales and it feels like he is taking us by the hand and guiding us, not so much physically, as emotionally. His smile spreads these emotional cues, from affection to sympathy, confusion and intense discomfort, and this gives off the sensation of being joined by a friend throughout this journey.

The worst that can be said is that the scripting of events does occasionally feel a bit heavy handed, in order to condense all the experience in what is ultimately a very short film. And while generally avoiding the lure of leaning too heavily on caricature, it ends on a slightly underwhelming artistic note.

But those are all the complaints I have to make. I very much enjoyed Taxi and gathering from the vibe around me, so did many of the other people watching it. While I feel the focus should generally be on the art, more than on the artist, here’s hoping that Panahi will have the chance to one day echo the affection he receives and generates in festival venues around the world, by having the freedom to openly appear alongside Iranian artists and their uncensored visions.

****

Originally posted on imdb.

The Infinte Delights of Werner Herzog

In his talk with Paul Holdengräber, German filmmaker Werner Herzog appears as a man of detail, focused on the minutia of life. A scene from “Death Row”, the recent documentary TV series, portrays an inmate who ecstatically describes that if he had a thousand dollars and a wad of freedom, he would go to the supermarket, line up shopping carts and purchase as much produce as they can hold, so that he may perhaps remind himself of what an avocado tastes like, what peeling it feels like, what it all means to him who is deprived of it. Whether it is in this, or in Herzog’s recounting of obscure German poets and ignored sixteenth century painters, you get a sense that not only the devil’s in the detail, but also our sense of self.

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Who are you looking at?

Holdengräber tries to push Herzog to define what his “gang of characters” is. There is an element of “herzogianism” to them, it seems, something stemming from the minutia of life that gets transcribed into his films and his writing, that something which allows Klaus Kinski or Bruno S. to be as real as they can be. You recognize solitude in all the leads of his works, the kind of loneliness that comes with great ambition, whether looking at Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God or even Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The latter emphasizes Herzog’s dislike of vanilla stories, the simplified versions of things which usually have a positive causality. In the case of Dieter, it was not some childhood dream that instigated his craving, but a near death experience as an enemy fighter jet flew by his house with guns blazing, commanded by a pilot whose glance young Dieter caught for no more than a fleeting second. And the line between reality and stylization, as the director admits, can be managed according to how the truth can be best expressed.

His focus on such documentaries has garnered Herzog great acclaim, establishing his hallmark narration with strong German undercurrents – something that would be a great addition to spice up the occasional university readings. Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss or Grizzly Man are just some of the exceptional ones produced within the last decade – the latter, a phenomenal piece of analysis on the communion between man and nature. If you have seen any of them, you instantly understand Herzog’s critique of highly journalistic ventures into the world of documentary film making: it is not about putting together a convincing dissertation on film, but rather of finding an expression of humanism which transcends fact or fiction.

For a guy who worked in steel mills in his youth and first used a phone when he was seventeen, you can sense to this day a great fascination for technology. The talk began with Herzog detailing his experience of a 360 degree virtual reality device, which is astounding up to the point you realize there is considerable discomfort in the artificial detachment from reality. His remarks reminded me of Max Frisch’s book, Homo Faber, wherein the protagonist is critically viewed as a serial documentarian, who only perceives reality through the lens of a camera. It does sound kind of familiar and this theme of technological detachment has always felt embedded in the reality Herzog creates on film. But the value it brings needs to be mediated and understood within its limitations. It all parallels nicely with the legendary collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, who he admits that he never fought to control, but only to provide a frame to, for his (devastating) creative potential.

His book with Paul Cronin, “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed”, is the latest addition to the wondrous world of the man. Plentiful herzogianisms resides within, the natural consequence of a life tailored to oneself. Yet, I look at the connection between some of the topics discussed with Holdengräber, such as the potential for obscurity of talented persons and the advent of the Internet, and wonder if unrestricted access to platforms for artistic expression works for or against the former. Herzog would probably say that it all works in favour of those who have the desire to find themselves in the world which surrounds them. Or perhaps he would not say it, because some things are better left unsaid.

Originally published in the weekly newspaper of the LSE Students’ Union at the London School of Economics, The Beaver.