Guest post: Eddie Harrison on memories and dreams in Local Hero

Burt Lancaster as Happer in Local Hero

Burt Lancaster as Happer in Local Hero

Now in its fifth year, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF) has grown to become one of the world’s largest arts and health events.

Eddie Harrison, director of the SMHAFF’s film festival strand, explains why he decided to add one of Bill Forsyth’s best-loved films, Local Hero (distributed by Park Circus in the UK and Ireland), to the schedule.

I was working in Queens, New York, when the idea of programming Local Hero came up.

For weeks, I’d been in correspondence with Peter Byrne, an expert on mental health and cinema, about the 2011 film programme for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Perhaps it was being so far from home, or a memory of seeing Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film as an un-impressionable teenager, but his suggestion of screening Local Hero in the context of a mental health festival made me feel positively misty eyed.

2011’s programme aimed to demonstrate how cinema can deal directly with specific mental health conditions. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her deals with Alzheimers, Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric with depression, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But selecting Local Hero had less to do with addressing a specific mental condition than the festival annual themes, this year, memories and dreams.

My first memory of Local Hero is the film’s opening in Houston, with an early sight-gag featuring Telex-era office-workers communicating with each other by phone, only to discover they’re in the same room.

Peter Riegert’s business-like MacIntyre arrives at the Scottish seaside town of Ferness sporting a digital watch, an indication of accelerated pace of technology. His guide, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) and his fellow villagers sense the possibility of a windfall when they realise MacIntyre reports nightly from their local phone-box to Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), an oil magnate keen to buy up the village and replace it with an oil-field.

Happer (Burt Lancaster) and MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) discuss business

Happer (Burt Lancaster) and MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) discuss business

But when local beachcomber Ben Knox (Fulton Mackay) refuses to sell, Happer travels to Scotland to change Ben’s mind, only to discover that it’s his own values and opinions which are about to change…

Local Hero deals explicitly with mental health issues through the character of Moritz (Norman Chancer), Happer’s ‘abuse therapist’, paid to pester the magnate with a slew of derogatory comments as some kind of twisted salve for the rich’s man’s troubled psyche.

Happer’s recovery from his mental health issues comes from his reconciliation with his own forgotten childhood dreams; his interest in the universe returns, not as seen through the glass lens of a telescope, but under the open skies of the Northern Lights.

In Local Hero, Happer finally finds a true sense of happiness in the idea that the fondest memories of the past and his dreams of the future may be one and the same thing.

The film ends poignantly with MacIntyre placing stones collected during his trip on the edge of the balcony of his lonely Houston apartment, and the phone ringing in the Ferness phone-box, resonating in MacIntyre’s fondest memories as the film does so memorably in the minds of so many viewers, in Scotland and all across the world.

Local Hero screens at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival on Sunday 23rd of October at 3.15pm.

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