“The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd—the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.”
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
It’s fleeting, a traveler’s sense of belonging. When I’m in a new and unfamiliar place, the notion comes in fits and starts. It’s in the moment when the stroll from the Airbnb to the nearest metro station begins to feel familiar, or in the conversation struck up at a bar with strangers who feel less like strangers by the minute. It’s often just a small rush of belonging, easily dispelled. Other times I go so far as to rabidly browse apartment listings, auditioning for myself a life in that new, far-away place, calculating the prohibitive cost of a U-Haul. This street could be my street, this bar my local. Flitting through my head is that simple, impossible question: could this be the place?
There’s no real rhyme or reason to when the urge strikes. It’s not necessarily the product of any November in my soul, of a constant desire to be somewhere else. There’s a chance the feeling is simply the natural instinct of all New Yorkers to fantasize about living somewhere else, anywhere else; we are exceptionally skilled solipsists when we really put our minds to it. For those of us of a certain level of economic privilege, there’s always some place up in the Hudson Valley that’s just waiting for us, maybe that one town where we spent that one weekend, with those lovely farmhouses along that verdant country road. We can picture ourselves there, trying it on for size.
New York once gave me that ineffable feeling. Years ago now, I rushed through college to graduate early and move here, lied about knowing how to make coffee to get my first job, made all the ill-advised decisions a 21-year-old living in New York City makes. For a while, it was exactly what I’d wanted. By the time it finally occurred to me that what I felt to be my version of the city—that ever-shifting organism—could only exist so long, that it hadn’t belonged to me at all in any meaningful sense, it was too late to have any plan for an exit. Roots are hard to work loose, especially when they’ve snaked their way into the concrete.
And now, there’s the pandemic: sheltering in place, limiting myself to whatever portions of the city I can reach by foot from my apartment on my days off, pouring alcohol into plastic to-go cups on the days when I have to work, perpetually aware of the surfaces any part of my body touches. Cocktail shakers slip easily from my gloved hands. Customers are generous, generally tipping enough to make the danger of venturing out and taking the subway feel worth it. It helps me pay the rent, buys me another month of making just the amount required to stay where I am and little more. In this way, things aren’t much different than before.
There’s great temptation in looking at the price of airline tickets, in calculating what future date might allow for safe passage. Escape allures as much as ever, cabin fever or no. As ever, the wide world waits. Somewhere in my future, there’s a place I’ve not yet been.
Bill Forsyth’s 1983 masterpiece Local Hero is perhaps the greatest film ever made about attuning to the frequency of a place, of someone fitting in when and where they least expected. On its surface, the story is simple: an upstart oilman from Houston is chosen to travel to the fictional Scottish village of Ferness and purchase the entire area, beginning the process of turning it into a coastal refinery. Instead, once there, he falls for the place. What ensues isn’t a tale of consequences so much as it is one of wrinkles, of those unexpected cul-de-sacs of life where one is sometimes fortunate enough to end up.
Macintyre (we never get his first name) is chosen for the job by the higher-ups at Knox Oil and Gas because of his last name, though, as he admits to a coworker, he isn’t even Scottish; his Hungarian parents chose the name when emigrating because they thought it sounded American. As masterfully played by Peter Riegert, Mac is a man perpetually out of place. He’s a Houstonian who clearly isn’t from Texas, a person whose only comfortable form of communication comes on the telephone, even when nothing more than a pane of glass separates him from the person on the other end of the line. Before he leaves for Scotland, he tries unsuccessfully to find someone to grab a drink with, to find someone in his life that might miss him for even the short time that he’s gone. A call to an ex-girlfriend turns sour. He remains alone. He carries little with him on his trip besides an electric briefcase, a few suits, and a polaroid of his Porsche.
Waiting for him in Aberdeen is Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), a gangly, awkward fellow Knox employee. He’s a Scotsman, but well removed from his countrymen, merely a cog in a system that’s inviting interlopers to reshape the place. “Gaelic’s not one of my languages,” he confesses to Mac on the drive to their destination, though he does speak a laundry list of others. Like the rabbit the two men injure with their car (which Mac insists on naming “Trudy,” the same as his angry ex), they’re both in need of care, of being nursed back to health. Ferness, it turns out, is just the place they need.
It’s no coincidence that on their journey, Mac and Danny are stymied for a night by a thick fog. Forsyth knowingly plays upon his audience’s associations with the mythic side of Scotland throughout Local Hero, so giving Ferness a touch of that Brigadoon magic is apt. Meandering past the expectedly lush countryside landscapes and bright blue lochs, their car looks insignificant. Later, Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine researcher with whom Danny strikes up a romance, is in such harmony with the sea (and has webbed feet, to boot), that she’s reminiscent of a selkie, those creatures from Scottish folklore who could transform from seal to human. She’s also the lone character in the film who at every turn seems to sense exactly how everything will eventually play out, certainly more so than even the viewer.
That’s partly because when Mac and Danny arrive in Ferness, an unexpectedly remarkable thing happens: the movie zags away from everything it’s set up. Where once we expected a complicated, fish-out-of-water plot, we instead get an almost frictionless settling-in. We quickly realize that the villagers not only know about Knox’s plans, but are already planning what they’ll do with their windfall; does one go with a Maserati or a Rolls?
On the surface, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to sell. Life in Ferness isn’t particularly charmed. Many of the residents work multiple jobs, even Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the de facto mayor of the place, who splits time between being a happily married (and constantly horny) hotelier, the town accountant, and a bartender who knows only generous pours. Gordon and his wife, Stella (Jennifer Black), insist to the other villagers that stringing the Knox folks along is the best way to ensure an even larger payday for themselves, but that plot line, too, is quickly dispensed with. He and Mac are soon negotiating easily and openly, even becoming downright chummy over a rare bottle of 42-year-old whisky.
In lieu of conflict, or even the twists and turns of narrative, the film becomes content with just sort of…hanging out with its characters. We, like Mac, settle in. It’s not long before he weaves himself into Ferness’ tapestry, palpable bemusement slowly blooming across Riegert’s face. He soon knows when and how to avoid the motorcyclist who perpetually speeds down the main drag, learns everyone’s names, and even offers design advice to the old man who’s renaming his boat The Silver Dollar in anticipation of his coming fortune. Soon, Mac abandons his impeccably pressed suits for a comfortable sweater, stops shaving, and spends time wading in the shallows, foraging seashells and then lovingly cleaning them with a toothbrush. The night sky is full of shooting stars and the aurora borealis, both of which leave Mac awestruck and struggling for descriptors.
Danny is given an intimate tour of the shoreline by the perpetually wetsuit-wearing Marina, who tells him that even on a scientific level, the place is special, a perfect place for marine study. Danny, too, soon ditches his necktie and loosens his collar, falling quickly in love. In a lesser film, one can easily see these two characters being blended into one, but Forsyth has good reason to resist that temptation: why convert one company man when you can convert two?
The Knox men aren’t the only orphans who’ve found a home in Ferness. Reverend MacPherson (Christopher Asante) came from an unspecified African country years before on a student mission and, in his words, “didn’t ever get away again.” And there’s Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a Russian fisherman whose regularly-scheduled arrival prompts all the pomp and circumstance of an annual holiday. They’ve all been gladly caught in the net of the place.
It’s hard not to fall for the village right along with the characters. Forsyth is indebted to the humanist comedy stylings of late-‘30s and early-‘40s film, and gives most of his background characters their own deft, funny moments, making Ferness a full, lived-in place. His pacing accustoms us to the same sense of passing time as Mac feels; the days are calm and lazy and slow-going, but there can simply never be enough of them. It’s a more gorgeous film than so many others of its time, too, with Chris Menges’ camera capturing in full Scotland’s stunning, seemingly unceasing golden hour hues and purple sunsets over the sea, and Mark Knopfler’s score balancing moody synths with traditional Scottish instrumentation. It’s an impeccably made film, with nary an edit or a moment out of place.
In spite of Ferness’ magic, Local Hero is wise to show that it isn’t simply a pure, ideal place. The locals are just as greedy for the impending sale as anybody at the oil company. There’s a crying baby in a stroller that seems to belong to nobody in particular. A perpetual stream of air force jets takes practice runs overhead, dropping bombs on an unoccupied, unseen stretch of nearby beach (though, as the Reverend says, doing so means they “can’t be bombing anywhere else,” providing a small silver lining). Gordon and Stella serve up Trudy the rabbit to Mac and Danny for dinner on their second night in the hotel, perhaps the film’s lone act of callousness. But even that brief barbarism is important—the rabbit was a broken and suffering thing, in a way the one lingering remnant of Mac’s past. He needed to move on, and Ferness is just the place that can force him to do so.
The film’s centerpiece is a cèilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional night of dance, music, and drink where the townsfolk leave all pretense of playing hard-to-get behind. They dance like weights have been lifted from their shoulders. “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight,” one smugly remarks into his mug of beer. In the midst of the proceedings, Mac and Gordon venture into the empty bar next door, the ensuing scene one that belongs in the pantheon of drunk acting. Mac proposes a clean swap of lives with Gordon: Gordon can venture to Houston and take possession of his Porsche, salary, and “$50,000 in mixed securities,” while Mac stays behind to run the hotel and be with Stella. “She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever loved,” Mac says in drunken reverie. But we know as well as both men that this isn’t a confession of love, or the climactic tension of a love triangle that has not to this point triangled in any significant way. It’s the whole of Gordon’s life that Mac has fallen for. And who wouldn’t want to be the center, holding this weird, impossible, beautiful place together? Both men sense it’s just idle speculation, conversation without consequence. They move on, and so does the movie. It’s the same brief, blink-and-miss-it possibility that each of us feels when thinking about shifting our life to some new, unknown track, the kind of idea forgotten about almost as quickly as it arrived.
And therein lies the beating, bittersweet heart of Local Hero, that constant reminder to Mac—and us—that even the deepest feeling of belonging can never truly be possessed by someone who’s just visiting; it can only ever blink briefly into being. “It’s not your place, Mac. They have a right to make what they can of it,” Victor tells him during the cèilidh. “You can’t eat scenery.” Victor knows life here is hard, and that even though he, too, will miss the place once it’s wiped from the face of the Earth, things will work out for the people who once called it home. He’s the rare outsider who fully grasps the situation.
But Ben Knox also understands. Fulton Mackay’s beachcomber is the lone Ferness resident who seems completely in touch with his surroundings, and has the best interests of the village at heart. It’s Ben who proves the lone obstacle to the impending transaction, the owner of a stretch of shoreline that’s smack in the middle of everything. His birthright goes back many generations, predating even the old corporation that shares his name. He not incorrectly sees himself as one of the few things maintaining Ferness’ ecology. “Think of the state the place would get into,” he tells Mac and Gordon, gesturing at the shoreline in front of the shack he’s cobbled together from detritus that’s washed up from all over the world. He laughs off the idea of even assigning value to the bay, countering Mac’s offer of £750,000 with one of his own: a pound note for every grain of sand he can hold in his hand. Mac balks, and Ben tells him he missed out. “I can’t hold much more than 10,000 grains of sand in my hand at a time,” he says, point proven. Even if Mac’s fallen for Ferness, there’s a oneness with the place he’s incapable of ever truly appreciating. No matter how many shells he plucks from the bay, he’s just an interloper.
And then there’s Felix Happer—played by Burt Lancaster with the kind of towering presence that forces one to Google his height the moment he appears on screen—the eccentric CEO of Knox, another lost soul. He’s a billionaire, sure, but perhaps not nearly as gormless and evil as those we have in the real world. By the time Happer took over the company, the hard work was already done, his father having bought out the original Knox at the turn of the century. He’s someone who’s never actually accomplished anything, despite having enough money to buy an entire town half a world away on a lark. He hires a therapist to berate him into blunting his ego, and obsesses over astronomy, hoping to discover a comet and cement his legacy beyond the bounds of Earth and the wealth he’s sucked up from below its surface. One gets the sense he’s maybe never left his massive office atop Happer Tower (located on Happer Boulevard), with its full kitchen and planetarium ceiling.
His arrival in Ferness might be the single most breathtaking moment in the film: a dolly shot along a sunset-lit beach full of villagers, his helicopter approaching from the distance like something dropped out of heaven. “I like this place. The air is good, clear,” he tells Mac in the midst of ordering him around. Happer puts it upon himself to talk Ben into giving up the beach, but over the course of a long, unheard conversation, the two men hit it off. Ben convinces Happer of the village’s rareness, leading the CEO to rethink his entire approach. He’ll move the refinery offshore, and make Ferness the site of an institute studying the sky and the sea. The village will remain, and an infusion of money—though not as much as they expected—will make its way into the locals’ pockets. Plenty of work will be available to all. Marina’s prediction of a marine laboratory comes to pass. It all ends as well as can be hoped.
Mac’s arc carves such a gentle path through Local Hero, one might not even perceive it as such until the film’s conclusion. Even his departure is a muted affair. There are a few goodbye waves from the beach, a shake of Gordon’s hand. His helicopter departs back over the same road that led him to Ferness. Like that, the spell is broken.
In Texas, Mac returns to his apartment. The decor feels even more impersonal than it did the first time around, nearly unadorned aside from his bragged-about hi-fi and a seafood restaurant menu thumbtacked to a cluttered corkboard. He places his shells and stones on the counter, displays some pictures of himself, Gordon, and Stella where he will maybe see them whenever he walks from the kitchen to the living room. The last time we see Mac, he’s staring out at the distant Houston skyline from his balcony, utterly alone.
It’s an ending that floors me, every time. Re-entering your life after spending any amount of time elsewhere is always jarring, and never more than when returning to one which you briefly toyed with leaving behind entirely. Sure, the phone box in Ferness might still ring, might be Mac’s one small way of keeping in touch, but his moment’s passed, really, as all moments must, by their very nature. The ocean beats against the Ferness shoreline. Life carries on.
Only once have I ever come close to fully surrendering to the temptation of starting fresh somewhere else. The place was Lisbon and I was there for work, just short three weeks as an assistant at a literary conference. I hadn’t traveled to many places before—still haven’t, really—but felt immediately like I was where the direction of my life had been carrying me all along. In my free moments, I walked the city’s hilly streets and staircases, drawn away from the places where the tourist masses congregated and into stranger corners, into antique shops and bookstores and alleys where people cooked fish over small charcoal grills. I barely spoke the language, and sunburned like someone unprepared for the sun-soaked reality of the place, but still: belonging coursed through me. With my fellow visiting writers, I sensed that we all felt the magic, making haunts of the places we visited every night, lighting candles in cathedrals, in harmony. I read Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, one of the great love letters ever written to a city, and felt his guiding hand through all the transient experiences I prayed could somehow become permanent.
I fell in love with Lisbon, and fell in love in Lisbon, too, with someone who, like me, was only there for the short period of the conference. They shared with me the same open-hearted wonder I had for the place. With them, there, I had the sense that every branching moment in my life had led to exactly that one. My wanting and searching felt sated.
Of course, we each left to return to our regular lives back home. Our respective cities were close enough in the Northeast that we tried for a while to keep alive that spark we’d lit across the sea. For a while it worked, until it didn’t. The person I’d been in Lisbon—the one I’d briefly become, or found I’d been all along, I don’t know which—wasn’t the one who existed back here in America. It was this person, the one I’d always been, who was all too capable of frightening himself and fucking it all up and letting a good thing end.
Of course, looking back, those moments only mattered because they were so fleeting. Lisbon, like all cities, has changed since, in ways I’ll likely never see for myself. Even if I were somehow to retrace those same steps back there, none of that old experience would return. Only small remainders are left, in photographs and scraps of writing. Memory fades, time disposes.
I’m still in New York City, with no sense of when, or if, a path will lead me elsewhere. I’ve long felt that the place has passed me by, or vice versa. Friends have married, moved, had kids. When I’m somewhere in the city where it’s visible, even the skyline grows increasingly unfamiliar. The shifts are seismic and unsettling. And now, in quarantine, there’s little to focus on other than the sound of sirens out the window and the creeping, constant fear of those things on the other side of my front door.
The world still waits—my life waits—but I’m growing impatient. Somewhere in my future, there’s a place I can’t yet see. But I have to believe I’ll still get there. When I do, I’ll call someone I love. I’ll describe the night sky in impeccable detail. I’ll hold the receiver out towards the sea and let the waves speak for me.