The Torah of Local Hero
July 16, 2012
When Helene invited me to show a favorite movie in what she was calling "The Rabbis' Favorite Films" series, I spent some time pondering what I might do. Finally I came to her and said, look, there are plenty of Jewish movies I've enjoyed, but the truth of the matter is, my favorite movie isn't Jewish per se. It's called Local Hero. (IMDB entry; Wikipedia entry.)
The Local Hero theatrical trailer. If you can't see it, you can go directly to it at YouTube.
To my surprise, her face lit up. She told me that she and her husband had been to Pennan, the small town in Scotland where most of Local Hero was filmed. It happens that so have I; Ethan and I went there on our honeymoon. We traded stories of Pennan and what it had meant to us.
That's it, she said; you have to show that film. What are the odds of two families in our tiny congregation having been to this remote bit of Scotland for the same reason, and having been so moved?
I never imagined, when I was a kid, that I would settle in a small town in New England. I'm a Texan born and bred. Maybe that's part of why this movie grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go. "Mac" MacIntyre is a quintessential Texan -- he works for an oil company, even -- but once he comes to Ferness, he makes connections he would never have imagined. That small northern town changes him.
My husband Ethan, who showed me Local Hero when we were first dating, says now that we don't choose favorite movies -- often, favorite movies choose us. So why did this movie choose me? And can I make it relevant to the themes you usually hear me talking about here at synagogue?
I could try to argue that Mac is secretly Jewish -- we learn early on that he's not Scottish; his father chose the surname MacIntyre upon immigration from Hungary because it "sounded American" -- but there's no textual evidence for that. Instead, I want to argue that there's Jewish value in this film not because it has any Jewish characters, but because it relates to Jewish themes.
For me, part of what makes Local Hero a good movie, and a movie that's worth watching many times, is that it isn't reducible to a simple message or platitude. But when I watch this film through Jewish eyes, I find three primary things which seem to me to be aligned with Torah teachings.
1) Do Not Destroy
We read in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 67b:
"One who covers an oil lamp [causing the flame to burn inefficiently] or uncovers a kerosene lamp [allowing the fuel to evaporate faster] violates the prohibition of bal tashchit / Do not destroy."
Preservation of earth's natural resources is surely a theme in this film. Actually, questions of burning oil are directly relevant, since the whole plot is sparked by Mac's journey to purchase Ferness and turn the town into an oil refinery. Although Danny's boyish enthusiasm and Marina's dreams of a marine laboratory initially seem far-fetched, in the end they turn out to be more meaningful and more important than anyone realized -- certainly not our protagonist Mac.
In Sefer Ha-Hinukh, the Book of Education (Rabbi Pinhas haLevi of Barcelona, 16th century), we read:
"The root reason for the precept [of Bal Tashchit/do not destroy] is known: for it is in order to train our spirits to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to goodness..." It is good to be "distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power."
Old Ben in his shack, saving the wonders which wash up on the beach, knows this teaching deep in his bones.
2) Friendship matters
Life without amiable companionship was unthinkable to the sages of the Talmud. According to one rabbinic story, when the legendary miracle-worker Honi the Circle-Maker woke from seventy years of sleep, he faced despair because he was shunned by a new generation of scholars who neither recognized nor attended to him. In his suffering, Honi prayed for death to release him from loneliness, prompting an unnamed sage to utter, "Either friendship or death" (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a).
The benefits of friendship are appreciated by Jewish tradition. Ecclesiastes wrote, "Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up" (4:9-10).
Friendship is clearly more than a social connection in the Jewish context. Friends offer each other help, loyalty, protection, support, unselfish love, and moral guidance. Judaism defines friendship as one of the primary relationships in life, a tie at times exceeding that which bonds blood relatives.
(Source: My Jewish Learning)
Mac begins the film essentially alone. He knows people, but are any of them truly his friends?
Rabbi Moshe Leib [of Sassov, a late 18th-century Ukrainian Hasidic master] told this story:
"A peasant was sitting in an inn with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him, 'Tell me, do you love me or don't you love me?'
"The other peasant replied, 'I love you very much’.
"But the first peasant replied, 'You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.'
"The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again.
"But I understood. To know the needs of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow--that is the true love of men."
That's from Martin Buber (1878-1965), a prolific author and influential Jewish thinker -- found in Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2: The Later Masters (Schocken Books).
Mac's transformation over the course of the film has much to do with finding friends. His relationship with Gordon (and I would argue also with Stella, though we don't often see them together on screen) offers him a new vision of how to be in the world and diminishes his loneliness. His encounter with the community in Ferness -- their close-knit togetherness, the ceilidh, even the cluster of men jointly looking after the baby -- gives him a new way of seeing his place in the world.
And that brings me to the third thing I wanted to mention:
3) Travel changes you.
Ultimately, the deepest message I find in this movie is that going places changes us.
When Mac left on his trip, he thought it would be brief; he didn't even consider the possibility of finding meaning in it. (He asked whether he could just do the deal by Telex!)
But once he gets to Ferness, the fact of being away from home -- on a journey with an unknown destination -- changes him. He opens up to people and ideas he wouldn't have considered before: not just Victor the friendly Russian, but the whole Ferness way of life. His wardrobe changes are an exterior reflection of his interior transformation: watch as he moves from suit and tie, to blazer and sweater, to rolled-up shirtsleeves.
And then back to suit and tie again at the movie's end. When the film ends, he is home again, but something in him has changed. Much like how we move through the spiritual journey of a Jewish year, and each year return to the same calendar date where we began -- but hopefully we've opened ourselves to new adventures along the way.
Our tradition often speaks in terms of aliyah, "ascent," up to Jerusalem or to the Land of Israel writ large. But I would argue that in some ways, the journey itself is often the destination. The peregrinations, the comings and goings, the patriarchs and matriarchs entering the land and leaving it again.
I would argue that anywhere can be a place of pilgrimage if we open ourselves to change. And Mac does open himself, and I think that by the film's end he is different than the man he was when the movie began. The final image is poignant for me: is he calling Ferness? Will anyone answer? Having left his magical place of transformation, what in him is different?
Forsyth doesn't show us the answer to that question. Maybe it's best if we decide it for ourselves.