What lies beneath the Scot's tartan?

Screening Scotland
January 12, 2001

In the run-up to his bid for the US presidency, Al Gore said Bill Forsyth's Local Hero was his favourite movie. Considering the world dominance of American cinema, that was quite an accolade for a film written and directed by a Scot nearly 20 years ago. Although the irony of a freebooting Texan oil man let loose in the unspoilt Highlands would probably have been lost on George Bush, its central dilemma of industrial "progress" in conflict with a romantic notion of feudalism lies at the heart of Duncan Petrie's impressively wide ranging survey of Scottish cinema.

Petrie is as much interested in how home-based film-makers choose to reflect their Scottishness as in how Scotland is portrayed on screen by outsiders, in what one might call the Brigadoon factor. He valiantly takes up the challenge of "national representation" posed nearly 20 years ago by Colin McArthur in his Scotch Reels , at once a serious Marxist critique and a witty plea for a new Scottish cinema.

Of course, there are those who believe that a Scot was in at the very beginning of cinema - the resourceful William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, who claimed to have invented the Kinetoscope in America when Edison was out of the country. Petrie has no truck with this, but he could have mentioned that one of the first films ever made was Kennedy's Mary Queen of Scots having her head chopped off; a harbinger of the screen's obsession with gothic horror. How Walter Scott's vision of his native country as "the land of the mountain and the flood" came to dominate the world's perception of Scotland, from the unfortunate Mary Stuart (six screen versions by 1914) through Brigadoon to Braveheart , is perceptively refracted through the canny eye of someone who has not only seen all those early titles but has something fresh to say about them.

For too long, the portrayal of Scotland was hobbled by a fatigued romanticism dreamt up by Hollywood and London studios bent on projecting an all-tartan Scotland. But let us not delude ourselves that it was in any way different at home. Petrie underestimates the cloying supremacy of the tartanic Scotland as projected by BBC Scotland in the 1960s; its "clanvestite" dancers of the White Heather Club were for long its sole export south of the border. Although STV too had its bales of tartanry, it at least had the nonce to create the United Kingdom-networked This Wonderful World - an outward-looking series of world cinema gathered together by that old crusty maverick and father of the documentary, John Grierson. Before the series ended, Grierson helped set up his editor, Laurence Henson, and the cameraman Eddie McConnell as an independent company and propel them into years of making award-winning documentaries with such young talents as Bill Forsyth, Oscar Marzaroli and Charlie Gormley.

The impetus of change came from committed individuals within the Scottish Arts Council and Films of Scotland, and then finally from the film-makers themselves. Petrie is right to point out the emergence of Film Bang in 1976 as Scotland's first cinematic cultural resistance, though, as Colin Young of the National Film School lamented at the time, it was sad to see that all the aspiring film-makers in Scotland could be accommodated within one small pub ironically called The Halt. It is certainly not so now, with Glasgow's flashy wine bars buzzing with the talk of new features.

It is in analysing the recent risorgimento of Scottish cinema that Petrie excels himself, drawing analogies from his wide knowledge of international cinema. Anyone who is intrigued to know how Scotland became a new force in world cinema will find many of the answers here. Screening Scotland is by far and away the best assessment of Scottish cinema yet.

Murray Grigor is a film-maker and former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Screening Scotland

Author - Duncan Petrie
ISBN - 0 85170 784 X and 785 8
Publisher - BFI
Price - £ 40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 250

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