Friday, 19 September 2014

"Everybody's looking for their Brigadoon'

How is everyone today? Relieved that the progressive union of the UK has been saved? Or depressed that the progressive instincts of the Scots have been thwarted by Project Fear?

Though my feelings about the independence vote were hopelessly muddled and inconsistent, I always thought that No would win, though I predicted a 53-47% gap, narrower than the final result.

I'm exhausted today. I went to a friend's house for a Scottish all-nighter, despite none of us being Scots. We cooked haggis, tatties and neeps, consumed Scotch eggs and drank Scottish beer, Irn Bru (a revelation) and whisky. One of the beers is called Bitter and Twisted, which was guaranteed to match the mood of at least one of the camps by morning.

We decided that it would be impossible to sit and watch the live TV coverage: the BBC had a stream of crypto-Tory senior reporters, Tory politicians, Tory business types, neo-Tory Labour types, UKIPians and a scattering of cliché-wielding nationalists. So we decided to construct a collage of Scottish media. We lined up the sole surviving episode of Scotch on the Rocks (the racist Douglas Hurd adaptation mentioned previously), Gregory's Girl, the MacAdder episode of Blackadder and various other delights.

Music provided by Altered Images

and Arab Strap for added skag-fuelled self-loathing.

In the end, we stuck to flipping between the news and Brigadoon, which turned out to be enormously enjoyable as well as far more interesting than I'd ever have thought (and as convincing a construction of Scotland as the Yes and No camps' versions).

It's a musical, which would normally have me running for the hills. Brigadoon is a village saved from a plague of witches by a preacher who made a deal with God: in exchange for his life, the village would be removed from time: it would appear for one day every hundred years. The inhabitants know all about it, and for them only a couple of days have passed when the action starts. Their survival depends on none of them 'crossing the bridge' out of the village: if one person does, they all die.

Into Brigadoon wander two Americans: one young, with 'commitment issues' (played by Gene Kelly) and the other a jaded, misogynistic, bitter, atheistical and cynical older man.

There's a very entertaining homoerotic and homosocial subtext to their relationship despite Gene Kelly's burgeoning relationship with Fiona (Cyd Charisse) and Meg's spirited and – for its time – explicit sexual fixation on grumpy Jeff (played by Van Johnson, whose real-life homosexuality was disguised by a 'lavender marriage' arranged by MGM, according to his ex-wife).

The set is appalling: every shot is filmed in a studio. The actors' voices bounce off the scenery even when they're meant to be out on the moors. The accents are many and varied, none of them Scottish and none as convincing as Groundskeeper Willie,

or Scotty,

The clothes are a garish hell of implausible tartans and the endless bloody songs are beyond awful even by the standards of musicals.

And yet… the various sexualities are barely concealed and always add tension. The counterpoint of the isolated village sets up some interesting dynamics. For outsiders and a few insiders it's a refuge from modernity (and therefore a conservative modernist construction). For others it's a living hell, a prison of conformity and familiarity: this is what leads Harry Beaton to attempt to kill them all by crossing the bridge.

For our American heroes, it provides relief from Yankee cynicism and spiritual exhaustion – the villagers are tartan versions of Avatar's natives, or the Native Americans in Dances With Wolves: spiritual, pure, untainted etc. etc.

Were Yes voters pining – as the wise old man says in the film – for their own Brigadoon? Perhaps so: romantic nationalism functions, amongst other things, as a way of simplifying a complex and fluid existence. The film ends with our Americans heading home: damaged Jeff persuades Tommy that such a pure, unexpected love can only be a fantasy, but after a few months in his empty relationship with an urban young woman Tommy returns and such is the strength of his love that Brigadoon miraculously reappears, out of schedule, a testament to the power of desire (and conservatism).

Just like the referendum result, eh readers?

1 comment:

Arron Hook said...

I had an all nighter as well. I was surprised by the result. I had no idea who was going to win but did think it would a 49%-51% result.

On 'Scotch On The Rocks' I read somewhere that Alex Salmond told Douglas Hurd he liked the book. I've never it myself, but I have read Hurd's other book (Both fiction and non-fiction) and I've always found his work enjoyable.