Hills and Mountains

Hills and Mountains, and ‘The Social Construction of Reality’

Movies in certain categories I avoid on a prejudice beyond argument:

  • Anything with Hugh Grant .
  • Anything set in Wales.
  • Comedies of village life.
  • Edwardian period pieces – actually it’s set in 1917, close enough; and I’ve just realised that no period in the UK after 1911 is characterised by the name of a monarch.

This movie is all of these. And it is just wonderful and brilliant.

The story, on the face of it, is stunningly silly: A couple of English cartographers arrive in a South Wales boarder village, take some measurements and announce that the local ‘mountain’ is actually 16 feet short of the 1,000 feet which is the official definition of a mountain – it is merely a hill. The villagers respond by a series of ruses to detain the cartographers in the village, meanwhile they carry bucketfulls of earth up the hill in order to make it into a mountain.

It’s astonishing for the slowness of the action and for the length of many of the shots, relative to Hollywood Its style harks back to b/w movies of the 40s and 50s – significantly it was funded by some EU thingy rather than Amerikan megacorps.

It doesn’t need much interpretation to see the richness of what is going on in it:

1) The relation between England and its still most subservient colony, Wales.

2) The English upperclass and the proles – it is a mining village.

3) The meaning-construction of a community and that imposed by officialdom.

4) More particularly: local measurements in relation to those of the EU. To explain: traditional Brit measurements – the Imperial System – are in the process of being supplanted by the Metric System, a heritage of the French Revolution.

5) That what is often taken to be nature is actually a human construction – much of the landscape of the UK is actually built by human labour.

6) The fluidity of textual interpretation: The last day on which the hill can be made into a mountain is a Sunday – in rural Wales then (and still until recently) a day of no work and when the pubs are closed, the nearest comparison I know of is for Orthodox Jews. However the village priest, at Sunday morning service, takes as his text a verse from one of the Psalms to ‘worship at thy holy mountain’. In a triumph of deconstruction he shows his congregation that not only is it not irreligious to continue work on the mountain, but that their religion actually requires it.

7) The wonders that are possible through collective labour.

8) The function of religion as being the assertion of communality

9) The trauma of the Western Front in the Great War – shown (without the need for explicit flashbacks) through a young miner, returned from the Front – nearly drowning on the hill/mountain.

10) The relation between the ‘map and the territory’ – between taxonomic categories and the real.
I missed the first few minutes, but from the end it seems that it was framed by someone telling their grandchild about this episode. It then switches to the present and we see those who were children then at the summit of the hill/mountain. We are then told that a recent re-measuring found that the ‘mountain’ was actually 8 feet short, because it had subsided. We then see lines of modern villagers snaking up the hill to rebuild the ‘mountain’. The sadness is that such is now wildly implausible.

The villages where the movie is set have moved from something like 95% male employment, in highly unionised industries to something like 95% male unemployment. The majority of the workers now being women in Japanese electronics factories. Unionisation is now lower than since before the Chartists. The villages, once safe places now have high levels of heroin and crack addiction.

It’s an extraordinary movie, and an elegy to something that probably was not really like it, but it seemed plausible to think so. Actually, the more I think of it the more I see how class-war was elided in it. Ultimately: a ‘feel-good’ movie – but still in a different league to the dreck that pours out of Hollywood. I’m neither a Brit nor a Euro chauvinist, but that’s how it is.


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