Wednesday, January 15, 2014

When Ordinary People Come to Terms with the Extraordinary: Revisiting David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999)

Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story
As I watched Alexander Payne's new film, Nebraska, in which Bruce Dern plays Woody, a craggy old man banking his final hopes on some junk mail scam that promises him a million dollars if he hoofs it to Billings, Montana to collect it, the picture's plainness left me with a bad case of sensory deprivation. I bailed some thirty minutes in. The smallness of the characters and Payne's need to italicize every irony didn't leave me quite as steamed as his Martian take on family life did in his last movie, The Descendants, but (despite the fine performance here by Dern), the journey undertaken in Nebraska sets up an inevitable ending before we even arrive there. So, following Woody's example, I sought fortune elsewhere and fled the theatre. And I began thinking back to another, somewhat similar road movie that has continued to cast its elliptical spell over me like some fairy tale recovered again years later in my grandparent's treasure chest. David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999) is a straight-forward account of one man's journey to seek closure towards the end of his life, but it's by no means simple. This lovely, poignant tale of a stubborn coot who wishes to mend his fractured relationship with his brother – and the world – before he dies examines what happens when ordinary people come to terms with the extraordinary.

Unlike most film directors drawn to populist themes, David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive) creates a believable balance between the light and dark sides of everyday existence. Rather than indulge the quaintness in sentimental virtue (as Frank Capra did in It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), or create curdled clich├ęs of suburban angst (the way Sam Mendes did in American Beauty), Lynch's affection for oddness brings us closer to people who don't necessarily live the kind of lives we do. He draws out their capricious characteristics, rather than moralize about their eccentric behaviour, so that the irrational and the rational can coexist in the same world. The Straight Story concerns Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who one day hears that his brother, who hasn't spoken to him in ten years, has had a stroke. Alvin lives in Iowa while his brother, Lyle, is 300 miles away in Wisconsin. Because he has cataracts and his legs are too weak, he can't drive a car. His daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), who lives with him, doesn't have a vehicle or a driver's license either. So Alvin decides to take the trip on his John Deere lawnmower.


As Alvin makes the long journey, and the seasons change, Lynch doesn't use the elements to parallel his protagonist's impending mortality. He adjusts the changing skies the way a painter employs colour to create a panoptic mood that serves to enhance Alvin's varied encounters. It also helps that Richard Farnsworth, who once played the natty bank robber Bill Miner in the late Phillip Borsos' The Grey Fox, has an uncanny knack for taking the folksiness out of being old by depriving Alvin of a hokey dignity. Farnsworth, who was dying from cancer while playing the role (and later committed suicide due to the physical pain), has pools of conflicting emotions continuously flowing through his twinkling eyes as if each tear were trying to trace thoughts not yet formed. When he tells a pregnant runaway a story about his own early life, he's also wistfully wise as he remembers a moment from his childhood when his brother was a true sibling to him. There are always traces of regret around the crinkles of Alvin's smile, especially when he's asked by a young cyclist what he likes least about being old. Alvin answers, "Remembering what it was like to be young." While she doesn't have as much screen time as Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, playing a physically and mentally impaired woman, doesn't milk the part for empathy (or for Oscar consideration). She conveys the mournful regrets of a woman struggling daily for clarity rather than condescending to her impediment.

Richard Farnsworth & Sissy Spacek

When The Straight Story came out in 1999 a number of film critics jumped on the picture as if Lynch had become a token of American Republicanism. Since the movie was both a G-rated David Lynch movie and distributed by Disney, it was as though Lynch were now sanitized and had become a pod person. Writer and culture critic Howard Hampton went right after 'the Lynch Mob' of cineastes who suddenly felt that Lynch had lost his street cred. (It would come to resemble the same attack similar scribes made years later on Peter Jackson when he tackled the 'mainstream' epic The Lord of the Rings.) Hampton saw the nascent puritanism in their pans, influenced as they were by a deep distrust and resentment of what he called "the idiosyncratic, visionary, irreverent strain of American culture," a patrician snobbishness that they shared with other anti-Western intellectuals. "Seeing reactionary conspiracy behind every frame, [John] Patterson [in the LA Weekly] declares that 'non-whites might as well not exist' in Lynch's Iowa, which is like faulting [Abbas] Kiarostami for neglecting to include Iranian Jews in, say, Taste of Cherry," Hampton wrote in 2000. But, unlike Patterson, or Jonathan Rosenbaum who called the picture "propaganda," Hampton perceived Lynch in The Straight Story to be creating an American poetics every bit as sure and enticing as the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien. "[N]o living film-maker has gone further into the unresolved recesses of America's dream life or fashioned so indelible a universe from such spectral matter," he wrote. The very accessibility of The Straight Story shouldn't suggest to viewers that it's any less foreboding than Eraserhead or Blue Velvet. Hardly. At the core of The Straight Story is the same strange world that always fascinated David Lynch. The only difference is that David Lynch – like Alvin Straight – made his peace with it.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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