The Straight Story

Lost Highway (1996), the film directed by David Lynch that immediately preceded The Straight Story (1999), distinguished itself as Lynch’s darkest project to date. David Lynch and darkness surprises no one, though the combination has typically elicited a chorus of confused disapproval. Critical amazement, however, has attended the release of The Straight Story, the sunniest of all his works. A chronicle of one man’s determination to make things right with an estranged brother, the film is affectionate and folksy, at least on its surface, and has been widely construed as a piece of Americana from a completely unexpected directorial source. Many of the erstwhile nay-sayers approve. The Straight Story, released by that unreconstructed purveyor of corn, Disney, previously the least imaginable distributor for a Lynch movie, has been received with such an unprecedented chorus of cheers from a significant number of apparently sentiment-deprived media critics that the aura developing around the film has taken on the tone of an X-File. Roger Ebert, the critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, usually one of Lynch’s most relentless detractors, has crafted a review of the film with all the earmarks of a love letter. This could be a time/space warp, Agent Mulder. Or it could be simply another misrecognition of Lynch’s work, overly cozy this time instead of overly unhinged. Critical reception chronically misses how important balance is to David Lynch.

The Straight Story is a comedy of reunion, based on a real incident in the later years of Alvin Straight, one of those unobtrusive men who generally live and die anonymously. Straight’s existence came to Lynch’s attention after Michael Almereyda sent Lynch’s companion, Mary Sweeney, an anecdotal clipping from a Midwestern newspaper noting his trip from Iowa to Wisconsin on a tractor-mower. Alvin Straight’s journey put an end to ten years of hostile silence between him and his brother Lyle after Alvin learned of his brother’s stroke, and feelings of mortality overcame his stubborn commitment to a feud whose origin he could not remember. Straight’s absurd, almost grotesque, chosen mode of transportation (motivated in part by his inability to get a driver’s license) suggests a Lynchian subject, as does the incident’s small town location. And the comedy of reunion is no stranger to the Lynchian universe either, occurring in Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). But beyond that, it must be granted, many of the details of the film are antithetical to the kind of project that usually intrigues Lynch. Lynch has told me of the importance of using more than one plot in a film, and his saga of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) has only one line of action. Lynch has historically shown a preference for intense melodramas that generate compelling scenes of violence and sex; and Lynch’s saga of Alvin Straight is a mellow, picaresque story that features only the most chaste of affectionate encounters, at its most romantic, and nothing more turbulent than a sequence during which Straight’s tractor-mower runs out of control on a steep hill against the backdrop of a local fire brigade running tests on a dilapidated house set aflame for the purpose. Lynch has featured in his films narratives that reach highly indeterminate closures, ironically teasing the audience out of its customary submissiveness to the Hollywood “happy ending syndrome”; and the saga of Alvin Straight ends with a seemingly unequivocal completion to Alvin’s quest wrapped up in a rapprochement with his estranged brother. Most notable, Lynch is inextricably associated with images bordering on the surreal, the kind of images that open doors to the subconscious, even in audiences whose hinges are rusty from disuse; and The Straight Story would seem to be so implacably realistic that the very few places in which a more Lynchian image pops up have seemed to the otherwise enraptured critics as tacked on reminders of what they think of as Lynch’s “bad boy days”.

Only what if those “very few Lynchian images” are absolutely central to The Straight Story, the most flamboyant elements of a subcutaneous counterpoint to the apparently melioristic skin of the film? What if they are the dark base line of Lynch’s happy family comedy, underscoring dark presences lurking in the subtext of Alvin’s folksy “family values” and looming as the soiled underbelly of his pioneer-like determination to get to Lyle his way – no dirty, stinking buses for him. I’m going to pursue this almost unexplored line of thinking, one that I hasten to say is not capricious, but rather based on my understanding of articles of faith so deeply embedded in Lynch’s world view that it seems rather capricious to view Alvin without taking them into consideration. After all, Lynch does not believe in heroes in the facile Hollywood sense, and he has a particular aversion to willful people who impose themselves on the universe and call it valor. Lynch’s art is about “the will to lose one’s will”, or, as he puts it, getting out of the way of your medium and producing work by being receptive to the energies of your materials. Similarly, he has made a career of producing heroes who learn to eschew will in favor of receptivity. From Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (1977) to Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in the Twin Peaks mythology, Lynch’s heroes must all learn receptivity if they are to achieve anything, and all experience moments of failure, some quite desperate, when willfulness blocks their receptivity, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) in Lost Highway being the most catastrophic example. And here comes Alvin Straight, a paragon of self-determination, telling the world how to behave at every turn of the road and rejecting as a matter of principle even the most altruistically intended assistance. He instructs a runaway pregnant girl, as well as a pair of twin mechanics who work on his tractor-mower, on the value of family, and he refuses help from any and all who are concerned about his health and his projected trip: receptivity would not seem to be his strong point. Is this the Lynchian hero of a Lynchian film? I think so, yes, but balance, gentle reader, balance. Lynch has put the balance into his portrait of Straight; it is now up to us to read what’s actually there, not the Gabby Hayes parody that a lot of dreamy-eyed critics have grafted onto Lynch’s newest protagonist. Where the majority of critics once read his darker landscapes as decadent, hard pressed to integrate into their vision of the Lynchian universe the balancing shafts of light in their composition, they are now screening out the darkness from this comparatively happy narrative.

In fact, Alvin Straight is painted in complex chiaroscuro, not Disney primary colors. He exists in The Straight Story, at least in part, as a shadow among the idyllic landscapes and down home music conveyed via the work of cinematographer Freddie Francis and composer Angelo Badalamenti. Alvin is, after all, the burned out remains of a one-time mean drunk, by his own admission, a man who has never yielded enough to become part of anything larger than himself, at least in terms of society. He has knocked about at many jobs, preserving an enigmatic combination of dignity and detachment from human community. And, as David Sterritt, the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor, has noted in his appreciative but laudably nuanced review: “We hear a lot about the importance of family life, but we never see an intact family on the screen, and the dialogue paints a subtly disturbing picture of the gap between rhetoric and reality in this all-important area.” Alvin has lost contact with all of his children except his infinitely loving and accepting, brain-damaged daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), just as he has lost contact with his brother. Americana, oh yes, but not in the smarmy sense of the word. Alvin is a disquieting portrait of American frontier machismo, warts and all. Now near the end of his life, Alvin dispenses wisdom about maintaining strong familial and communal ties, but it is hard won and contrasts with his own relational failures. In the sublime panoramic and aerial shots of the farm belt, Lynch celebrates the bounty of the fruitful, maternal American earth as the context for his tribute to the endurance of humanity, even in the heart of a desperately isolated and rigidly self-righteous patriarch.

Although we may laugh affectionately at our first glance of Alvin refusing medical help, fraternal concern from friends, and filial concern from Rose as he lies on the floor just having collapsed, this laughter says much more about widespread, old, un-killable ideas about “a real man” than about how Alvin is characterized by Lynch’s film. It seems that there is always something endearing to American audiences about a feisty old codger who offers earthy, implacable resistance to medical advice, even at the peril of losing his life. And not just American. The overseas response has been equally unbalanced. Audience and critical reaction to Alvin has been too affectionate, too unqualified. Alvin is eerie in his proud individualism, and this is embedded in the film in the lovely Lynchian tracking shot that sidles us up to the window of Alvin’s house as we hear an enigmatic thud that turns out to be Alvin’s body dropping to the floor. Recognized by many critics as one of the few “conventionally” Lynchian elements in the film, the tracking shot is not an inert, stylistic device, as many have described it, but part of the rhetoric of a film recording the uncanny elements in Alvin’s Herculean stubbornness. A brilliant shot, one that makes bright, open daylight as suspense-laden as the closed, unknown depths of the corridor in which such a shot usually takes place, it signals that what is going on in Alvin’s house, and by extension in Alvin, is a great deal more than meets the casual glance.

This is not to assert that Alvin is not also appealing in his heroic determination, but only that he is many things at the same time, many paradoxical and conflicting things. Not the least of these paradoxes is his relationship to Rose, whom he genuinely loves, whom he trusts above all others, but whom he has also abandoned emotionally and practically in her time of need. Alvin tells a moving story of how Rose’s children were taken away from her by a government agency because of a fire in her house for which Rose was not responsible, and which no one could have prevented. However, because of Rose’s mental disabilities, the agency wrongly assumed incapacity on Rose’s part and removed her children from her custody for their protection. Alvin is deeply sympathetic toward Rose in his account, radiating a genuine emotionality that cannot be gainsaid, but, at the same time, a dark mystery remains. Where was he when the children were taken from Rose? Where were Rose’s siblings? Alvin’s story recounts no effort on the part of the family to come to her aid in what they all knew was an unjust and horribly painful situation, nor does he admit to any regret that they didn’t. Alvin’s perspective is pure American frontier individualism, oblivious to the collaborative response, composed of the love that dare not reach out and intervene in personal business, in all its pristine nobility, loneliness, and disregard of the obligations of intimacy.

This affectional disconnect is especially poignant in juxtaposition to the parable of the bundle of sticks that Alvin tells a runaway, pregnant teenager, marking a cavernous blind spot in his make-up as a human being. The young girl, whom he feeds and gives a night’s shelter, tells him that her family hates her and that she prefers life on the road to the refuge of the familial home. In response, Alvin regales her with the parable of the sticks, a lesson he taught his own children. He tells her how he asked them to break one stick, “and of course they could,” but, when he bound a number of sticks together and asked the children to break them as a bundle, they were unable to do so. That’s family. The next morning the young girl is gone, but she has left a bound bundle of sticks in her place; she is returning home. The parable’s simple charm, or cloying sweetness depending on your orientation, suddenly is struck by lightning when Alvin later tells Rose’s story, shattering the simplicity of the tale. What does Alvin mean by the strength of the family bond? Where was it when Rose (and her children) needed it? Neither a sham nor yet an active principle in the ordinary sense of the term, Alvin’s family values suddenly become mysterious, or at least indeterminate. So too does the never-to-be-seen homecoming of the runaway inspired by his counsel. Like the owls of Twin Peaks, shared humanity is not what it seems.

The enigmas of shared humanity have been central to the Lynchian landscape in all his filmic works. Eraserhead, The Elephant Man (1980) , Dune (1984), Blue Velvet, the Twin Peaks mythologies, and Wild at Heart are all structured to reveal that accessing the higher, transformational aspect of the subconscious engenders an exceptional human ability to mystically achieve contact by overcoming the customary social and even cosmic roadblocks that divide us. In his continuing evolution as a chronicler of the human condition, Lynch gave us Lost Highway, which envisions the nadir of shared humanity as a blockage of the subconscious conduit among people; locked in a base, toxic area of the subconscious, Fred Madison is cut off from all intimate and fraternal connections, left with little more than the refusal to remain trapped there, his violent “NO,” in the last frame of the film. The Straight Story, new territory marked by an old concern, portrays the best case scenario, in which decency is the rule, not the exception, and even the stiff-necked detachment of an Alvin Straight is no match for a tide of communal kindness toward strangers. In this “straight” scenario, communal connection is so powerful that it includes even the beasts of the field.

Thus the importance of the grotesquely funny on-the-road sequence with the “deer woman” (Barbara E. Robertson), a woman Alvin stops for when he finds her raving hysterically over the body of a dead deer she has just hit with her car. From her torrent of words, it becomes clear that she is at her wit’s end, plagued by an unfathomable destiny to hit a deer almost every time she travels this section of the road. This interlude is not, as some have suggested, merely appended so that Lynch can remind us how “quirky” he can be. It is an encounter for Alvin and for the audience with an extreme of human solicitude, compassion, indeed involvement in the web of creation. The “deer woman” (a pun?) is unhinged to the depths of her soul at finding herself regularly on a fatal collision course with deer, an animal she loves. This is not annoyance, fear for her own well-being, or economic Inconvenience – her car is always damaged – but real sorrow, hilarious because of its hyperbolic extremity but serious, at the level of pain that often underlies brilliant comedy, about the destruction of a living creature. Alvin’s role as the audience for her tormented tirade results in our further understanding of the layers of his identity. Lynch cuts from the “deer woman” leaving the scene of “her crime” – for what else can she do? – to Alvin eating the deer and displaying its horns on the tractor as a trophy. It is a humorous cut, for Alvin’s pioneer-like ability to exploit nature without sorrow – to the point of flaunting the horns as a symbol of capture – contrasts so completely with the grieving motorist. Yet at the same time, the shadow of regret at traducing the bonds among all creatures bleeds through the bravado of his gestures. In a scene brilliantly played by Farnsworth for its wildly disparate confluences of feelings, Alvin eats the deer in a field which his imagination populates with fantastic deer figures that watch him consume the flesh of their brother, as Alvin bites savagely at his dinner, staving off reproach with assertiveness. This scene throws a searchlight on Alvin’s relationship to the Lynchian subconscious matrix of connection; it is a part of him from which he cannot detach himself, but at the same time it is a part of him to which he will never entirely yield.

When Alvin finally reaches brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), the meeting is also a deeply moving, exquisitely drawn melange of competing elements etched onto the screen, the primary vehicle of that complexity being the acting instruments of two actors endowed abundantly with that facial expressiveness that Bela Balazs has identified as the foundation of cinema’s ability to transform our capacity to see the world. For Alvin and Lyle show their feelings in none of the expected ways. Extremities of joy and fraternal feeling collide with what are now confirmed for us as the characteristic iron limitations of the Straight family’s individualist isolation. The brothers are unable to physically embrace or even to bridge the distance between them by speaking the words of love. We see the reunion saturated by the eternal luminosity of the starry sky under which they encounter each other, motionlessly and almost speechlessly, only because we have been through the journey with Alvin and have thereby learned to read his inner contradictions of alienation and commitment.

As always, Lynch sees the situation and sees it whole, balanced dark and light spaces of existence, ever changing in their proportions depending on the slice of humanity under the gaze of the camera lens. The Straight Story is a glorious demonstration that tenderness can be as layered and nuanced as fear and horror and that if, in some lights, America is wild at heart, in another kind of illumination it is also there at heart, even if its patriarchs stumble blindly and in a self-deceived manner among the amber waves of grain. Kinda gives a good name to Americana. Pass me that enigmatic bundle of sticks; I’d like to set a spell and think some more about what holds them together.

About The Author

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, including The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch. For 26 years a Professor of film at New York University and Mercy College, she is now an Associate Editor for Cineaste.