The Straight Story (1999 USA/France/UK 111 mins)
Prod Co: Asymmetrical Productions/Canal +/Channel Four Films/CiBy 2000/Les Films Alain Sarde/The Picture Factory/The Straight Story Inc./Walt Disney Pictures Prod: Neil Edelstein, Mary Sweeney Dir, Sound Des: David Lynch Scr: John Roach, Mary Sweeney
Cast: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jane Galloway Heitz, Joseph A. Carpenter, Donald Wiegert, Tracey Maloney
David Lynch has made a career of projecting the twisted and dark underbelly of the otherwise sugarcoated exterior of American life onto our movie screens. When released in 1999, The Straight Story was widely received as a film that departed from the director’s previous work. One should begin a discussion of the film by noting that The Straight Story refers to two things. First, this is the adaptation of a true story – much in the spirit of Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), but different. It is the story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old man who, upon receiving the news of his brother’s stroke, whom he has not spoken to in ten years, travels more than 300 miles on a ride-on lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin. Second, given that it comes after films like Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and Lost Highway (1997), the literal “straightness” of this story, both chronologically and thematically speaking, is remarkable – almost as remarkable as the fact that Lynch worked with Disney to produce this film. The script was co-written by Mary Sweeney, Lynch’s wife, who also acted as co-producer and editor of the film (Sweeney also edited and co-produced Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. (2001)).
The Straight Story is perhaps the most melancholic of Lynch’s films. It is a narrative about ageing and facing the spectre of death: Alvin’s brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke, and Alvin himself has been warned by his doctor of his deteriorating health. Moreover, due to his also deteriorating vision, he can no longer carry a driver’s license, hence the choice of the ride-on lawnmower as a mode of transport. Loss is etched everywhere on the landscape of the film. Alvin lives with his speech-impaired daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) who tragically, and by Alvin’s account, unfairly, lost her children to Child Protective Services due to the erroneous assumption that she was also mentally ill (the ugly underbelly of American life is still tangibly felt in this film). One of the most haunting images in The Straight Story, cued by Rose staring out into the night from behind a kitchen window, is of a blue ball that rolls into frame out of the darkness of the screen, shortly followed by a boy, who picks it up only to disappear, again off-frame. It is as if everything one longs for in the past, be it youth, loved ones, or missed opportunities, exists just out of frame for the film’s characters, in a place that is unreachable, yet still palpable.
One of the film’s more touching scenes occurs when Alvin and a fellow World War II veteran swap combat stories. This is the first time that Alvin shares a secret we sense he has never shared before, of having once tragically shot one of his own buddies on the field of battle. A recovering alcoholic, Alvin exorcises this demon over a glass of milk – a subtle Lynchian touch. Alvin eloquently sums up the tragedy of getting old: “All my buddies’ faces are still young. And the thing is, the more years I have, the more they’ve lost.” Alvin is a man of many secrets and a dark past, something that remains interred throughout the duration of the film. The themes of mortality, survival, and absence gain further weight in the face of the knowledge that this was the first film, with the exception of The Elephant Man, that Lynch was forced to make without Jack Nance, the unforgettable Henry Spence of Eraserhead (1977) – shots of the starry sky in this film are eerily reminiscent of those in Eraserhead. Nance was found dead in his home on December 30, 1996, prior to the release of Lost Highway, the last film he ever made. Adding to this cloud of tragedy, Richard Farnsworth died shortly after the release of The Straight Story, taking his own life after a struggle with bone cancer.
This film, then, made at a time when the World War II generation had literally arrived at death’s doorstep, properly mourns pieces of American life that are about to be lost. The post-World War II era has seen the rise of America as a global power, and American culture now permeates the globe. But this film offers up an essence of America that is not global in nature, and thus becomes a quiet elegy for a particular brand of Americana that has always been a prototypically Lynchian subject. Thus, Lynch’s sometimes lingering, sometimes sweeping aerial shots over American farmlands can only be read as a mournful view, already calling this landscape forth into an Elysian elsewhere. The small, mid-Western town is where Lynch often locates his narratives as well as all those endearing American peculiarities that his idiosyncratic eye for detail excavates. Significantly, these are the spaces and ways of life being threatened by extinction – think of, as a connected example, the forests of Lumberton U.S.A., the setting for Blue Velvet.
True to his penchant for presenting us with worlds where the familiar is made new, or where the normal is defamiliarised, Lynch plunges us into a land where people know their mowers intimately; “My Edward loved his riding mower”, says an old lady on the senior tour-bus that rescues Alvin from his first failed attempt at hitting the road. Lynch has always offered his own peculiar twist to genres like film noir and melodrama. Here he perhaps does the same for the road movie – a genre permeated by the recklessness of youth, and the promise of unbound freedom. Alvin has the luxury of neither, nor does the actor who plays him. Among the pieces of Americana this film inscribes is Farnsworth himself, who began his career as a stuntman, predominantly in Westerns. For ten years of his early career, Farnsworth was the exclusive stunt double/stand-in for Roy Rogers (as well as for others). Thus, the shots of the feeble Alvin/Farnsworth, as he is forced to move around with the aid of two canes, once again call attention to the unforgiving onslaught of time.
Confessing that he was a sniper in the Army, Alvin describes to a fellow World War II veteran over that same glass of milk, “I’d sit forever. It’s an amazing thing what you can see when you sit.” At many levels, the aesthetic choices Lynch has made for this film respond to this very logic. Alvin must ride a lawnmower to Wisconsin because his vision is not good – yet the entire visual apparatus of the film aligns itself with his journey. Lynch thus takes the opportunity to slow everything down. “Sitting” is in this case the film’s metaphor for becoming observant – of watching one’s experience of space change as the vector of speed is slowed down. And just as we begin to get lulled into the mower’s slow crawl, there are reminders of that faster world outside: at some point a huge group of cyclists buzz by Alvin, looking like creatures from outer space in that context. Alvin’s gaze (a panning point-of-view shot gives us access to it here) can barely make out the faces of the figures that zip by. A more tragic example of this aspect is that of the woman who runs over a deer in her car (“at least once a week”, she screams) as she speeds through her necessary 40-mile commute back-and-forth from home to work (is this a meditation on the violence required by everyday life?). The woman, exasperated, looks distraught into what appears to be a barren and empty landscape lamenting: “Where do they come from?” But she does not “sit” around long enough to figure it out, hops into her car and proceeds to yet again speed away.
The distance between two points is not variable, only the time it takes to traverse that distance. Our expectation that the character will reach his destination is the only thing that propels the narrative forward. So one cannot but take notice of things that have always been present in Lynch’s films, and which are the first casualties when one attempts a linear recounting of their stories: the small, character-driven vignettes (surreally ethnographic) that do little to advance the plot (the exchange between Rose and the woman at the grocery check-out counter, the jostle at the hardware store over the “grabber”, and so on). Lynch’s quirky style and sense of humour have always resided in his melancholic attention to idiosyncratic detail. Yet, for as much as he is able to lean toward an excess of expression, he can be phenomenally restrained. This is as much a slow film as it is a silent one. Although the film’s critics have often noted Alvin’s penchant for dishing out folksy advice, he nevertheless shares surprisingly little about himself. A key point of this film, therefore, is also about how imperfect words are in their capacity to connect people. Take, for example, the above-mentioned exchange between Rose and the clerk:
[Close-up of plastic wrapped sausages at the checkout counter]
Clerk: Havin’ a Party?
Rose: Oh, geez, I love… parties.
Clerk: Oh, me too.
Rose: And so… where’s it at?
Clerk: Where’s what at?
Rose: Your party.
Clerk: [confused] I’m not having a party. I thought you were having a party?
Rose: I am?
Clerk: Well, yeah [back to the close-up shot of the sausages], look at all that braunschweiger…
The conversation continues briefly, with both characters continuing to just barely meet and miss each other’s meaning, before Rose finally mentions disliking braunschweigers and makes a face of disgust. The clerk agrees and returns the same look of disgust. This wordless moment is in fact the only point of meeting between the two.
As we are told, words are the source of the rift between Alvin and Lyle as well. After being on the road for weeks, Alvin finally arrives at Lyle’s. The ultimate exchange between the two is a study in understatement, played brilliantly by both actors. Lyle merely looks at the ride-on mower sitting outside his ramshackle house, and asks: “You ride that thing all the way to see me?” Alvin answers, “I did Lyle”. The 1966 John Deere mower has the final word – telling yet another story we do not hear, but we may assume has the power to heal. As the camera pans up, we are left with only a shot of the sky and the memory of Alvin’s boyhood reminiscence of staring up with Lyle into the star-filled sky: an image of both fullness and emptiness, depending on how one looks at it.