David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story is, to a degree, an anomaly for the director. In a
repertoire that thrives on identity usurpation, women in deadly distress and an
ever-present nighttime noir the endless expanse of
The Straight
Story’s
rolling Midwestern hills, fields of
golden wheat and an almost constant degree of sunlight make it stand out. Alvin Straight’s three-state journey on a John Deere lawnmower
is an emotional tribulation and the heart of a film I would venture a fair degree removed from the kind of film anyone
would have put money on Lynch making after
Lost Highway.

 

But not really.

 

If there were another of his projects The Straight Story could most easily be compared to it would be Twin
Peaks
, a town where the lurking evil that faced the protagonists had to crawl in amidst the old fashioned, 1950’s style township we had previously seen a little of in Blue Velvet’s Lumberton.  In an article about Blue Velvet recently I spoke about the
transition within the past decade of Lynch’s worldscape from these nostalgic
reminisces of the ‘family’ age he grew up in during the fifties and sixties to
the post-modern urban noir of Los Angeles and modular living; if that change
began with
Lost Highway then The
Straight Sto
ry was a final salute to those
classic affectations that haunted Lynch, a wonderful fair thee well to the
world he’d come from to the world he now lived in. Perhaps because of this the
film bubbles with tough but essentially endearing emotion, clear-cut moral
conviction and downright human kindness – all things that Lynch’s characters
often struggle with. It is a bright and positive story even when it grows a bit
dark, and I believe it’s no accident that ninety percent of the film
takes place during daylight hours.

 

Blue Collar is as good as any a way to begin a description
of the The Straight Story. Alvin
Straight (Richard Farnsworth in his final performance) and his daughter Rose (played beautifully by Sissy Spacek) are the
epitome of working class: they’re farmers. We can see from the beginning that
these folks have lived a hard life and the hard life has made them hard people
– so much so that Alvin hasn’t spoken to his brother Lyle for over a decade.
Now we never get to know who started the quarrel or if one brother was more
vigilant in maintaining it; Alvin seems like he’d be a bear if you crossed him
just based on his pugnacious nature with the doctors who inform him of his own
health problems at the onset of the film, but with regards to his family all we
get to see is a very proud and stubborn man who will literally do anything for his kin. After his own health issues make him face the onset of mortality news of
Lyle suffering a stroke sets Alvin into a discernable decision-making mode:
forget and forgive or pass from this life with a grudge against family. We
definitively learn in a later scene how strongly Alvin cherishes his blood so
in retrospect it is no surprise that he makes the tough decision: he means to
reconcile. The problem of course is Alvin doesn’t have much money and no access
to an automobile so he, as stubborn in his resolve to see his brother now as he’s
been to not see him for so long, sets off from Iowa toward Wisconsin on a
lawnmower.

 

Wow, right?

 

The impetus for the film from Lynch’s own mouth was hearing
about this, as it was indeed a true story. It’s funny, I find myself wondering
if Lynch had anything else planned and was simply so taken with the story when
it found its way to his ears that he had to stop and make The Straight Story as a final reminder to himself what he might be leaving behind; as
if Lost Highway was a tentative acceptance that the world he had come from was
gone and then here was this piece of the past, a life of honor and love that so
captured his heart he had to record it as a final example of what may or may not
be lacking from so much of the world today. Lynch’s stuff is always harsh, and
always violent and dark, but nowhere was it ever this contrary to that, as if
he was simply saying, ‘This is it. Before I take you back to hell I’ll show you
a bit of heaven.’

 

Maybe I’m putting the old fashioned world on a pedestal here
and I suppose I have no right to. It was a little less than a year ago that I
decided through my own research that the ‘american dream’ that was promised to
my parents’ generation and theirs before them, that white-picket fence
existence of stability was a bold-faced lie. Post WWII people were led to
believe that they should devote their lives to starting families and working
hard and that for this they would be rewarded. Then Reagan cracked the
foundation of the unions and the companies all turned their backs on the
working class and, well, you can see where we are now. But still, there was more to that dream – living with honor and love, and making the greatest
effort to do what is right. And again, while characters in Lynch’s films more
often than not don’t follow these credos The Straight Story is all about someone who does.

 

Often overlooked or under-ranked, David Lynch’s The Straight
Story
is a great film, still filled with moments of wonderful weirdness (the
lady that hits the deer comes to mind) and actually is quite an upswing from some
of the dark places Lynch has been known to take his viewers.


Not that I don’t love those dark places. But anyone who has ever heard Lynch speak, whether in interview or in person, knows what a dear, dear man he is and, by his own remark, a profound optimist. It’s nice to see that so clearly transcribed into a film.