Monday, January 26, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: The Straight Story

It was David Lynch week on Out 1 last week, an occasion fittingly marked by some of the best writing Out 1 have yet published. My commitments to the Diane-fest meant I couldn’t join in at the time; however, this week’s Personal Fave is a belated salute to Out 1’s assessment of American cinema’s most idiosyncratic of auteurs.

I’ve seen me some weird stuff in the oeuvre of David Lynch. I’ve seen dancing dwarves talking backwards. I’ve seen Dennis Hopper snorting oxygen and getting medieval on some guys ass the moment Roy Orbison comes on the radio. I’ve seen nightclub acts to slit your wrists to in the Club Silencio.

But I ain’t never seen anything as weird as the opening credits to ‘The Straight Story’:



Think about that for a while. Really think about it. As Lula observes to Sailor, “This whole world is wild at heart and crazy on top.”

‘The Straight Story’ is easily the most non-David-Lynch David Lynch film, and yet it’s quintessentially Lynch. No-one else could have put such a quirky and individualistic spin on the story.

Let’s start with the title. ‘The Straight Story’. It’s a statement of intent: the film is straight (ie. the narrative has a traditional beginning, middle and end – man needs to go on journey, goes on journey, arrives at destination), whereas Lynch normally employs fractured or curiously circular narratives (I’m convinced the true beginning of ‘Mulholland Drive’ is about twenty minutes before the end credits) … and that’s only when he can be bothered to pay lip-service to narrative.

It also tells a story – a true story. A huge departure for Lynch: everything from ‘Eraserhead’ to ‘Inland Empire’ by way of ‘Twin Peaks’ has played out within its own self-contained and nightmarishly internalised boundaries. Twin Peaks, for example, isn’t a place – not like the Iowa of ‘The Straight Story’ is a place – it’s a state of mind. Its director’s mind – and that’s a way scarier place to be than anywhere in the U S of A.

‘The Straight Story’ recounts the odyssey of 73-year old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) from Iowa to Wisconsin, desperate to mend bridges with his stroke-victim brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) before time runs out for either of them. Not in the best of health himself, and unable to drive a car, he opts to undertake the journey on a ride-on motor mower.

En route, he meets with bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, the kindness of strangers, memories of the past and reminds of his own mortality. Everyone he encounters is won over by his homespun wisdom and hard-earned experience.

I am soooo glad David Lynch directed this film. In the hands of almost any other director (except possibly Michael Bay, who would have made the lawnmower turn into a robot and blow shit up), ‘The Straight Story’ would have been two hours of saccharine whimsy. Imagine Spielberg calling the shots! Christ, being force-fed treacle for the entire running time would be less sickly!

Lynch channels the essential quirkiness of the story; his sense of the bizarre, coupled with Farnsworth’s perfectly nuanced, slightly irascible but ultimately dignified characterisation, are the reason ‘The Straight Story’ is such a gem of a movie. Take Alvin’s abortive first attempt, his ages-old Rehds mower conking out on him before he’s reached the next town. The mower roped down to the back of a pick-up truck, he’s unceremoniously driven home. Cut to: daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) and next door neighbour Dorothy (Jane Galloway Heitz) sitting at the kitchen table. “A man in a pick-up brought my dad back,” Rose recounts. “What kind of pick-up?” Dorothy asks. Alvin comes limping through the kitchen, shotgun in hand, a perfectly deadpan man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do expression on his face. He heads for the screen door; goes outside. They watch him in silence. The door closes behind him. “A Ford,” Rose replies tonelessly, glancing through the window as Alvin raises the shotgun and fires both barrels into the mower.

(He buys a John Deere as replacement and it gets him to his brother’s. As ‘The Italian Job’ was the best advert the Mini ever had, so is ‘The Straight Story’ to the John Deere company.)

Or take Alvin’s encounter with the hapless motorist who, on an empty stretch of road with nary a sign of life to either side of it, manages to plough into a deer – “my thirteenth in seven weeks”. Alvin asks if there’s anything he can do. “There’s nothing anyone can do,” she wails. “I’ve tried driving with my lights on. I’ve tried sounding my horn. I scream out the window. I roll the window down and bang on the side of the door and play Public Enemy real loud ... and still every week I plow into at least one … And I love deer.” Hysterical, she stomps back to her car, slams the door and accelerates away. Cut to: Alvin roasting a chunk of deer meat over a campfire, any number of the deceased’s herd gathering accusingly behind him. (A pair of antlers decorate his trailer for the rest of the trip.)

There’s humour here, too, another unusual ingredient for Lynch. The screenplay (by John Roach and Mary Sweeney) is a masterwork of dryly-observed and absurdist wit. A scene in a hardware store – where Alvin haggles over a grabber the storekeeper doesn’t want to sell because it’ll take him weeks to get a replacement on order – plays out like Oscar Wilde gone rural and getting no further sartorially than a pair of dungarees.

The emotional core of the film, however – and I’m willing to stake a tenuous claim that in this respect Lynch channels the aesthetic of Sam Peckinpah – is its treatment of the protagonist as anachronism. A man out of time. Alvin is among the last of his generation. Indeed, many of his contemporaries died in World War II. In the film’s quietest – and most devastating – scene, Alvin and another old-timer share reminiscences of the war. Alvin recalls that he still sees “my buddies’ faces … they’re still young”. The longer he lives, the more acutely aware he is of how little time they had. And it’s not just his dead comrades he mourns. The loss of life transcended national boundaries. “By the end, we were shooting moon-faced boys,” he says of the supposed enemy. A dozen times or more I’ve seen this film, and that one line has me in tears.

But Lynch never milks it. “The worst thing about getting’ old is remembering when you were young,” Alvin muses at one point, and there’s nary a hint of the weeping violins that would swamp the soundtrack on a Spielberg or Zemeckis film. Here, it’s a statement of fact, delivered with the conviction of one who knows.

Richard Farnsworth was 80 when he played Alvin Straight. A stuntman for 40 years before becoming an actor, he was debilitated by arthritis and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when ‘The Straight Story’ went before the cameras. And he gave a performance of such grace! Of such beautiful characterisation! His Best Actor nomination was well deserved (unfortunately he had uncharacteristically strong competition, including Russell Crowe for ‘The Insider’ and Kevin Spacey – the winner on the evening – for ‘American Beauty’).

Richard Farnsworth died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (and I’ll step outside and raise fists with anyone who makes a judgemental comment about suicide) shortly after the film was completed. ‘The Straight Story’ stands, alongside Dirk Bogarde’s ‘These Foolish Things’ as perhaps the loveliest, most elegiac swansong any actor could hope for.

I’ve reached 1,250 words. Enough is enough, even though there are still so many things about the film to be said. I saw it at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema when it was first released in 1999 and loved it completely and wholeheartedly. I love it more every time I watch it. It’s David Lynch’s most open and emotionally perfect film as director. The more I think about it – and having now written so indulgently on it – the more I think ‘The Straight Story’ might just be my favourite film of all time.

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