Mar 25, 2014
After recently watching Alexander Payne’s obscenely overrated, white-prole-patronizing Midwestern celluloid mess Nebraska (2013), I felt it was about time that I re-watch the David Lynch film that it ripped off, The Straight Story (1999). Easily the ‘strangest’ and most unconventionally conventional film in Lynch’s oeuvre, The Straight Story has the distinction of not only being the director’s sole G-rated Disney movie, but also the only film he was not actually involved with penning (although the film was co-written by Lynch’s ex-wife/baby mamma/collaborator Mary Sweeney). Indeed, a film that could not be more fittingly titled, The Straight Story is a ‘straight story’ based on a true story about a straight old man named Alvin Straight who, at the age of 73, rode his John Deere riding lawnmower straight across Iowa and Wisconsin over a six week period in 1994 to make peace with his 80-year-old brother who had just suffered a stroke. While Lynch’s films have always been as distinctly American as apple pie, The Straight Story is certainly more sweet than bittersweet and always warm inside, as if cooked to perfection by your long dead grandmother. Undoubtedly, Lynch’s most sentimental film since The Elephant Man (1980), albeit in a more genuine and personal way, The Straight Story is a rare mainstream movie that depicts the strong, stoic, steadfast and primitively ‘sentimental’ America that has rarely been authentically depicted onscreen and is all but dead. Starring Richard Farnsworth (The Grey Fox, Misery) as the lead in a classic role that John Hurt and Gregory Peck probably regret turning down that would earn the star an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (making Farnsworth the oldest person ever nominated for the award at that time), The Straight Story, not unlike a John Deere tractor, is a slow but strong and steady work that reminds one that not all road movies have to be about hippie stoners going to pick up drugs, morbidly depressed existentialists going nowhere fast in life, or a bunch of naïve teenagers attempting to ‘find themselves’ (or whatever). The one David Lynch film you can show your grandfather without him thinking you’re some sort of crazed degenerate and/or pansy pervert, The Straight Story is just another reminder why the man who directed Eraserhead is the only true auteur working in Hollywood (or at least somewhere around it) who has given a voice to the silent majority.
Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is a 73-year-old World War II veteran and widow who probably only has a couple years to live and, due to his poor eyesight, he no longer even has a driver’s license, which has diminished his sense of independence. The father of seven children (seven more died at birth) whose wife died in 1981 and whose middle-age daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), who is borderline retarded (but has an amazing memory when it comes to simple dates and facts), now takes care of him, Alvin is essentially just waiting to die in peace, but that all changes when he learns that his estranged big brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has just had a debilitating stroke. Due to some bad blood between the two, Alvin has not seen his brother in a decade and wants to make peace with him before he dies. On top of ignoring his daughter Rose’s advice that he use a walker and give up his vice of alcohol and tobacco, Alvin eventually decides he will test his strength by riding his rather ancient riding lawnmower across a couple to states to a place called ‘Mount Zion’ where his big bro lives. Needless to say, Rose and Alvin’s equally elderly friends think it is a bad idea, but the headstrong old timer does not let negative naysayers get him down. On his first attempt, Alvin fails after his less than trusty mower breaks down, so he hilariously blasts away the piece of archaic yard equipment with his surely trusty shotgun by shooting the gas tank. After buying a reliable green John Deere tractor from a salesman (Everett McGill) who finds the whole trip to Mount Zion on a lawnmower quite dubious, Alvin, who has plenty of gas and Braunschweiger to eat, makes his second attempt, which will ultimately be successful, but not without some detours on the way. One night while cooking wieners, Alvin meets a young hitchhiker female who the old timer deduces is pregnant and has run away from home. Alvin then tells a story about his daughter Rose lost all four of her children after one of them was burnt when a babysitter was watching them, as the state felt such a mentally handicapped woman could not possibly be fit to raise children, even if she had nothing to do with the fact her child was injured. Using a bundle of sticks as a metaphor for the unbreakable force of family (the whole ‘United we stand…divided we fall’ deal), Alvin, who may not be an intellectual but is certainly wise for his years, seems to leave a deep impression on the naïve hitchhiker.
After being passed by a group of RAGBRAI cyclists, Alvin later finds himself hanging out at a cyclist camp with some young folks where he discusses old age and states that one of the worse part of one’s golden years is, “remembering when you was young.” After running into a hysterical woman who has just run over and killed a deer with her car and proceeds to cry about her curse-like propensity for hitting the cute animals, Alvin finds himself with dinner and cooks and eats the still slightly warmly road kill. After going down a steep hill on his tractor, Alvin runs into transmission trouble, but luckily he gets help from some rather helpful locals. In the down time, Alvin hooks up with a fellow beer-loving vet and confesses how as a sniper during the Second World War he killed many Germans and even accidentally killed a comrade of Polish extraction named Kotz via friendly fire and how he has had to carry that burden his entire life. Eventually, Alvin has his tractor fixed by two bickering brothers named the ‘Olson Twins’ (Kevin and John P. Farley, who are the brothers of Chris Farley), who try to overcharge the old man for their work but they drop the price after some intense bartering. Alvin also gives the Olson Twins a lesson on brotherly love, remarking regarding his trip to see his brother, “this trip is a hard swallow… of my pride.” Indeed, as Alvin tells a Priest (John Lordan) he meets that night in a cemetery regarding the bad blood between him and his brother, “Story as old as the Bible. Cain and Abel. Anger, vanity. You mix that together with liquor, and…you’ve got two brothers who haven’t spoken in ten years.” When the Priest asks about his ‘peculiar’ form of transportation, Alvin matter-of-factly states, “Well, you’re not the first person to notice that. Padre. My eyes are bad. I can’t drive. I don’t like someone else drivin’ the bus, and I need to get to my brother’s.” Regarding Alvin’s decision to make peace with his brother, the Padre kindly states, “I say, 'Amen' to that, brother.” With only a small drive to his brother Lyle’s, Alvin ends up breaking down, but luckily it is just because he is out of gas and a farmer on a very large tractor gives him some fuel to finish the trip. Upon arriving at his brother’s discernibly dilapidated home in the woods, Alvin calls Lyle’s name and his bro eventually walks out very slowly with his hand firmly clasping a cane. Upon sitting next to one another on the porch of the house, Lyle asks, “Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?” and Alvin replies, “I did, Lyle,” with both men tearing up intensely upon their long awaited reunion as men whose lives have dried up. Undoubtedly, it surely would have meant less to Lyle if his brother merely took a bus, as Alvin's John Deere odyssey was surely an act of atonement for both his brother and his life in general.
Undoubtedly a heartwarming celluloid tale that manages to be sentimental without being too superficial or phony, The Straight Story seems somewhat depressing when one considers the fact that star Richard Farnsworth, who was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer in 1999 and was in much pain during the filming of Lynch’s film, committed suicide the same year by shooting himself at his own ranch home. Golden years suicides aside, Farnsworth certainly proved he shared a sort of kindred spirit with the real Alvin Straight as he did not let illness stop him from achieving in what age few people achieve in an entire lifetime. Like a Wim Wenders' flick minus the sometimes plodding pretense and existentialist Europeanness, The Straight Story is the true heart of (old) America in the form of a John Deere and a sort of celluloid eulogy for the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ that ever lived. Indeed, while I have do no doubt that Alvin Straight’s generation makes every subsequent generation seem like a bunch of pampered pansies who do more consuming than producing, it's quite ironic that same generation won a war that would ultimately destroy their way of life forever. Indeed, with the Americanization of the world and the flooding of America itself with innately alien and mostly inassimilable diasporas from the third world who have nothing but contempt for the relatively wholesome sort of people depicted in The Straight Story, it would seem Alvin’s killing of krauts and his Polish friend during the Second World War was for nothing but to guarantee that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have rather dubious futures where old expressions like,“Oh, for cry eye!” (a favorite saying of one of Mr. Straight’s friends) will be deader than road kill and where biracial children will have nothing but scorn for their fair-haired cracker ancestors. A true American ‘Heimat’ flick with a shockingly refreshing sense of purity and dignity that is nearly impossible to find anywhere nowadays—be it in cinema or otherwise—is as straight as celluloid storytelling comes, as a picture perfect postcard of the most weirdly unweird Lynchian sort.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:35 PM
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