‘The Straight Story’: Lynch Going Straight for His Most Experimental Film

David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.

After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.

 
David Lynch was surprised as anyone when he received the news that his film The Straight Story received a G-rating (“G” standing for “general audiences”, i.e. all ages are admitted to the screenings of the movie), meaning that it was time for a sweet, hard-working family to go to the cinema, take their little kids and watch a Disney-produced David Lynch film! In Chris Rodley’s Lynch on Lynch, the director tells a story of overhearing a lady at the preview screening of this film who was intrigued that “there are two directors named David Lynch.” Such was the bewildered reaction to Lynch 8th feature, where some of the more simple-minded critics even stated that Lynch finally “grew up,” ignoring the fact that he made a similarly “emotionally mature” film like The Elephant Man when he was still in his thirties. Even though the title itself implies that this is Lynch’s most straightforward film, Lynch has—perhaps facetiously—called it his most “experimental film,” shot chronologically on location in Iowa and Wisconsin, and characterized the unusual tenderness of the movie an abstraction, rhetorically moving it into a more Lynchian territory than what might seem there on the surface.

The Straight Story follows Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old man who goes on a 300+ mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his estranged brother Lyle, who had just had a heart attack. This doesn’t seem particularly dramatic or “weird” to be something that would interest somebody like David Lynch—except for the fact that he is traveling with his lawnmower that cannot go faster than five miles an hour, making the journey a lot longer and arduous than it could have been at the end of the 20th century. Alvin is a man who has lived quite a life, including a World War II stint and twelve children (of which he had lost five in their infancy), and behind him is an experience that is filled with pride, but also with regret and wistfulness. Richard Farnsworth, whom Lynch called “the greatest natural actor,” gives an earnest, emotional turn as Alvin that just might be the greatest male acting performance in a David Lynch film (a bold statement indeed, since there are magnificent performances like Kyle MacLachlan as Cooper, John Hurt as Merrick or Dennis Hopper as Frank in the equation). It feels like an autobiographical performance in many ways, and Farnsworth’s expressive facial features, watery blue eyes and a genuine but subdued approach to his cadence make the film believable and almost naively sentimental, never crossing into manipulative and cheesy territory. This is also due to Lynch’s careful pacing and more grounded, less showy approach to the topic, although one can find in just enough occasions a couple of good old Lynchian touches (the weirdly paced, almost sinister opening scene with Alvin falling in his kitchen, the bizarrely humorous scene with a lady hitting her 13th deer in seven weeks driving the same road, the infrequent creepy sound effects during the night scenes involving fire, or a family watching a fireman drill as in a movie theatre, not to mention the “cameo appearance” of the Lynchian rumbling sound design for a brief shot of a grain elevator) to put it firmly into his world. It should nevertheless be noted that this is the only film in Lynch’s filmography where he didn’t have an input in the script—his frequent editor Mary Sweeney has co-written the script with John Roach, basing it on plenty of legwork and interviews, since the film is based on a true story. But what makes The Straight Story as pure as any David Lynch film is primarily in its thematic depth.

One of the main themes of the movie is regret, which is a topic Lynch very often explores in his work, albeit through different, much darker characters. While Lost Highway was about denial, hiding past transgressions and sins so deeply that the sinner literally creates a brand-new persona, the protagonist of The Straight Story chooses to face his demons, or to confront the past mistakes which had left him bitter and haunted. The former is reflected in a heartfelt monologue with a fellow World War II veteran, which reveals a torturous burden Alvin must live with from the war days, giving more substance and reason to Alvin’s uncomfortableness for the duration of the film. The latter is reflected in the main plot itself: the reunion with his brother, with whom he had a nasty fight which left many marks (Alvin mentions he had to swallow a lot of pride to take on this journey, which may imply Lyle might be the culprit of the fight, at least from Alvin’s perspective) and resulted in them not speaking for years. This is resolved in a beautiful ending scene—featuring another natural actor in the role of Lyle, Harry Dean Stanton, making one of the most memorable two-minute appearances in any film—where two brothers reunite in a scene that in the hands of countless other Hollywood directors would have turned into a corny, sentimental fest of unnecessary exposition. Lynch on the other hand simply places the two brothers into two chairs, when Lyle suddenly sees the lawnmower that Alvin was using, realizing the amount of effort his brother made to see him. The emotional punch is there, and the closure for both characters through redemption and forgiveness is effortlessly constructed by using very little dialogue, focusing on the expressive faces of two natural actors. To circle out the chief roles in the film, Farnsworth’s acting partner in the first half of the film is Sissy Spacek, who utilizes the maximum out of her relatively limited screentime, bringing out a very human character of Rose, Alvin’s daughter, who shares some similarities with her father in terms of yearning for better times and a sense of unresolved guilt. Rose’s character also has that Lynchian, Elephant Man-like character trait that, although she seems slow and impaired on the surface, in fact, has an intelligence and weariness to her that is only conveyed and discovered in the intimate, personal scenes with her father. Relationships are very real and truthful in The Straight Story, and Lynch allows them to breathe and develop in those quiet, pensive scenes.

Whereas Lynch’s films like Blue Velvet and Fire Walk with Me are about the hypocrisy and corruption of America, The Straight Story is an open and unequivocal celebration of America—in particular of the American Midwest. There are joyful, oddly optimistic aerial shots of ploughing machines, repeating sunset shots, stories of noble, selfless people living a decent family life (for supporting roles, Lynch had hired exclusively local actors, giving it a more authentic and realistic feel), all accompanied by an atypical Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack, who has replaced the ominous synths of Twin Peaks and dissonant orchestral compositions of Lost Highway with a country-tinged set of tracks, having a cheerful and melancholic feel at the same time. Lynch impeccably mixes Badalamenti’s music with the visuals, especially in a classic sequence of Alvin beginning his journey, where the slow movement of the lawnmower—and a funny shot going from the road to the blue sky, implicating a certain passing of time and then going back to the road and witnessing that Alvin really hasn’t gone that far—is backed by the waltz/Americana-like Badalamenti composition Laurens Walking which presents some of the musician’s finest work. The cinematography by the then 81-year-old Freddie Francis, who previously collaborated with Lynch on The Elephant Man and Dune, gives the lightness and tenderness of the movie a corresponding visual palette which further enriches the film and gives it that additional necessary emotional resonance.

 
Lastly, The Straight Story also appreciates the wisdom of age, particularly in a sequence where an originally abrasive runaway girl becomes attached to Alvin, especially after Alvin uses a metaphor of an unbreakable bundle of sticks to explain family—another simple but clever metaphor for a girl who is about to make a serious mistake in relation to her own family. Decency and help to those in need are abundant in the film, and it is unusual to see a Lynch movie where the characters have no hidden agendas or selfish desires. The Straight Story could be even seen as a conservative film (Lynch, believe it or not, was a Reagan Republican in the 1980s… nowadays he is a Bernie Sanders supporter, so it is difficult to assess where his political leanings truly lie, although a man can change in twenty years), where authority and advice from an old geezer about the importance of family are not snickered at or ridiculed. Alvin states that “The hardest thing about getting old is remembering when you were young,” which is a lesson for everybody to not take their youth for granted, but also to have a perspective that most will grow old at some point and have much more to say about life in the process. An underrated film in Lynch’s oeuvre, The Straight Story brings out the filmmaker, who in his off-days is fighting for world peace through meditation, out to the forefront, making one of the most earnest and unironically human films out there. Without The Straight Story, Lynch’s filmography would seem painfully incomplete. Every Lynch skeptic should see this movie and witness that it’s not all about bizarre surrealism and dancing dwarves: there is a soulful side to the director which often gets neglected. The Straight Story provides the best possible antidote for such ignorance.

Written by Lovorko Marić

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Production still photographer: Christophe d’Yvoire © Asymmetrical Productions, Canal+, Channel Four Films, CiBy 2000, Les Films Alain Sarde, StudioCanal, The Picture Factory, The Straight Story Inc., Walt Disney Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only. The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
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  • Phil Golub

    You didn’t include the screenplay! I always look forward to getting scanned copies from you guys. I have a copy of the screenplay, but it’s digital.