(Note: today’s video is at the bottom. It just made more sense that way.)
I’ve loved The Straight Story for years.
I love its warmth and simplicity. I love the message of family that overcomes the odds and the bitter swallowing of pride in the face of disaster. I love the ambiguities in the narrative: unresolved conversations and a backstory that’s never quite explained properly. I love the performance of Richard Farnsworth, who pours understated emotion into every line of dialogue. I love the way it’s shot – the rolling flatness of the Iowa cornfields giving way to the lush, hilly greenery of Mount Zion as Alvin Straight concludes his journey. I love the occasional flashes of ridiculous humour – the deer in the field, Dorothy asking “What’s the number for 911?” as she and Bud try and lift Alvin off the floor. Most of all I love the quietness of the whole thing – the slow crawl around the side of the house after the opening credits, the silence broken by a solitary thump, and the wordless final tableau as the two brothers sit in tearful contemplation on Lyle’s porch, and we’re treated to one final shot of that brilliant star-swept sky.
But…well, it’s not very Lynch, is it?
Look, there are no dwarves. There are no mysterious figures dressed in black. There are no scenes where the protagonist encounters a confused amnesiac at the side of the road, covered in someone else’s blood. There’s not even any jazz, for crying out loud. Instead you get two hours of soft focus shots of rural America. I’m actually OK with that. Our church house group watched it for a film study recently (my suggestion) and we had an animated discussion the following week about forgiveness, family and the nature of redemption. That scene where Alvin pulls up into the conveniently placed (and perfectly sized) barn at the side of the road just in time to avoid getting soaked? That’s one of the strongest examples I’ve seen of the work of God in the world as witnessed in a supposedly secular film.
Actually, The Straight Story is layered. There are theories that Alvin is dead, for example, by the time the film concludes: that the entire trip is a hallucinatory manifestation of a dying man’s penance, the priest he meets near the film’s conclusion granting him the last rites before his heart stops (symbolised by the John Deere’s motor failure a hundred yards from Lyle’s house). The tractor driver he encounters is the ferryman of the underworld, ushering him into a tranquil afterlife where he is reunited with his brother (who, of course, is also dead).
I’m not sure whether that’s really what Lynch meant to do, but he’s called The Straight Story “my most experimental movie”, so who knows? On the other hand everything Lynch does plays with the formula – allegory, unreliable narrators, questionable performances from David Bowie – and just about the only thing you can predict about him is that he’ll never do anything predictable. So maybe the experimental aspect is that it isn’t experimental at all. Theories about the fate of Rose’s children aside (“someone” was looking after them the night of the fire…could that someone have been Alvin himself?) perhaps this really is just a film about an old man who drives 240 miles on his lawnmower and meets some lovely people along the way.
Still. If you’ve seen Wild At Heart, it’s a bit jarring. There’s no death, no violence, nothing to upset anyone but the most stringent fundamentalists (The CAP Movie Ministry, the internet’s self-serving source of ‘Christian’ film reviews, docks it points for “terror of runaway lawn mower down a hill with the rider”). Even Twin Peaks, accessible by design, had its moments of darkness. The worst we have to contend with here is Alvin losing his hat, in just about the closest the movie gets to an action sequence.
There are exceptions. The Olsen twins feel like watered down versions of Lynch standards, the sort of scam artists you’d expect to see in a hick version of Lost Highway. The woman who can’t avoid the deer is downright anomalous – a scene that simply doesn’t fit the narrative, although there is a glimmer of recognition in Alvin’s wistful stare as she drives into the distance – almost as if he recognises a part of himself in that angry commuter. It’s the most Lynch-like scene in a film that is distinctly non-Lynch. There is nothing like this.
(I really wouldn’t worry. Nobody gets this scene. Nobody.)
Anyway: I’d been thinking for a while that The Straight Story really would benefit from a bit of a revamp. Because what better choice for a psychological thriller than a film that doesn’t contain a single sinister undertone? So I downloaded a few stings from horror trailers and mixed them in with a re-pitched Johnny Cash song and the Silent Hill soundtrack (that’s the original PlayStation version, not that godawful film they did a few years back). Nothing says ‘uncomfortable dissonance’ like a bit of Akira Yamaoka, particularly when it’s accompanied by images of Richard Farnsworth apparently losing his mind.
And I confess I’m quite pleased with the end result. There are no dwarves, but you can’t have everything.