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The Straight Story – A Gently Lynchian View of Journeying Through a Near Mythical Landscape: Wanderings 13/26

The Straight Story (1999) is a road movie with a difference; based on a true story from 1994 it is set in Midwestern American and focuses on Alvin Straight, a 73 year old man who wants to visit his 80 year old brother, Lyle, who has had a stroke, and with whom he has not spoken for a considerable number of years since they had a severe falling out.

However his brother lives over 200 miles away and Alvin does not have a driving license because his eyesight and legs are too impaired, his daughter who he lives with cannot drive and even if she could he does not like or trust anybody else, including bus drivers, to drive him. Refusing to let any of this stop him he builds a trailer, fills it with supplies, hitches it to his decades old sit on lawnmower and sets off to his brother’s, travelling slowly along the roads.

Unfortunately his mower breaks down irreparably not far into his journey and so he has to return home and get help to fetch it and his trailer. Determined to complete his journey he then buys another newer, but still decades old, mower and sets off again. Due to this delay, the mowers only being able to travel at around five miles per hour, and him having to wait for repairs when the newer mower breaks down, his journey takes him six weeks.

The film was directed by David Lynch and written by his longstanding collaborator Mary Sweeney, in conjunction with John Roach. As many readers will no doubt know, Lynch is well-known for his distinctive, often unsettling, dark and dreamlike work that includes the films Eraserhead (1977), Wild at Heart (1990) and Blue Velvet (1986), the latter of which explores the flipside and underbelly of a seemingly idealized small American town, which is a recurring trope of Lynch’s work. With knowledge of this, beginning to watch The Straight Story may initially be a strange and almost disjunctive experience, where the viewer is expecting normality to fracture into a Lynchian dreamscape. This is added to by the opening image being that of stars at night and text saying “Walt Disney Pictures Presents”. While Disney at the time was not yet the ubiquitous multi-franchise owning cultural behemoth that it would go on to be, it was nonetheless a very well-known brand, one which was generally associated with family friendly entertainment, and not a company which would have normally been expected to be associated with Lynch’s work due to its often challenging nature.

These expectations of stepping into a Lynchian surreal world are heightened due to the opening scenes of The Straight Story seemingly intersecting with the above-mentioned flipside of small towns trope in his work.

The film opens with aerial shots of apparently idyllic rural agricultural fields and a small town, which is later shown to be Alvin’s hometown. The shot changes to show the main street, which is deserted except for a few fast running unsupervised dogs, which segues into a slightly cartoonishly portrayed woman sunbathing on a lawn, who goes to fetch garishly coloured snack food, during which somebody is heard to collapse in the house next to hers. Elsewhere in the earlier scenes set in the town there is a subtly surreal or unreal aspect to some of the characters, as though the reality of the world has been slightly heightened. Alongside this the film is soundtracked by Angelo Badalamenti, who has also worked on a number of other productions with Lynch including Blue Velvet, and the opening features his distinctive sweeping music. This all combines so that, as written by Roger Ebert in a review of the film, the viewer may well “keep waiting for the other shoe to drop – for Alvin’s odyssey to intersect with the Twilight Zone”. But as also noted by Robert Ebert in the same review, it never does.

Rather this is a gentle film which remains grounded in the day-to-day world, and shows us the people Alvin meets on his journey and the reciprocal generosity and kindness between these passing strangers.

The person who collapsed was Alvin, who is struggling with his health and is no longer easily able to stand unaided. When, before learning of his brother’s stroke, he visits the doctor he is told of his own multiple health issues, and that if he does not change his ways quickly then there will be serious consequences. The subtly vulnerable look on Alvin’s face shows that he knows this means at the very least his ability to live at all normally and quite possibly a genuine threat to his life.

Alvin refuses the tests and other medical interventions the doctor suggests, along with the possibility of him using a walker, in a way that is both stubborn, possibly even pigheaded, but also an indicator of his acceptance of the passing of time, his ageing and the resulting physical toll this takes, and the inevitability of mortality. His refusal of the suggestions, and also the journey he undertakes, are reflections of him attempting to maintain, in his own distinctive way, some kind of dignity.

This need for dignity is a continuous theme throughout the film. Elsewhere when his money runs low during his journey, and he needs to phone his daughter in order to have her send him his social security cheque, he asks Danny, a member of a family he meets, if he can use their phone, but uses it cordlessly in order that he can make the call in private outside their home.

At the same time Alvin is not too proud to accept help when it is offered during his journey, and is appreciative of it. But also he is aware of his own character and the importance of his journey and what it represents. When Danny, who witnessed the brakes failing on Alvin’s mower when he was going downhill and his narrowly avoiding a serious accident, concernedly offers to give him a lift in their car for the remainder of the journey, Alvin replies:

“You’re a kind man talking to a stubborn man. I still want to finish this the way I started it.”

During his journey it as though Alvin has stepped aside from the conventions and expectations of the normal contemporary world, and accompanying this during his journey Alvin is depicted as, despite and in defiance of his physical problems, possessing a rugged frontier-like independence. His mower has no cabin and so he is exposed to the elements (although luckily the weather mostly holds); he is at points genuinely alone, as the roads stretch on seemingly endlessly, often empty of all other traffic and distant from towns, supplies and anywhere that could repair his mower; or they are populated with impersonal seeming large lorries, which highlight both the dogged nature of his quest and also his vehicle’s and personal physical vulnerability. Alongside this the film is a time capsule snapshot, as Alvin has no mobile phone with which to call for help, which further adds to the sense of the bravely determined, perhaps also foolhardy, nature of his journey, alongside his isolation and vulnerability if he runs into trouble.

The Straight Story was filmed chronologically along the actual route taken by Alvin in real life, but even without knowledge of that the film could almost be viewed in part as a documentary travelogue in its depictions of the rural beauty and vast agricultural fields of Midwestern America. At the same time in some subtle and not obvious way it avoids purely bucolic or even twee depictions of the landscape. This is perhaps because the infrastructure of agriculture interjects in the flow of the film, in particular storage silos, which sometimes appear briefly as ominous, silent and almost aggressive structures. Also the beauty of the fields of crops is counterpointed with the isolation and industrial-like machinery, such as harvesters, that work amongst them, and the fields’ vastness highlights the relative insignificance of Alvin, and also possibly individuals in general, as he travels alongside them.

There is also an allegorical chronological aspect to the film, in that the age of the people Alvin meets on his journey advance as he travels: these include a teenager who has run away from home due to fearing her family’s reaction to her pregnancy; then a group of twenty something cyclists; a distraught woman in her early thirties, who keeps accidentally crashing into deers on her way to work; the previously mentioned Danny and his wife Darla, who are a middle aged couple who let Alvin camp in their garden while he is waiting for his mower to be repaired; and an older war veteran he meets while staying there.

For many of the people he meets, Alvin acts as a source and teller of the wisdom and philosophy that his age and experiences have leant him. He becomes a form of passing healer, acting as a catalyst for the teenager to realise the potential strength and support of family and to return home, and for the war veteran to unburden himself of the horrors he saw in conflict. This is not a one-sided process though as, for example, Alvin is in return able to share with the veteran his own troubles after fighting in World War II, and to finally be able to unburden himself of a distressing secret which he has carried ever since. And when he is almost at his brother’s he movingly and almost in a confession-like manner tells a priest he meets of their life together:

“We were raised on a farm up in Moorhead, Minnesota. Worked so hard… Me and Lyle… we made games out of our chores. A day’s work’d go quicker when it was just the two of us. He and I used to sleep out in the yard every summer night it wasn’t pouring… We’d bunk down as soon as the sun went down and lie there talkin’ ourselves to sleep. Talk about the stars …and other planets, whether there might be other people like us out there, ’bout all the places we wanted to go… made our trials seem smaller. We pretty much talked each other through growin’ up… whatever it was that made me and Lyle so mad… don’t matter anymore. I want to make peace, I want to sit with him, look up at the stars… like we used to do, so long ago.”

While Alvin, as depicted in the film, is not a man to wax loquacious if it is not necessary, the conversations with those he meets are often portrayed in considerable detail. This and the general level of detail of his journey shown in the film may cause the viewer to question the degree to which The Straight Story is a depiction of fact, and how much it is a fiction, which is only inspired by Alvin Straight’s actual journey. Although specific details regarding this are not easy to discover, Connie Dallenbach, a resident of Alvin’s real world home town who knew him, said to journalist Patrick Smith:

“The main thing I learned [after watching it] was if a film says ‘based on a true story’, there is a nugget of truth but then a whole lot of ‘story’: Alvin was not the wise philosopher as portrayed in the movie.” (Quoted from “How an old man and his lawnmower made David Lynch weep: the making of The Straight Story”, Patrick Smith,, 14th April 2017.)

Also, in the film Alvin is shown as, despite a last minute engine problem, making it all the way to his brother’s on his mower, whereas it has been reported that a passing farmer helped him push it for the last two miles after it broke down. In the film at this point, when a farmer stops to see if he needs help, Alvin says, in a way that references his own journeys, both recent and through life “This thing’s just tired.” After a moment and at the encouragement of the farmer he tries the mower’s ignition again and this time it starts.

As Alvin Straight died in 1996, before the film’s completion, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know what he would have made of the film, or the focus and attention it may well have brought to him. After previous media coverage of his journey he turned down offers to appear on the high profile American television talk shows The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1992-2014) and the Late Show with David Letterman (1993-2015), and he is reported to have said that “he made the trip to see his brother, not for the possibility of fame and money”. He did agree to the film being made however, as in 1995 he signed a contract in relation to it that ensured he would receive $10,000 plus 10% of the film’s profits, and his family are thanked in the credits.

Whatever the balance of “truth” and “story” in the film it remains a respectful depiction of an older man attempting to maintain some dignity and autonomy, and also to put behind him and make amends for past mistakes, as he approaches the end of his life.

There is also an intertwining of fact and fiction in terms of the film’s cast and their own lives; Richard Farnsworth, who plays Alvin, was himself terminally ill during its production and the paralysis of Alvin’s legs as shown in the film was in fact a real depiction of Farnsworth’s illness. The Straight Story was his last film role and he died the year after its release.

Accompanying this the film contains an honest and sympathetic depiction of the physical visual and potentially debilitating effects of ageing, and the older actor’s faces contain the wealth and experiences of their lives and years:

“The faces in this movie are among its treasures. Farnsworth himself has a face like an old wrinkled billfold that he paid good money for and expects to see him out. There is another old man who sits next to him on a barstool near the end of the movie, whose face is like the witness to time.” (Roger Ebert, as above.)

Throughout the film can be viewed as a hymn to a near mythical Midwestern small town and rural Americana, and its depiction of this becomes further distilled in the final scenes when Alvin finally arrives at his brother’s home.

The road which leads there is not tarmaced but rather is a well kept track, while the home itself is an isolated slightly tumble down wooden shack-like structure that could almost have tumbled from the 19th century. Alvin, as throughout the film, has the appearance of an older frontiersman with his white beard, checked shirt and jacket and Stetson style hat. When his brother responds to Alvin calling for him he steps out of his front door with the aid of a walker, and he has the look of an unkempt, but practically dressed hobo (although this may well be due to his convalescence and the isolated location of his home meaning he was not expecting visitors).

They sit on the porch together in silence. After a moment Alvin’s brother asks “Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?”, “I did Lyle’. They can both barely contain their emotions, the unspoken happiness at finally being reunited, quite possibly coloured with sadness of the years they have lost and an awareness of the little time they have left. They say no more, Alvin’s brother looks tearfully up at the sky and Alvin soon joins him. It is still daylight but the screen fades to a star-filled night. There is a sense of the circle of life being completed; they are finally reunited and at peace with one another. They can once more just sit side by side, helping one another to make their, now final, “trials seem smaller”, as they look at the stars together as they did when they were children.



Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:


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