The Straight Story and the simple genius of David Lynch

The surrealist auteur is known for his mind-bending, time twisting, character warping visions that defy a straightforward rational explanation, but 1999’s The Straight Story takes a simpler and more direct approach for a tale about a man who journeys 240 miles to reconnect with his ailing brother on his riding lawnmower.

David Lynch is not a director that most people would call “simple.”  The surrealist auteur is known far more for his mind-bending, time twisting, character warping visions that defy a straightforward rational explanation.  I dare you to tell me precisely what Inland Empire is really about, and how we are supposed to take its meaning, for example.  Even his more popular fare can be oblique and challenging.  Twin Peaks birthed the era of prestige television by defying expectations at every turn, combining oddball humor with a dark understory of parallel worlds and doppelgangers in a small town in Washington State.  Mr. Lynch returned to that world in 2017, making it even more bizarre with talking machinery that might or might not have been a tea kettle, a reincarnated parrot, and a bizarre backstory about nuclear testing.  At its core, however, the appeal of Twin Peaks has always been a simple premise:  The investigation of a series of murders in a quiet American town reveals a dark underbelly of child abuse, sexual predation, prostitution, and drugs.  In less capable hands, Twin Peaks could’ve been a season of Law and Order.  Otherwise, there is another, often unremarked element of the show’s success:  Mr. Lynch’s unique ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, rendering day to day occurrences in all of our lives as something more.  Thus, a simple cup of coffee (joe in his world) or a slice of fine cherry pie, even an overly large arrangement of donuts, becomes something memorable.  Small moments and characterizations pop out as well, from Agent Cooper’s infatuation with Washington’s trees to a fish somehow ending up in a percolator.

The Straight Story, Mr. Lynch’s 1999 adaptation of true events surrounding an old man and his lawnmower on an odyssey across the Midwest, is perhaps the clearest example of this aspect of his work.  Those looking for bizarre characters like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet or who want to ponder what is real and what isn’t in the fantasy turned nightmare world of Mulholland Drive, will have to look elsewhere.  There is no nudity.  No cursing.  No violence.  The film, in fact, was rated G and released by Disney, not exactly your typical Lynchian outfit.  This doesn’t mean it is without big ideas or that it’s anything short of a masterpiece among his very best work.  Alvin Straight is an old man without much time remaining on this Earth.  His doctor, frustrated at his lack of concern about his health, tells him the prognosis is not good and he will need either a walker or two canes.  Alvin himself doesn’t really seem to care.  He wants to end his days as he has lived them, enjoying his Swisher cigars, mowing the lawn, spending time with his mentally challenged daughter, and watching lightning storms.  He is relatively poor, lives in a tiny house, and lacks luxury, not that he seems to care.  To him, life is primarily in the rear view mirror and the road ahead is not relevant except for one, long standing regret.  Ten years earlier, a fight with his brother exploded into a full-blown rift.  They both said things they regret, but neither has had the courage or strength to stop the estrangement.  This all changes when Alvin learns that his brother, Lyle, has suffered a serious stroke, and decides it is time to heal the wound.  The question is how:  Lyle lives in Wisconsin, some 240 miles away.  He has little money, no car, no license, and refuses to ride the bus.  His solution:  Ride his lawn mower the entire way, towing a makeshift trailer for supplies and sleeping quarters.

The story might sound ridiculous if it wasn’t true.  In 1994, the real life Alvin Straight took six weeks to travel from Iowa to Wisconsin on a 1966 John Deere, riding on the shoulder of highways, and breaking down several times before he reached his destination.  At face value, it’s certainly interesting, but not exactly the stuff of high drama or the foundation for a simple masterpiece.  Mr. Lynch, however, makes it so because of both his skill as director in producing memorable moments from small ones and his obvious affection for the characters and subjects.  Mr. Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana on January 20, 1946, the same year the real Alvin Straight got married a few states to the east.  While an eccentric chain smoker who practices transcendental meditation for world peace and has devoted his life to experimental art of all kinds, has clearly moved on from these roots and is likely more comfortable in avant garde artistic circles than corn fields, it is just as clear he remains attached to the archetypes of middle America.  This is a world at least somewhat familiar to fans of Mr. Lynch from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, albeit in a more direct, much lesser darker approach.  The Straight Story is filled to the brim with small, memorable characters that seem picked up off the street of any old steel or mining town.  There’s the overweight neighbor, munching on bonbons while sunning herself outside and spending time at the beauty shop, who forgets the number for “911.”  Alvin’s friends and sometimes frenemies, old people that talk a little funny to coastal ears and wear their pants just a little too high at both the waist and the cuffs.  For them, being late to a game at the local bar is a national catastrophe. They are at times endearing, at others annoying, obviously loving Alvin, but also having known him so long that relationships have an unspoken backstory.  There’s the cashier at the supermarket who asks about the large quantity of braunschweiger Alvin’s daughter is purchasing for his trip, and notes in all seriousness that Wisconsin is a “party” state.  The John Deere salesman, played by Twin Peaks alum Everett McGill, who notes that he always considered Alvin a smart man, “until now.”

The same is true of the cast of characters Alvin meets along the way.  The long line of bicyclists who race past him on the road, flying by the slow moving lawnmower like he was standing still.  He catches up to them later after they make camp.  One of them, almost arrogantly tossing a football, asks, “What’s the worst part about getting old?”  Alvin responds, “Remembering when you were young.”  The driver, raving over the body of a dead deer after hitting 13 of them in only seven weeks, and she loves deer.  “Where do they come from?” She asks, marveling at the flat, empty vista of farms and cornfields that seems to stretch forever in all directions with nowhere to hide anything.  Driving off, Alvin is gifted with a free meal, fresher and tastier than the load braunschweiger he has been living on.  The next we see him, he’s cooking up some venison, surrounded by deer statues uncomfortably watching him roast their comrade.  He mounts the horns on his makeshift trailer, a trophy of his travels.  The young, pregnant woman who ran away from home and her boyfriend for fear of their reaction to her future child.  She too heard that Wisconsin is a party state.  Who knew?  Alvin tells her about a game he played with his children when they were young (he had 14, but only seven lived).  He’d asked them to pick a stick and see if they could break it, which of course they easily could.  Then, he asked them to tie the sticks into a bundle and try to break that, which of course they couldn’t.  “That bundle,” he says, “is family.”  Alvin awakes the next morning to find that the young woman has left behind a bundle of sticks.

Here, we get to the heart of the story, its ironies, and what makes it so compelling.  Alvin understands the importance of the family and can express it clearly to others, but he’s been estranged from his brother for over a decade over a fight he can’t even seem to remember and his other six children are entirely absent from his life.  We learn that he lost his wife in the early 1980’s and it seems he lives a largely lonely and solitary existence.  He has only his mentally challenged daughter for company because her own children were taken from her, now she spends her days building bird feeders and worrying about her father’s health with a stutter.  We know he has not always practiced what he preaches, family and otherwise.  We also come to know that he’s been haunted his entire life by his time in the trenches in World War II, when he accidentally killed an American soldier returning to their camp.  He came home as a changed man, “mean” and not good for anyone, drinking away the memory for years and only sobering up in middle age.  We can’t say for sure, but we wonder if it was too late to salvage his relationships with his other children, or what the last years of his life with his wife was like.  The break from his brother Lyle came after he’d stopped drinking, but one gets the sense that the seed might have been planted long before.  From all we can tell, Alvin might not know himself, but he recognizes that he has little time left (the real Alvin Straight died just a couple of years after his journey), which  means, to him and the audience at least, that none of it really matters anymore.  The time we waste in our youth through middle age doesn’t seem important when you think the road will go on forever, but as you near the end, you realize how precious it is and how you cannot get it back.  This makes Alvin’s choice of vehicle ironic:  For all he knows, his brother could be dead by the time he gets there, and yet it is incredibly important to him, perhaps even more important than actually seeing his brother, that he makes this final journey on his own.  When offered the chance by a friendly family to be driven the final sixty miles, he turns it down and insists on continuing on his slow way.

Mr. Lynch seems to take great joy in showing us over and over again just how slow the journey is.  The stately, no rush pacing is apparent before Alvin even mounts the mower.  The movie opens on a shot of his house, the door on the left, the heavyset woman sunning herself in the yard on her right.  His daughter exits the house, and the camera begins a slow pan in.  The woman gets up from the lawn chair and goes into the house on the right, but the camera keeps panning over to a window on the left.  We cannot see inside, but hear an ominous thud, learning later that Alvin has fallen and can’t get up.  Before he has even left town, his friends see him passing by with the trailer and confront him about what he’s doing, one fearing he’ll be blown right off the road, and that he’ll never make it to even the next town over, the Grotto.  Alvin continues on his merry way regardless of their fears, confident that this is the right thing for him at this point in his life, but the people on foot are faster than he is.  The classic lines speeding by on the highway are so slow, they barely move.  Shortly after, Mr. Lynch upends the ubiquitous road movie shot.  The camera pans up from Alvin on his lawnmower to the open sky ahead, then back down to show that he’s barely traveled a few feet.  When he passes the young runaway hitchhiking, she watches him go by, confused and bewildered by his mode of transportation.  The tractors in the fields, lovingly filmed, do their work tilling and cutting corn faster than Alvin travels.  Rather than a distraction, one gets the sense that this is absolutely necessary for Alvin himself.  We never know what he and his brother fought about all those years ago, except that it left a deep, lasting scar.  Alvin notes that taking the trip has required him to swallow his pride, and one gets the sense that the lengthy travel time is critical to preparing himself.  If he could have driven there the next day, he would have ended up in another fight.  It is only with the slow passage of time that he can come to terms with the past and ready himself for the future.

Metaphorically, we can see something of the journey of life itself in his progress as Mr. Lynch hints at much larger themes from simple, ordinary things.  The young runaway is the first person he meets.  She’s scared, unsure, not yet knowing herself and her place in the world.  She hasn’t even told her boyfriend she is pregnant.  The cyclists are a bit older and a lot more cocky.  In the prime of their lives, they think they know everything and do not seem to want to listen to anybody.  The woman who runs over deer is middle aged, overwhelmed by events as people often are as life builds up around and suddenly you have an unending stream of obligations and plans.  She just wants someone to listen to her.  Alvin will do a few minutes.  Life might seem slow and steady like the lawnmower at times, but the days, months, and years pass, the good and the bad piles up around, often without your notice as it happens.  When you pass the midway point, whether you are Dante writing The Inferno in the 14th century and find yourself in midlife, lost in a dark wood, or Alvin Straight in the 1960s, things start to move faster, accelerating toward the end.  Mr. Lynch manages to make this a real part of Alvin’s journey, visualizing how suddenly things change when the lawnmower’s brakes fail coming down a hill, barely 60 miles from his destination.  The slow pace grows rapidly frenetic as the lawnmower careens out of control, literally heading to a house on fire.  Mr. Lynch’s trademark style is on full display:  In reality, the lawnmower is not moving very fast, but in Alvin’s eyes, he’s completely lost control.  He could fly off the road, or flip the thing over.  We see his panicked face, a shaky cam point of view over the front of the mower, hear it in the rapid increase in volume, dangerous and overwhelming.  Alvin comes to a halt and a family that was watching the blaze (training for the local fire fighters), rushes over to help.  The tractor is in need of repair, and the family graciously allows him to “bivouac” in the yard while he is waiting.  It is through Alvin’s conversation with another veteran that we learn about his time in World War II, and the aftermath as a drunk.  A mere 60 miles from his destination, with three quarters of the journey behind, Alvin struggles to keep his emotions in check, especially when his lawnmower is repaired by twin brothers who constantly argue, another scene that emphasizes the importance of family.

He also knows he must continue on his own power.  Alvin meets one more person on his journey.  A priest notices him camping out by the graveyard not far from Lyle’s house, representing the end and the possibility of an afterlife.  It’s far from a confessional, but Alvin learns his brother is still alive, or at least he was recently.  He presses onward and reaches his ultimate destination.  The initial meeting is awkward.  Lyle asks him to take a chair outside what is effectively a broken down shack, suggesting Lyle’s life is even more challenging than his own.  The two men sit, and Lyle finally glances over at the lawnmower.  He asks his brother if he traveled all the way on it with tears in his eyes.  We do not get to witness what they talk about or know what comes next (in real life, Lyle moved closer to Alvin in his final years).  We see only a shot of the stars, and know that the future, however short, is still filled with possibility.  This is the simple genius of David Lynch:  There is only one final journey, death.  Everything else is unwritten, even if we might write only a word or two.  The moments, characters, relationships, and obligations are what matters most in the meantime.  From those bare bones and a borderline ridiculous premise, the surrealist auteur has crafted a family friendly masterpiece.  In some sense, it fits neatly into his cannon.  His 1980 breakthrough film, The Elephant Man is also rated G.  The smalltown pastiche.  His love of the simple things.  His oddball characters are all there, as is his signature style.  Some of the shots and even characters would not seem out of place in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.  At the same time, the film consciously eschews the bizarre twists and turns that have come to define him.  We can imagine a younger Alvin, hiding in a closet, watching a scene like in Blue Velvet, but there will be no Dennis Hopper wearing a gas mask in a weird sexual fetish on the other side.  Alvin Straight will not be transformed into another person while in jail as in Lost Highway.  He will not wake in the nightmare of Mulholland Drive or find himself lost in a time loop like Inland Empire.  He will continue onward as he has before, straight and simple.  The film is more powerful because Lynchian possibilities seem to lie outside every shot, but perfect on its own.

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