Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Straight Story (1999) A Film by David Lynch

When a current Disney film is made, it's usually by a chameleon director with the ability to shuffle sensibilities at random and take on stories that are not necessarily their own. This is why it's a shock thinking about the fact that David Lynch, an esoteric artist, has made his stamp on the Disney canon. 1999's The Straight Story is a humble road movie about an elderly war veteran named Alvin Straight who rides his John Deere on a month-and-a-half pilgrimage from Iowa to Wisconsin to reconnect with his alienated brother Lyle, a recent victim of stroke. The story is based on the real life of Alvin Straight, and if you've seen any of the webisodes in The Interview Project, a cross-country getting-to-know-you exercise undertaken by Lynch's Absurda Production Company, you'll notice that Straight looks as if he's one of the subjects of the project. It is this interest in simple folk, people who are just trying to get by, that links Disney and Lynch's set of concerns. Lynch loves grizzly spirits beaten down by life but without submission to it, and also old-fashioned Americana types (his short The Cowboy and the Frenchman is a blatant testament to this fact), which is ultimately what lifts The Straight Story from being just another middlebrow Disney throwaway, and more like a paean to life and the kindness of the human spirit, as a true Disney film should be.

Yet it is not just joy and happiness that infuses the film; Lynch refuses to cloak life's hurdles by adhering to sentimentalism. Alvin is a tremendously mournful character, and he tinges the entire affair with a potent sense of our own mortality, as he puts himself through thick and thin in his poor physical state (he has to walk with two canes), adamantly undergoing his somewhat dangerous travels on a lawnmower that perpetually runs the risk of crapping out. At the same time, Alvin is no miserablist. He yearns for reconciliation with his brother who he became estranged from, a problem he diagnoses as such: "Anger, vanity, you mix that together with liquor, you've got two brothers that haven't spoken in ten years." In traditional road movie fashion, he meets several characters along the way, offering them a slice of his own world-weary wisdom. Alvin is remarkably in tune with the pleasures of life, the things that really count, like his mentally retarded daughter Rose, the only of seven surviving children he is in touch with. Rose herself has been through great hardship; due to her condition, authorities took her children away from her, leaving her to live with Alvin.

The story sounds maudlin and typical, but Lynch does not go down that route, instead paying lovingly close attention to the humanity, crafting an elegy to youth that breathes with the rhythms of the Midwest. It's uncharacteristic of Lynch to be as restrained and lyrical as he is in The Straight Story. With the help of his longtime cinematographic collaborator Freddie Francis, the film carves a poetic monument that feels closer to the work of Terrence Malick than it does to Lynch. Between the sequences where Alvin makes human connection, there are extended reposes set to pastoral folk music that simply watch him as he travels down the open road at 5 mph, sandwiched by vast corn fields dotted on the horizon by small farms or villages. The camera glides slowly at high angles, respectfully paying tribute to the American landscape with a warm, yellowish color palette. In more traditional Lynchian fashion, there is little explanation for Alvin's motivations, nor is there any sort of payoff when the film reaches its inevitable denouement. The film lets us slowly understand Alvin as a man, and Richard Farnsworth's performance does great justice to this technique. Loads of poignant expression is visible, even through his scraggly white beard and beneath his omnipresent cowboy hat. While The Straight Story is unexpected from Lynch, it proves that yes, as well as being visually and conceptually stimulating, he can tell a moving story with honorable restraint.

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