Week 16 – Iowa
Filmmaker David Lynch has written and directed a lot of unusual and unsettling films over the years. His movies like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, not to mention the television show Twin Peaks, share a common theme: filth and depravity lurk beneath even the most wholesome of settings. In most cases, that setting is small-town America.
The following is a vast understatement: In the twisted world that Lynch brings to the screen, nothing is as it seems. In Lynch’s domain, the blonde all-American homecoming queen is a part-time prostitute with a nasty coke habit. The radiator in your one-room apartment hides a theater stage, where a disfigured chanteuse sings songs about heaven and how “everything (there) is fine”, as the tiny dancer treads on gory sperm-like bits falling onto the stage from above. As for the woods…
Don’t even get me started about the woods.
With a reputation for the twisted and the macabre, it only follows that Lynch’s most unusual film would be his most grounded in reality and, in terms of narrative, his “straightest.”
The Straight Story‘s genesis began in 1994, when longtime collaborator and domestic partner of David Lynch, Mary Sweeney, was reading The New York Times and came across the story of Alvin Straight. Alvin was an elderly man who, in the summer of 1994, traveled 240 miles across Iowa on a 1964 John Deere riding lawnmower to see his brother Lyle in Wisconsin, after learning that Lyle had suffered a stroke. The trip took five weeks. Prior to the trip, Alvin and Lyle had a bitter falling out. They had not spoken in over a decade.
Sweeney was impressed with Alvin’s story and took it upon herself to retrace his route through Iowa, stopping along the way to talk to people he had encountered. Based on these interviews, she turned the story of Alvin’s journey into a screenplay co-written by John E. Roach, a writer from Madison, Wisconsin.
Sweeney approached Lynch about turning the screenplay into a film. At first, Lynch wasn’t interested. Then, after reading Sweeney and Roach’s script, he changed his mind. The screenplay treats Alvin’s story as a reflection on both the hardships of old age and the importance of family. Its dialogue is sparse but deliberate. Although Lynch had never directed a film based on another person’s script before, Sweeney and Roach’s screenplay left plenty of space for him to add his own touch. What The Straight Story lacks in words, it makes up for in mood.
In this way, The Straight Story was a good match for Lynch, a master at creating mood through the basic two elements of film — light and sound. As far back as Eraserhead, Lynch has had the honor of bringing to the screen some of the moodiest films around. In most of his films, that mood was very very dark.
It was clear, however, from the very nature of Alvin Straight’s story that The Straight Story would not be like most of Lynch’s films. There is no sex in The Straight Story. No violence. No hard language. The Straight Story would receive a G-rating by the MPAA. I’m certain Alvin’s constant pipe-smoking would have brought the film up to a PG-rating had the film not had the backing of Disney.
That’s right. In a bizarre pairing, Disney would distribute the film in the US. I had to laugh out loud at the opening credits. The first thing you see is a background of stars and the words “Walt Disney Pictures Presents” followed by “A Film by David Lynch” — two phrases I never thought I’d see used in conjunction with one another.
Disney, fortunately, had no hand in the making of The Straight Story and, as a result, there is nothing Disneyfied about the movie. It’s very much a David Lynch film. That’s clear right from the start of the film, which opens with a montage reminiscent of the beginning of Blue Velvet. The camera slowly pans across a green lawn, a fat woman in a chair eating junk food and finally to an open window. There’s a crash — unmistakeably the sound of a person hitting the ground. The scene fades to black. It’s very ominous. Very Lynch.
We find out not long after that opening scene that the crash was Alvin falling down. His neighbor discovers him lying on his kitchen floor along with one of his friends who came to the house concerned after Alvin failed to show up for his regular meeting with his friends at the local watering hole. The fat woman, in a moment of panic, asks what the phone number is for 911. Around this time, Alvin’s daughter, Rose — played by Sissy Spacek — enters the scene.
Rose forces Alvin to go to a doctor, who advises Alvin that he’s not healthy. However, Alvin lies to Rose and tells her the doctor told him that he’d “live to 100.”
Alvin and Rose are watching a thunderstorm when the phone rings. Rose answers it. The camera focuses in on Alvin’s face as we hear Rose’s end of the conversation. From the tone of her voice, it’s bad news. Alvin doesn’t blink. Rose gets off the phone and tells Alvin that his brother Lyle has suffered a stroke. This was the first of many scenes in this movie that I’m not afraid to admit affected me emotionally.
A few days later, Alvin tells Rose that he’s “going on the road” to see his brother. He doesn’t tell her how he’s going to get there. This is likely because the idea of driving a riding lawn mower across Iowa traveling at speeds no higher than 5 MPH is the kind of thing an insane person thinks up. To be fair, there aren’t many other options for Alvin other than taking the mower on the road. Alvin doesn’t have a driver’s license and doesn’t trust public transportation. He’s also insistent that he makes this trip on his own. “I’m a stubborn man,” he says later, after declining the offer of a ride to Wisconsin from one of the many generous strangers he encounters on his journey.
Alvin’s journey is marked with numerous encounters with individuals: a pregnant teenage hitchhiker, a fellow World War II veteran, among others. In each of the encounters there typically takes place a conversation where Alvin recounts bits and pieces of his life and dispenses advice and knowledge.
The major obstacle in the film is Alvin having to deal with his riding lawnmower breaking down — not once — but three separate times. Alvin actually goes through two mowers. The first breaks down not soon after he leaves town with a huge trailer towing behind. Alvin is brought back to town on the back of a flat-bed truck, along with the mower, which he proceeds to shoot with a shotgun, causing it to explode.
Eventually, Alvin makes it to Wisconsin and, since this is based on a true story, I don’t feel like I’m ruining the ending by telling you that he meets up with his brother, played by Lynch regular Harry Dean Stanton. (Another Lynch favorite, Everett McGill, plays a minor role earlier in the film as a John Deere salesman.)
The end scene is poignant, much like the rest of the movie, in what is not said as opposed to what is said. Alvin calls out his brother’s name from outside the ramshackle shack where he is living.
For a moment, Alvin gets an expression on his face as if he has just realize his worst fears. He’s too late. His brother is dead.
Then a voice calls back.
Lyle comes out of the house using a walker and Alvin makes his way up to his brother’s front porch using two canes — earlier in the movie, Alvin scoffed at his doctor’s suggestion that he begin using a walker.
The two brothers face each other and Lyle orders his brother to sit down. They both sit down.
Nothing is said and then Lyle glances at the riding lawn mower.
“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?” Lyle asks Alvin. His eyes are watery. His lip quivers slightly.
“Yes I did, Lyle,” Alvin responds. His face is also overcome with emotion.
They both glance upward and the camera pans up until it reaches a sea of stars. The end credits roll.
Alvin’s trip is one of redemption. He wishes to make peace with his brother and, along the way, the trip forces him to look back on his life — both by the people he meets along the way as well as the many hours spent alone riding across the cornfields of Iowa with nothing but the memories of a long life to keep him company. It’s a troubled life. In this way, Alvin is not too unlike the scarred and troubled protagonists of Lynch’s more overtly “dark” films. One review of the film I read pointed out that critics may have missed the point when they referred to it as being “sweet” and “sentimental.”
When Alvin meets the hitchhiker by the side of the road, he tells her about how he and his wife, who he mentions died in 1981 (the movie presumably takes place in 2004), had 12 children but how only six survived. He tells her about his daughter Rose and how she had four kids before one was badly burned in a fire and, believing Rose to be mentally retarded, the state took away her children. Although Rose has a speech impediment and shows signs of some form of autism, Alvin says she’s smart and has an impeccable memory. It’s no stretch to imagine that the fire could have been started by Alvin falling asleep smoking one of his cherished Swisher Sweets.
Then, when he meets the war veteran toward the end of the film he tells a harrowing tale about how he accidentally killed a fellow soldier while serving as an Army sniper. The memory of that, Alvin says, haunted him when he returned from the war. He began drinking.
“I was a mean drunk,” Alvin says.
Later, when someone asks Alvin what the hardest part of being old is, Alvin replies, “Remembering when you were young.”
Of course, there’s the ambiguous ending of the film. Although Alvin completes his journey, the film never specifically tells you whether or not he makes amends with his brother.
I like to think he does. I like to think, when Alvin and Lyle briefly glance up at the sky, they’re remembering what it was like to be children together.
There’s a scene in the film where Alvin tells a story about how when he and Lyle were kids they used to stare at the stars and talk about whether there were other people out in the universe just like them, thinking the same kinds of thoughts.
I like to think, in that final shot, that’s what Alvin and Lyle are remembering — what it was like when life was simple, before the war, before the drinking, before the time where they were forced to confront their own mortality.
The Straight Story is a one-of-a-kind film. By far, it’s one of the best films I’ve reviewed since beginning this column. It’s funny. It’s emotional. It’s thought-provoking. Richard Farnsworth gives one of the most natural, convincing performances I have ever seen in a movie. As someone who is unfamiliar with his work, Farnsworth is Alvin to me now. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at him without seeing Alvin Straight. Farnsworth was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film, but lost to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.
Sorry. I love Kevin Spacey, but … no. Farnsworth was robbed.
Sissy Spacek gives her typical amazing performance. It’s no easy task playing someone with a mental disability. When it’s good, it’s Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. When it’s bad, it’s Sean Penn in I Am Sam.
The cinematography in this movie is stunning. The shots of Iowa’s sprawling farmland remind me of the numerous shots of the Pacific Northwest’s forests in Twin Peaks. Lynch definitely has a thing for nature. This movie actually makes me want to visit Iowa.
I have nothing bad to say about this movie.
Just see it — now.
I suppose I should mention, as a sad postscript, that Farnsworth committed suicide in 2000. The 80-year-old actor had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Godspeed, Mr. Farnsworth.
5. Ang Lee’s Hulk
3. Martin Scorcese’s After Hours (Click here to add this to your Netflix instant queue!)
2. Robert Altman’s Popeye (Click here to add this to your Netflix instant queue!)
1. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy
What directors have surprised you with their choice of projects? Give me some feedback.
The Straight Story on YouTube
Next week: Kansas and a return to the obscure!