The Worst Part Of Being Old Is Remembering When You Were Young: The Straight Story (1999)

What if I told you that David Lynch made a film that was distributed and produced by Disney?  You would think I was making it up right?  What if, I went on to suggest, as my friend who recommended this film, that this is perhaps his most surreal film since Eraserhead?  You would probably find yourself wondering either how you came about this blog post, or why you have followed if for this long, because clearly for me to recommend such an absurd thing would cause me to lose all film criticism creditability.  However, I have come to tell you about the incredible experience I undertook watching David Lynch's The Straight Story, which has comfortably found a place in my top three films by the director, a notion that I admittedly did not think would happen just based off the description of the film. However, considering that it is set in the midwest, a place dear to myself, as well as the director himself along with the touches of absurdism and bizarre imagery that have come to signify Lynch as an auteur, I was blown away by this film, more so for its poetic simplicity than some of the grander psychosis attached to the controversial director's other works.  The Straight Story, as the title suggest, does not try to be more than one man's quest to justify his life, both in what he has done right, as well as in what he has done wrong, something of a spirit walk if you will, except in this case with the aid of machinery and two canes.  Of course, the attachment of a G rating to a film would assuredly cause many of the David Lynch fans to be quite skeptical of the latent enjoyment in such a work, as viewers have certainly come to expect some degree of darkness to his works, often manifesting themselves in sexual and violent manners.  That is not to say that the film then does not have the touches of Lynch about, certainly the way character interact, the bleak composition of many of the road shots and the ultimate message of the film culminate into something that is quite Lynchian in its proportions, furthermore, anyone who blindly assumes Lynch's work to be preoccupied with sex and violence is a person who is completely misreading him as a director.  Lynch deals with the unpredictability of humanity and its various means of interfering with a linear momentum, and on a very literal level The Straight Story does  this to a point of perfection.

The Straight Story, is very much centered in a small town, to be specific the town of Laurens, located in Iowa.  It begins with an extremely elderly man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) being unable to attend his local bar meet up with friends as a result of falling on the ground and not having the strength to get back up.  After much criticism by his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) and doctor's warnings, Alvin takes up an extra cane as a means to get around.  However, after the news of his brother's recent stroke, Alvin decides that he would rather not see the end of either his or his brother's life with the two of them on bad terms.  Of course, Alvin is in no shape to be driving a car across three states to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin and on a whim decides he will use his riding lawn mower as a means of travel.  Stocking up on plenty of fuel and braunschweiger, het attempts the journey, at first, with his dilapidated old riding lawnmower, only to be stalled a few towns out.  After purchasing a slightly newer John Deere tractor, Alvin reattempts his quest.  Moving at a veritable snail's pace, Alvin seems content to simply drift down the flat and endless roads of the rural midwest, meeting everyone from a young girl who is running away from home and the shame of an unplanned pregnancy to a group of well-to-do and slightly pretentious bikers.  Furthermore, an unfortunate incident with losing breaks while on a hill causes Alvin to become stationed in a town, relying heavily on the kindness of a few strangers to use their cordless phone.  This break also allows him, as he does on a few other occasions to offer prophetic points of wisdom on his life, much of which revolves around the notion of valuing what you have, while it is still valuable.  Eventually, after a great scene of haggling, Alvin makes it to Mt. Zion only to break down moments away from his brothers residence.  It is at this point that he finally breaks down and accepts help on the final leg of his journey, being dropped off right outside his brother's house where the two share in a conversation in the films closing scene.

I mentioned earlier that one of my attachments to this rather unusual offering from David Lynch is its portrayal of the midwest, a world often overlooked and almost always misunderstood in the world of cinema.  While directors like Jim Jarmusch are able to make observations at a passing glance, few truly capture the combination of ignorant bliss and unbridled ennui that exists in this region of The United States.  I will admit that the shot of Alvin leaving Laurens had me doing a double take, because the similarities to the town of Creighton, Nebraska where my grandparents live is quite uncanny, perhaps due to its being under a hundred miles from the border of Iowa, or more likely due the the general listless blasé look of every main road in the small towns that consume this stretch of America.  Perhaps no director can capture this blatant starkness quite like Lynch, it is almost as though this part of society exists solely to be filmed by Lynch.  The surrealist elements of his filmmaking certainly lend to this subject matter as well, because one realizes the inherently inexplicable nature of the midwest while occupying its archaic spaces, things like religion and iniquities often coexist in these small towns, and in a very sneaky way Lynch manages to call upon these problematic juxtapositions with great precision, particularly when Alvin has a deeply moving conversation with a priest, only to turn around and consume a drink at a bar.  Finally, and perhaps most accurate, is the idea of young flight, as it relates to The Straight Story and much of the small town midwest as well.  Many of the towns, like Laurens lack a youth population, as they move to cities for jobs and a more technologically connect life, never returning or even considering the possibilities of revisiting, and instead these towns become filled with persons like Alvin and his friends who simply remember and falsely reconcile with their pasts, only on rare occasions make the necessary trips to fix their often unspoken problems.

Key Scene:  This journey story, as should be expected, is all about the ending and it certainly comes to fruition in this marvelous piece of cinema.

I borrowed this on a recommendation and was so instantly enamored with it that I went out and purchased my own copy, feel free to rent it before buying, but I will save you the step and tell you just to buy it off the bat.

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