The Conversation is a feature at Sound on Sight bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their fourth piece, they will discuss David Lynch’s film The Straight Story (1999).
I am in the midst of my 1999 class and I assigned two films I had yet to see from the acclaimed year – the year that Entertainment Weekly claimed to “change movies” – Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry and David Lynch’s The Straight Story. I like doing this as a Professor, because it varies the class and keeps me from getting too settled into a comfort zone. It challenges me to be more spontaneous and in the moment, a zone I typically find stimulating and energizing. Needless to say, the sixteen year old legacy of Lynch’s The Straight Story created a certain predisposition. Having seen all of Lynch’s other films, I had assumed – given the film’s reputation – that the film would be closer to its title – straight – than the ironic and off-kiltered surrealist works of Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986). After all, Lynch’s film was distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and rated G. How off of center could it be?
I’d like to briefly sketch out some of the auteurist tropes of Lynch’s work and how they are reformulated within The Straight Story. The first place to start is with the film’s opening and closing image: the starry night sky. Lynch has defined one of his other, more classical films with the same visual trope that closes the film – his other “biopic” The Elephant Man (1980, to say nothing of the similar imagery in Eraserhead). In The Elephant Man, the starry sky – the world beyond – is viewed as being the force that welcomes the suicidal “sleep” of John Merrick. While the tragedy of Merrick’s self-sacrifice is lamented by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (see also Platoon from a few years later), Lynch’s transition to the closing images of the stars and Merrick’s mother is simultaneously welcoming (the Alfred Tennyson poem tells us that “Nothing Will Die” as his mother transforms into a sunlike orb, defining his world) and haunting (the use of music, mixed with an overbearingly harsh wind bellowing). Thus, the paradoxical quality of Merrick’s desire to be like every other human at the expense of his own life is captured formally. In other words, the form is reinforcing the content in a fairly classical way.
The ending of The Straight Story, for me, is a bit more emotionally and formally subversive. Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) – the aging and ailing Midwesterner who sets out on his tractor to drive 300 miles to see his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who recently suffered a stroke – remembers watching the stars with his sibling as youth, before they had a falling out. The bulk of the film’s 112 minute running time chronicles the journey Alvin makes to see Lyle – and all the trials and tribulations it entails. Obviously, Alvin succeeds in his quest and reaches Lyle. However, it’s the brevity of their reunion that is striking. Three minutes – roughly one scene – and maybe five lines of dialogue serve as the emotional and narrative climax of the film. Lynch transitions from the teary eyed faces of the silent men, separated by years of hostility, to the starry night sky. On its surface, it may sound rather emotionally unfulfilling. Lynch does not give us an awkward hug, a tearful “I’m sorry,” or the melodramatic conversation we have come to expect from such moments. Instead, he asks us to rely upon an image that has reoccured both visually (earlier in the film, Alvin looks at the stars and reflects the overall thesis of the film: “The worst thing about being old is remembering when you were young”) and more overtly (the scene where he tells the Priest how the stars defined his relationship with his brother).
Now, I am not attempting to equate The Straight Story with Eraserhead. It certainly is not that on that level of narrative experimentation. However, I think it is rather striking that Lynch ends what might have appeared to be an Oscar friendly (Farnsworth was nominated for Best Actor) biopic, rated G and distributed by Disney, in such a way. It’s certainly more elegant and more economical that those type of films. However, like the ambiguous ending of Lost in Translation (2003), it invites the viewer to extrapolate what this emotional encounter actually looked like.
Notably, Lynch also begins the film with an opening strikingly similar to that of Blue Velvet (1986). In Blue Velvet, we are given various pieces of “American Dream” iconography. A rose bush. A white picket fence. The friendly faces of firemen in small town America. Then, it all devolves into a absurd nightmare as Papa Beaumont has a stroke while watering the lawn and we realize the insect infested darkness at the core of suburbia. In The Straight Story, Lynch gives us beautiful fields of grain being harvested – long time composer Angelo Badalamenti’s score uplifting the images of a small rural town in Iowa – before settling outside the residence of Alvin. His daughter Rose (the amazing Sissy Spacek) leaves for the day, greeting an obese neighbor who is sunbathing on her lawn. The camera – through a combination of crane and pan – inches closer to the house, settling outside a window, as we hear someone collapse. The neighbor gets back into her chair and begins munching on a pink Snowball (matching her top) when one of Alvin’s friends comes by to see where he has gone. The scene climaxes in a confrontation between the neighbor’s emotional hysteria (“What’s the number for 911!”) and Alvin’s stoic masculinity (“Put the phone down!”). While not nearly as grimly absurd as the opening to Blue Velvet, the scene underscores the toil the land takes on its shepherds. The beauty of the land comes at a cost – the bodily disintegration of Alvin – who is condemned to navigate it between a combination of two canes, a grabbing claw, and a aging tractor that tops out at five miles an hour.
Lynch often settles into these odd, small town, arguably Midwestern exchanges (although one can also see echoes of in the Northwestern set Twin Peaks in the supporting characters Alvin encounters). A run in with a hitchhiker begins with a dialogue exchange out of Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942), as Alvin offers the a young woman “wieners” repeatedly, to her surprise. The point being that there are auteurist echoes of Lynch here: the fascination with the night sky as being a final destination, a critique of rural Midwestern life wrapped in the off-beat (see also the encounter with a woman who hits a deer with her car), even an unease with industry and technology (note the sinister sound design – almost like that in Eraserhead – used to represent a grain elevator as Alvin looks upon it). However, the “straightness” of the film seems to be the eye with which Lynch approaches his subjects. While some of his formal and thematic elements are on display here, the ironic ridicule that his aesthetic sometimes brings out of the material is largely absent. Like Errol Morris, Lynch realizes there is a certain absurdity to be found here, but not one divorced from a profound empathy.
David Lynch once referred to The Straight Story as his “most experimental movie.” There is certainly some cheekiness to this phrasing, a performative framework for the movie that extended to initial critical bafflement and delight in the fact that the renowned cult visionary followed his manic Lost Highway with (as Drew said) a G-rated Disney movie. But there is also some truth to it when one examines The Straight Story not only as a departure, but a cinematic exercise that sees a director who has made his name in a certain esoteric style restrain himself from using the narrative and aesthetic tools with which his name is most associated.
As Drew has deftly made clear, The Straight Story isn’t quite the departure as the almost uncanny opening titles “Walt Disney Presents…A David Lynch Film” suggests it to be. Its regional American setting, references to Classical Hollywood, and its opening shot that frames rural Iowa as something akin to Blue Velvet’s insidious suburbia all point to The Straight Story’s fittedness and legibility within Lynch’s oeuvre. Sandwiched in Lynch’s filmography between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story seems a departure more on its face than within its text. With attention to the latter, moments arise that are unmistakable, inimitably Lynchian. Angelo Badalamenti’s score, for instance, isn’t afraid to dive – however briefly – into haunting, ambient tones before diverting into the acoustic guitar motif that seems more fitting with the conceit’s and setting’s mandates for lucidity, as if assuring audiences that, yes, underneath this quaint, sober pastoral milieu is the same David Lynch. The slow pan of Rose gazing out the window as Alvin talks about her to a fellow traveler comes to mind as a moment particularly exemplary of the film’s overt Lynchian touches.
The Straight Story could perhaps reads as more legibly Lynchian today because it fails to read as a general slice of rural Americana constant with the way we’ve come to see settings like this more frequently in contemporary American indies. If released today, The Straight Story might seem right at home with recent works of Alexander Payne, Jeff Nichols, and David Gordon Green – yet because platform-released American movies today have, I contend, more diverse images of rurality and regionalism, this film reads more in retrospect like a distinctly Lynchian take on the material, not an artist forging an alien path.
Yet even a cursory search of the film’s reviews over its Cannes premiere and commercial release situate The Straight Story as an almost unfathomable departure, as if the film’s primary accomplishment was not its subtle yet incisive realization of a modest yet unlikely journey, but rather the film’s very existence at the helm of this peculiar director. So, despite the film’s own accomplishments and its ties to the themes and signature styles that have broadly shaped Lynch’s work, it provides something of a rich case study in how we come to read an auteur’s work as a “departure” or variant from their supposed signature or norm. The film’s title alone sets up such a reading, for it works less in reference to the story it tells, but rather the way in which it’s being told. (Had the beautifully dated Pierce Brosnan-starring cyberthriller not existed, a fitting alternative title would be “The Lawnmower Man.”) The Straight Story seems to function as a direct referent to the person telling it, a fact not unsupported by Lynch’s own statements about the film as his “most experimental” and the aforementioned opening credits that fuse directly together a jarring rhetorical juxtaposition of two distinct but seemingly incompatible cinematic voices, Walt Disney and David Lynch.
While it’s easy to get lost in the “film itself” – it is elegantly made, with a lead performance of remarkable intuition and depth, not to mention the perfectly wielded emotional sledgehammer of its ending – and it certainly played to some of Disney’s core audience, as this was the only Lynch film I ever watched with my family, for those with even a passing familiarity with Lynch’s brand of esoterica, the “departure” framework (and the ensuing knowledge of who made this film throughout its runtime) is impossible to entirely escape. One of the strangest thing about The Straight Story is the contradictory logic that the title places the viewer into: if this is Lynch’s telling of a straightforward story, then it puts into stark relief the supposed “norms” of Lynch’s storytelling, including delirious nightmares, deeply idiosyncratic humor, and narrative ambiguities designed to wedge themselves in viewers’ minds for days. A “straight story” becomes a decision to not pursue the default, better-established Lynchian narrative and a call to look at what Lynch is not doing onscreen. Every decision that Lynch makes here thus becomes framed as his decision not to do something else, not to make the Lynch movie one has come to expect. A cinematic departure, in this case, has quite the opposite effect of showing off the versatility of the filmmaker – its surface differences reinforce the singular conventions more commonly associated with him.
But The Straight Story needn’t have been seen this way – not only because, as Drew has described in detail, it is perfectly fitting within Lynch’s body of work, but because Lynch had already shown himself to be a versatile filmmaker by 1999. This is, after all, the director who followed a cult ‘70s midnight movie (Eraserhead) with a Mel Brooks-produced critical and commercial studio film that garnered eight Oscar nominations (The Elephant Man), then followed that with a would-be science-fiction blockbuster event film after rejecting a chance to direct Return of the Jedi (Dune), then established himself as an arthouse force to be reckoned with in Reagan’s America by making Blue Velvet, and five years later helmed the pilot for a cult series for network television of all places (Twin Peaks). Lynch’s style is distinctive, but it has also proven itself exportable to a variety of platforms, genres, and scales of filmmaking. The Straight Story is evidence not of Lynch’s almost gimmicky desire to do something completely different, but rather proof that he’s always been capable of doing so. And it is those Lynchian aspects that carry over, not the narrative or stylistic tropes most readily associated with his work, that makes each of his films uniquely Lynchian.