The Year's Best Film David Lynch's The Straight Story struck me as the best movie of 1999 when I first saw it at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and I have no doubt I'll think the same thing at year's end. How can I be so certain, when the good-movie season has just begun? Let's just say that the only possible answer to that also provides a handy two-word description of Lynch's work overall?it's uncanny.
Lest that superlative conjure up expectations of some grand cinematic wallop that will send your senses reeling and break box-office records, understand that The Straight Story is uncanny even within the confines of Lynch's funhouse oeuvre. It's gentle and uplifting, sweet and lyrical. It's rated G. It's a true story about an old man who drives his lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. I can't imagine the folks at Disney have the slightest idea how to market it. Our more sophisticated critics are likely to sniff perplexedly at what looks like a surrealist Sunday school parable for the masses, while said masses are, I fear, perhaps predisposed to favor the critically approved "sophistication" of American Beauty, a film with elements that resemble fourth-generation xeroxes of earlier Lynch tropes.
Let it be reiterated: David Lynch is a visionary. Though that term has been diluted into a sort of general compliment, I use it here in the specific sense in which it is applied to Blake, Dante and Ibn Arabi. That is, he peers into other realities and brings us reports of them. "Realities" I use in a strict sense too; the locales Lynch reports on may be painted in colors supplied by the cinema and his own personality, but their independent existence is, to my mind, fully affirmed by their precise poetic resonances and imagistic power.
Lynch could be the only true visionary operating in the current American commercial cinema, yet that's been a perilous distinction at best. To shift metaphorical gears a bit, his "vision" makes him like a radio receiver open to diverse messages from the great beyond, while his characteristic (and understandable) reluctance to rationalize the process means that he channels static and garbled or banal signals along with the revelations. To my mind, his career contains three incontestably great films?Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and now The Straight Story. (I'm leaving aside tv's staggering Twin Peaks.) Three masterpieces and a total of eight features in a quarter century: that can look like a bumpy, wayward career path until you reflect that we're talking about a visionary in Hollywood, in which case the fact that Lynch has had a career at all seems like a blazing miracle.
Personally he comes across as supremely, even surreally, affable?"Jimmy Stewart from Mars" as one famous description has it. But being a great intuitive rather than any kind of intellectual has left him largely unable to assist in the appreciation of his work. Put simply, he can't explain how he does it or what it means, which raises a daunting question: how can we? General culture has no language adequate to such things, and film criticism can seem in even worse shape; its vernacular too often adds to the confusion.
One of the great things about The Straight Story is its clarifying paradoxicality: It feels wholly consonant with Lynch's past work?from the first shot, you know you're in a David Lynch film?and yet in so many ways it's entirely different. It's not "dark," violent, sexual, shocking, etc.: all those things that made Blue Velvet such a trendy sensation back in 1986. And unlike both that film and Eraserhead, it's not an original, or even a fictional, story.
Lynch's companion, Mary Sweeney, a film editor whose credits include Reds, Tender Mercies and all of Lynch's films since Blue Velvet, read about Alvin Straight's cross-country odyssey in The New York Times when it happened in 1994. The script she wrote with John Roach, another first-time screenwriter, preserves the essentials of the real-life story. Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) is a crusty 73-year-old living with his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), in Laurens, IA, when he gets a call saying that his brother, Lyle, has had a stroke. Alvin's bad hips mean that he needs two canes to walk, and failing eyesight has deprived him of a driver's license, but he's determined make the journey to Mt. Zion, WI, nonetheless.
The notion of riding his mower, pulling a covered trailer carrying supplies, seems, like the film itself, both oddly matter-of-fact and usefully symbolic. That's because the trip will be at once outward and inner. Alvin wants to get there, sure, but he also needs to cover some psychological ground in doing so. As he inches eastward, we sense that the journey is aimed at providing penance, or a coming-to-terms, regarding the guilt he feels about both his bitter estrangement from Lyle and certain of his actions in World War II.
The film adds an understated warmth to Lynch's customary absurdism. Its small-town world is another, quintessentially Lynchian pocket of oddball Americana, yet it's also more?and less?than that too. American movies seldom give us people like Alvin and Rose (she has a speech impediment, builds birdhouses and is thought to be "slow") without caricaturing or patronizing them. This is the first of Lynch's accomplishments, and it echoes throughout the movie. Colorful peculiarity and quirkiness it has, but The Straight Story is also the Lynch film most firmly grounded in reality.
That alone should oblige us to reconsider the nature of his cinema. His films have been identified with nightmarish extremity and flamboyant, horrid excess; in a word, grotesquerie. But what if he summarily dispenses with those qualities, replaces them with a lyrical appreciation of everyday lives and hardships, and the results still feel thoroughly characteristic?how then do we understand and define "Lynchian"? What does it denote?
Two things, I would venture. There is, first, the particular flavor and great skill of his work on a formal level, his exactingly expressive?and very painterly?way with colors and compositions (aided here by Freddie Francis' extraordinary cinematography), as well as with sound and music, and actors. In The Straight Story all of this is at its most simple, direct and?therefore?impressive. Its subtlety means that you have to pay attention, but scene for scene, moment by moment, and especially in the wondrous performances of Farnsworth and Spacek, the film exhibits a constant, unostentatious sense of modulation and control, balance and reserve.
Just as striking, though, is its way with meaning. The Straight Story somehow manages to convert a very compact, obvious tale into something that signifies all over the place. Symbolically, it is easily the year's most multileveled, richly suggestive movie. Its comic, melodramatic, humanistic, picaresque, inspirational and other elements have already been alluded to. But these are just the start, a springboard for our own leaps of understanding.
Culturally, Lynch votes for small-town neighborliness and common sense, and all the limits on technology implied by his catch-phrase for the film, "America at five miles an hour." Just as the critic David Thomson has suggested parallels between the greatness of Citizen Kane and that of Blue Velvet, there's surely a sense in which Welles and Lynch (who was once asked for a bio and replied with four words: "Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana") both locate America's lost paradise in a vision of an Arcadian Midwest, an idea given stunning correlatives in this film's luminous landscapes.
Yet, in the way it aligns cultural myth and psychological orientation, the new film at once echoes and reverses much of what has come before. Lynch's earlier movies seem to view the world from the dashed perspective of childhood (that other lost paradise), where the beauty of life is suddenly seen to have a dark, decaying underside. Here, though, he looks from the angle of old age and impending death and sees something else: that the other side of decay is beauty.
I don't think any previous Lynch movie is as startlingly beautiful as this one. There's a shot early in the film that almost took my breath away when I first saw it. It shows a yard at night. A lawn sprinkler, seen on the left side of the frame, is shooting a small plume of water, perhaps a foot high. Then a pale blue ball rolls into the frame from the right. The fact that it's night, the off-center sprinkler and the sad smallness of its water plume, the ghostly color of the ball?somehow this all conveys tremendous emotion and import without being too connected to any person or narrative at all. How is this possible? And then, later in the film, Lynch suddenly returns to this image and gives it a human context (it's from the point of view of Rose, whose children have been taken away from her), and the effect isn't so much clarifying as it is doubly devastating.
Such layered meanings have a power that defies easy explanation; and indeed, that's the source of some of the power. The first time I saw The Straight Story I was jarred by a scene that seemed out of key with everything around it (a dead giveaway as to its importance). Riding along, Alvin is passed by a speeding car. Seconds later he hears a sickening crash and sees that the car has hit and killed a stag. The driver, a woman, launches into an hysterical monologue about how she keeps hitting deer no matter what she does. The speech climaxes when she screeches, "Where do they come from?" and points to the open, empty plains at roadside.
Where indeed? This moment, I think, offers a key to Lynch's poetic universe. Where does all this strangeness and beauty, with their elaborate, ever-evolving spirals of meaning, come from? Neither from Lynch nor from us, surely. Regarding the scene just mentioned, filmmaker and audience alike may remain blissfully unaware that the ancients saw the stag as a messenger of the gods (mounted on Alvin's trailer, its antlers become a kind of crown for the driver), while in Christian iconography, where the antlers signify both the cross and the crown of thorns, it represents the path of purity and solitude. All of these meanings, and others, cohere in the discrete pattern of religious and mythic associations within the film?yet all that, of course, says nothing about where they come from.
Still, the "deer" keep coming, from some place just beyond the edge of sensory perception. How can it be? The film's drama, we must see, is structured as a series of significant absences: Lyle, Alvin's faculties, his WWII buddies and enemies, Rose's kids, a hitchhiker's family, etc. These are so numerous and pronounced that when a presence emerges?a '66 John Deere riding mower, a pale blue ball, a stag and finally, Lyle?the effect has a power surpassing strangeness. It reaches beyond mystery, into Mystery.
Freud said: "The uncanny is uncanny because it is secretly all too familiar, which is why it is repressed." But consider how inadequate those words are, how discredited and passe they already look, and yet how they form the only clumsy intellectual mechanism our popular culture offers to grapple with precise enigmas like the ones Lynch offers. Reflect, too, on how such dry, erroneous abstractions have calcified into thoughtless esthetic orthodoxies that now decree, for example, that "dark" is good simply because it's dark rather than because it shows us what's in the shadows.
The Straight Story is the year's most subversive, radical and transgressive (insert your own 80s adjectives) movie because it overturns just that set of stale assumptions. Unlike American Beauty and other of the recent films that water down and mimic what Lynch did in the 80s, this film shows Lynch still well in the lead, face toward the far horizon, beckoning us to catch up. It is the year's best movie not because it is dark or light, but because it asserts, yet again, the claims of real, visionary poetry in the cinema.
Q&A with David Lynch
The Straight Story is unusual in your work, from several angles. What drew you to it?
I was struck by the emotion of the story. I think film can do emotion, and I wanted to do that after I read the script. Up until that time I was intrigued by a man who would ride his riding mower that distance, but in the script the reason for the trip was very powerful. When I finished reading the script I was pretty hopped up about seeing this, and feeling it, and I wanted to make [the film].
How did you feel about directing someone else's script?
I had no problem at all. I love ideas. Ideas come from the ether, or they come from a book and they've been organized by someone else, but they're still ideas. And ideas are the whole thing because they come alive in your mind one way or the other, wherever they come from. They strike you. Once you're struck and you fall in love, then you go and you try to stay true to those ideas.
On one level, the story is very straightforward Americana. Alvin is like a lot of other guys, except that he does this one thing.
I think there's a false notion that when you get old you can't do these things. But a lot of old-timers have proved that wrong. The sort of spirit Alvin has, it stays alive in people no matter what age they are. I say Alvin is a rebel like James Dean. He's still got the stuff. He's a regular guy, digging deep, doing what he thinks is the right thing to do.
Besides that quality of Americana, his story has a kind of purity, like a mythological quest.
It's a very pure story. A simple, pure story.
And it's serendipitous that he's named Straight, because that conjures up a picture in your mind of a straight narrative line, across this part of the country that's so flat?
The roads are all straight.
Did you add scenes to the script? There are so many touches that seem like you.
When you direct something, it goes through the director's mechanism, so it comes out a certain way. Just that.
Sissy Spacek is terrific in the film.
She makes it look easy, because she's a great actor. It's a very difficult thing that could go bad with the wrong person doing it.
In regard to Alvin, there's the sense that he's making this journey to come to terms with things in his past. Is this facet of the script based on aspects of the real Alvin's life?
I'm not so sure. But I think one of the things, generally speaking, is that when we get old, we do reflect. I think it's a common thing.
Speaking of age, many of your films seem to stem from the perceptions of childhood, while this comes from the opposite angle, from the awareness of the end of life.
Yeah, but when you're little?you know, I had a great relationship with both my grandfathers, and my father. I think you feel much more when you're little, we all do. You sit with your grandfather and feel a life near its end, and those feelings you carry with you.
Were you aware of what your grandfather nearing the end of his life meant? I think most kids are oblivious to the meaning of death.
No, I was aware. I felt it. I really felt it. My grandfather Lynch, I was the last one to see him alive.
Is this film a sign of a new direction for you, or is it just this film?
I would say that it's just this film. But I don't know what will strike me coming down the pike next time. You just have to be open to everything. It's terrible between pictures.
The story that was in The New Yorker recently painted a very sad and disturbing picture of what an artist like you faces in the realm of television. Has that left you soured on doing tv?
Oh yes, I'm through with that. It's a system that's not real friendly to, you know, creative people. It's something I don't want to get anywhere near.
Does that point you in a more focused way back toward movies?