Thursday 25 March 2010

The Straight Story (1999)

Director: David Lynch
Stars: Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The Straight Story brought me a major shock before the film even started. I knew that it was directed by David Lynch, cult director of such memorable weirdness as Eraserhead, The Grandmother and Lost Highway, not to mention the Twin Peaks TV series, Blue Velvet and Dune. He's represented in the IMDb Top 250 by three films, the other two being The Elephant Man and Mulholland Dr, neither particularly mainstream pictures. Lynch is a quirky director with an individual take on life who sees the dark side of the mundane and fashions his weirdness out of the everyday. Yet the very first credit as this film opens tells us that this is a Walt Disney picture, the most unlikely company in the world ever to produce a David Lynch film. Obviously this was going to be nothing I'm used to seeing from him but what exactly was I in for here?

The good news is that this is not the sort of soporific and soulless sap that the Disney corporation became known for. Like the same year's highly overlooked October Sky, The Straight Story is a touching true story that raises our knowledge of life and enriches us for having experienced it, the sort of description that every biopic made for the Lifetime channel aspires to and almost always fails to achieve. There's a little weirdness on occasion, as befits David Lynch, but while he tends to mix and match normality and absurdity, constantly challenging us to work out which is real in any given situation, it's all pretty clear here. The absurdity is all on the surface with pure humanity underneath, and while that still doesn't bode well for a Lynch movie it's far from a bad thing otherwise. The best way to see this is to not see it as a David Lynch movie at all.

The Straight Story is the story, or part of the story, of a real man named Alvin Straight who died in 1996 at the ripe old age of 76. Born when Coolidge was president, he was a sniper in World War II and his wife gave him fourteen kids, seven of whom made it, and yet she's still been dead for fifteen years. All these details just highlight his age, which is 73 as this stubborn old man falls in his home at the very beginning of the movie. He refuses any medical help, even when his daughter Rose persuades him into going to the doctor. He doesn't want tests and he won't pay for X-rays. He doesn't want a walker but he adds a second walking cane. He smokes cigars, he doesn't eat as he should and he doesn't want to change in the slightest.

In other words he's a stubborn old coot, but he is at least a realistic stubborn old coot because he doesn't expect to live forever doing what he's doing. While he happily tells Rose, 'I'm not dead yet,' he knows it's not far off and so he decides to put his affairs in order. While this involves a few subtle admissions through the film, it chiefly involves going to see his brother Lyle, who has just had a stroke and with whom he hasn't spoken in over ten years. Lyle is played by Harry Dean Stanton, who is a welcome coda to the film if only a brief one. Rose gets more screen time at the beginning and she's superbly portrayed by Sissy Spacek, bringing plenty of depth to a supporting character who suffers from a stutter which makes many feel that she's retarded, including the authorities who took away her four children on account of it.

Alvin's biggest problem is that he's in Laurens and Lyle is in Mount Zion, the former being in Iowa and the latter in Wisconsin a full 260 miles away. Alvin doesn't have a driver's license and can't get one on account of his poor eyesight. There are no buses or trains that can get him there, at least none that he's willing to take, so he thinks it over and decides to hook up a trailer to his old Reds lawnmower and just drive. It makes sense, on a really simplistic level, but that's where Alvin works. He's a simple man with simple pleasures, such as watching lightning storms, listening to grain elevators and mowing the lawn. He even talks simply. 'What d'you need that grabber for, Alvin?' asks one of the old guys at the hardware store. 'Grabbin',' he replies. He only changes when he has to, such as when the Reds won't get him past the local grotto and he has to shoot it dead and buy a 1966 John Deere to replace it, or the now unavoidable fact that he and his brother aren't going to live forever.

This simplicity is heartening and it makes for a lot of contemplative silence, especially as Alvin's way of thinking is that once you make your mind up to do something, you work out how to do it and you stick to it no matter what. Most of this film is a road movie, merely one a little different from most, with no Hell's Angels and not a Trans Am in sight, and everyone involved obviously got into tune with the inherent and unusual slow pace of it. After all, Alvin is stuck on a lawnmower that has a maximum speed of five miles an hour, meaning that he has six weeks of travel ahead of him, so nothing here is even remotely fast. At points it seems truly amazing that this film was released a year before the end of the last century, because nobody with ADD would be able to watch it without twitching and burning to be somewhere else.

The script is by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, who was the real driving force behind the picture, also editing and producing it. She read a story about Alvin in The New York Times and pursued the rights, bringing her frequent collaborator and future husband, David Lynch, in to direct. This was her first script, though she had edited and produced for Lynch before. As highlighted by the fact that this is the only Lynch film that he didn't have a hand in writing, this is really a Mary Sweeney film, something very different from anything Lynch had, would or really could make. I get the feeling that while he did certain things his way, for the most part he let her run with this one, and that means a languid pace that often plays out without dialogue for long stretches at a time. These characters don't talk for the sake of talking, they say what is needed and nothing more. Words are well chosen and well said, and the silences are well said too.

This fits well with long, lingering shots of scenery, the cinematography of Freddie Francis being a delight to watch. Many of his shots of cornfields, sunsets and clouds look like paintings, but ones that move as befits a motion picture. Francis is best known to me as a director, having helmed a number of the classic Hammer horrors and Amicus anthologies but however beloved those are to many of us, it's hardly surprising that he met more mainstream success as a cinematographer, winning two Oscars almost three decades apart for Sons and Lovers and Glory. He shot many notable films up to The Innocents in 1961, then switched to being a director for a couple of decades. Lynch bookends his resurgence in his original trade, coaxing him back in 1980 for The Elephant Man, his first film as a cinematographer in 17 years, with The Straight Story being his last.

Pure in essence, the simplicity of the film as an experience is really highlighted by the way that Lynch directed it. He shot the script entirely in order, hardly a standard approach to filmmaking, following the actual route that the real Alvin took. He balanced it well, the halfway point of Alvin's journey coming halfway through our film; and while Alvin is the focus throughout and indeed is rarely off screen, there are secondary family members appearing at each end of his story, Rose at the beginning and Lyle at the end. Moreover to preserve the experience that Alvin went through, the DVD omits the usual chapter markers so that it has to be a very deliberate decision on the part of the viewer to mess around with the chronology of the piece. It's very possible that this approach is Lynch's main contribution, the rest of the vision coming from Mary Sweeney.

Regardless who put it together, the heart of it all is Richard Farnsworth's performance as Alvin Straight, which is stupendous. It's truly a shame that he didn't win an Oscar for his work, losing to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, but he did become at 79 the oldest man ever to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, 62 years after his debut on screen as a jockey in the Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races in 1937. Setting a record that is not likely to be beaten could easily be seen as something of a consolation, but it's very likely that making the film was Farnsworth's own journey in the same way as the lawnmower trip to Wisconsin was his character's. He was terminally ill with bone cancer when he made this film, taking the part out of admiration for Alvin's tenacity. He exhibited the same tenacity in completing it regardless of the pain he was in thoughout. What you see on screen is not entirely acting but it really doesn't matter. He committed suicide a year later.

During The Straight Story, and I've watched it three times in the past seven years, I found myself often fighting back tears, all because of its inherent truth, told simply and subtly but with great power. Without ever preaching, Alvin makes a difference to a number of people on his road trip east, including an underage pregnant hitchhiker running away from home, a fellow World War II veteran and a pair of bickering twins who try to gouge him on the price to fix his mower. He does so through what can only be described as home truths, because they're short and pithy but realistic and memorable. The fact that these work is one of those accomplishments that this film can fairly claim that seems unusual yet really shouldn't be. Home truths can make a big difference and I've never seen them displayed with more honesty and less cliché than here.

Some reviewers have slated these, citing a lack of depth and originality to them which is a fair point, but I'd suggest that it's the delivery not the content that matters most here. Alvin Straight was no philosopher and I seriously doubt he ever thought himself anything other than an old man who had lived a life. As he says here, 'At my age I've seen about all that life has to dish out.' What adds a substantial amount of power is that Farnsworth imbues his little words of wisdom with the knowledge that comes from our realisation that he knew he was dying too. 'The worst part of being old is remembering when you were young,' he tells a couple of bikers and we feel that we're hearing it from Farnsworth and Straight both.

Another unusual success is that it's surprisingly rare to see films that look at the lives of the elderly or the infirm with honesty and without undue sentimentality. When they come along they're very welcome, from Ride the High Country to Driving Miss Daisy, from Space Cowboys to Bubba Ho-Tep, and The Straight Story is a noteworthy addition to this short list. It's a sad truth that lead characters in Hollywood movies tend to fall into a very limited demographic and anyone who falls outside that range has trouble finding work, whether it be on grounds of race, age or sex. Of these three age is probably the least represented, especially at the high end. There are probably more films where the lead is a child than an old man or woman but, as the few examples we're treated to show us, these older actors often shine brighter than their younger compatriots. Only as people with industry clout like Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman grow ever older are we starting to see a change.

A final unusual success is the inherent decency to this film that could be seen as naive but rings true to me in a world where we're conditioned to suffer from what the techs call FUD, or fear, uncertainty and doubt. At one point someone realises that Alvin has been on the road for five weeks sleeping in his trailer and she asks him whether he's been scared being alone. 'I fought in the trenches in World War II,' he replies. 'Why would I be scared of an Iowa cornfield?' We aren't spared from the dark side of life here, as is amply revealed through the people he helps out and by the uncomfortable truths he dredges out of his memories, but there's a freedom that comes from trusting those around us. People in this film are good people in a world where you can talk to strangers and help them out when they need it. Alvin even buys his John Deere from an honest salesman. It's a heartening revelation to realise that this is a true story and so Alvin's world is the one we live in too.

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