Wednesday, March 2, 2011

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)


The Score: 10 out of 10

David Lynch made a Disney movie. We will give you a few moments to let that sentence sink in.
"This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality. You're on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable. Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. Next stop, the twilight zone."Rod Serling clearly anticipating the production of The Straight Story (1999) forty years before the film's release.
David Lynch's Goofy Movie Parody
Technically speaking, David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999) was produced independently and then sold to the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group for distribution after a successful screening at Cannes. But however you word it, David Lynch made a "G" rated Disney film. It happened. And furthermore, rather than the resulting film being an aberrant clash of style, it works perfectly. The film satisfies the demands of a family film, yet retains enough Lynchian charms to prove the origin of its authorship. The Straight Story is a miraculous achievement in Lynch's career.
The Straight Story Trailer
Disney (and its recently developed independent arm Pixar) make films enjoyable for people of all age groups and demographics. When families gather together to watch a movie, Disney is a name people have learned to trust with their time and money. Disney has consistently delivered family-friendly entertainment for the better part of a century, and it excels in this lucrative niche to the tune of earning billions of dollars per year. So it is no small event when President Paul Schneider of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group says: "[The Straight Story is] a beautiful movie about values, forgiveness and healing, and celebrates America. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a Walt Disney film."
David Lynch is noted for his psychologically complex films that explore the realities and feelings of characters who confront human darkness and are frequently driven insane in the process. Since The Straight Story (1999) stands in bright contrast to his normal paradigm, David Lynch offers an explanation of why this story appealed to him when he explained: "Tenderness can be just as abstract as insanity."
David Lynch Explains Why He Made It
The Straight Story (1999) recounts the true story of an elderly man whose health, eyesight, and finances limit his ability to visit a recently stricken estranged brother living in a neighboring state. Alvin Straight, decides to drive his lawnmower on a touching odyssey across part of America's heartland to make peace with his brother in person. This film is a pleasant change of pace from Lynch's horror-centric work, yet his unmistakable style still shines through every beautiful frame. The Elephant Man (1980) and The Straight Story (1999) are often mentioned together in the same breath when discussing Lynch's most mainstream, audience-friendly work.
Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man (1980)
Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight in The Straight Story (1999)
Mary Sweeney, David Lynch's film editor and girlfriend (and for a time, spouse), explained why she decided to write the screenplay: "I read about it in the New York Times when [Alvin Straight] made the trip in 1994. There was a lot of press coverage on this trip."
David Lynch and Mary Sweeney
Mary Sweeney later added: "Alvin's drive struck me as funny, eccentric, and oddly dignified. I tried to option the story as soon as I read it, but someone beat me to it. I kept tracking it until the rights became available again. And once we got them in February of 1998, things moved like a runaway train. By late June, John [Roach] and I gave David a script, and by September we were shooting the film."
Richard Farnsworth and Long-Time Lynch Friend and Supporter Sissy Spacek
Play Father and Daughter in the Roles of Alvin and Rose Straight
David Lynch remarks on Richard Farnsworth, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Alvin Straight: "This is a story about old age. And it's a story about a man's life. Richard Farnsworth is one of the most special people I've ever met. So much comes through from way deep inside. I've never seen anything like it. And it's a beautiful thing to see his face. His face says so much and in the script you learn about a regular man's life. And what he's gone through is similar to a lot of people."
The film begins with Alvin Straight collapsing at his house and being unable to get back on his feet again without some help. Rather than ask for help, help has to come looking for him. Alvin is a stubborn man and he avoids crying out for help when he needs it. He is a cowboy in the purest sense. And as David Lynch explains: "Alvin is an old guy, but he's a total rebelhe's like James Dean, except he's old. He's also like a million other old guys. The body gets old, but inside we feel ageless, because the 'self' we talk to doesn't have an age."
As his daughter Rose takes him to the doctor, Alvin tries his best to escape but is reminded that he gave Rose his word that he would visit the doctor. Only this reminder of his promise is enough to compel Alvin inside the doctor's office. And once inside, Alvin makes it clear that he is going to do things his own way. He refuses to change into a medical gown. But in spite of Alvin's powerful force of will, he must confront some unpleasant facts the doctor gives him about his health. Alvin is told to give up tobacco and use a walker. Alvin will not give up smoking and he negotiates the doctor down to prescribing him to use two canes.
If you were a little surprised that a Lynch film received a "G" rating or "Intended for General Audience," then you can feel secure you were not alone. David Lynch shares a funny story: "A gentleman... called me up and said you've got a G rating. And I said, 'You gotta tell me again because it's the last time in my life I'll hear that.' He told me again and then he said that the members of the MPAA board all loved the film... and that's probably a first as well."
Most G rated family films avoid the type of profound feelings and real-life problems The Straight Story explores, making the film both deeply moving and yet remarkably gentle in its portrayal. Rose Straight looks longingly at a child playing, remembering her children whom the state removed from her custody after a misunderstanding.
In a humorous scene, Alvin gets together all the supplies he will need for his trip. He haggles with the hardware store owner over the sale of a grabber, a handy device for the elderly. This little group of old men are united in their aging process and they interact with one another in a sweetly antagonistic manner.
With Alvin's health in decline, his eyesight compromised, and his inability to obtain a driver's license, cannot think of any other way to personally drive himself out to his brother Lyle except by means of lawnmower travel. Rose is not keen on Alvin's plan and tries to warn her father not to attempt the journey, but Alvin feels the need to make this journey on his own.
Richard Farnsworth is nothing short of amazing as Alvin Straight, clearly earning his Oscar nomination for best actor. Mr. Farnsworth explained: "I was pretty much retired on my ranch in New Mexico when David Lynch called me about playing Alvin Straight. I told him, 'No, I'm slowing down and I've got a bad hip and walk with a cane.' But Lynch answered: 'That's great. Alvin Straight used two canes. You'll be perfect.'" And David Lynch later remarked: "Richard was born to play this role. He's got a quality that's so strong, and he makes every word and glance seem real. He has innocence, and that is a gift."
Richard Farnsworth did incredible work on this movie and is the oldest actor to be nominated for the best actor Oscar. Unfortunately, Mr. Farnsworth died about a year later. The role of Alvin Straight is probably the best of Farnsworth's career and we are happy he had a chance to do it. By all accounts, he was a hard worker and a passionate actor who really carried this movie. David Lynch said: "It's a very slow road movie." David Lynch made one other road movie called Wild at Heart (1990), which could not be more different from The Straight Story (1999) in terms of plot, yet share a relatively similar narrative structure that relied heavily on Nicholas Cage's central performance, too.
Alvin's first attempt at his cross-country journey goes awry and he takes out his frustration on his piece of junk lawnmower that broke down on him before he made it to the next town over. Alvin is going to learn to become a John Deere man if he hopes to complete his journey. Everett McGill, who played Stilgar in Dune (1984) and "Big Ed" Hurley in Twin Peaks (1990-91) cameos in this brief but important scene as a John Deere dealer. In a gentle way, he attempts to dissuade Alvin from traveling by lawnmower, but still gives Alvin a fair price on one of his old tractor mowers when he fails.
Although no one else really seems to understand Alvin's reasons to attempt the trip this way, almost everyone who talks with him soon detects some type of underlying noble motivations. And rather than Alvin being a trouble to others, he is the one frequently offering friendliness and help when he can.
Alvin encounters a runaway teenage girl who left home before her pregnancy was discovered. While Alvin offers her food and a blanket, it is his unassuming words of wisdom and counsel she needs most. In a touching scene, Alvin manages to help the young girl find her bearings and return home. Alvin's recent brush with mortality and his brother's stroke has helped clarify things for him and given him deeper insights on the importance of family. Throughout the film, Alvin encourages those who struggle with their family members to reconcile to avoid the horrible split that divided his brother and him for so many years.
David Lynch explained: "We had to shoot in sequence, so we started where Alvin had lived, in Laurens, Iowa, on flat terrain and in hot summer weather. As we progressed east, the weather started changing, and we had to work fast because that neck of the woods gets bitter cold early in the fall, and nearly every scene is outdoors."
Alvin encounters a broad assortment of people on his journey. Most are respectful and kind, others are a little disrespectful and rude. But Alvin always holds his own against insults and defends himself without ever being too defensive in the process.
The Straight Story Deer Scene
David Lynch plays with tragedy and humor in such an honest way that The Straight Story transcends into a new strata of drama. The film feels real in every moment without a single false note to speak of, which is an interesting change for a Lynch film. His films normally transform into expressionistic works of art that tend to depart slightly from everyday reality. But here the abstract feels remarkably concrete.
In a scene invoking elements of Lost Highway (1997) Alvin's lawnmower breaks down and comes careening down the hillside out of control. Firemen are practicing putting out fires on a shack that looks remarkably similar to the Mystery Man's shack in Lost Highway. Several townspeople watching the fire exercise come to Alvin's assistance.
A retired John Deere employee helps Alvin find mechanical assistance to fix his mower and offers to help him in a number of ways, including an offer to drive Alvin the remainder of the way to Lyle. But Alvin politely declines, explaining he needs to finish this journey his own way.
Alvin even pays for the long distance phone call to Rose, when he informs her of his progress. Then the film presents a beautiful scene when one of the elderly men in town takes Alvin out for a drink. Alvin explains that World War 2 hardened him and he became a notorious drinker. With the help of a pastor, Alvin quit drinking booze. The two men discuss the tragedy that drove Alvin into drinking, involving a friendly fire incident in the war. The two men bond over their shared tragedies, having seen more of the world than most people can imagine.
Whatever the story he shares, Alvin always speaks the self-effacing truth. He is a friendly figure passing through these people's lives, reminiscent of man's all-too-brief passage through life. We encounter a lot of people on our journey, few of whom we will ever see again. But just as Alvin had an opportunity to help others in his own way, the film seems filled with the hope that all of us will do the same.
While most David Lynch films take place in an almost bizarro world where things tend to be more bizarre or extreme than normal, The Straight Story (1999) feels like a more accurate view of everyday American life than he typically presents in his films. That is not to say Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990) are not brilliant takes on the American way of life, we only offer our view that those stories tend to focus on extreme characters, including fringe criminals who hide under America's underbelly. But here, Lynch transports us into a much more familiar America than we normally see portrayed in film.
Alvin helps unite these brothers together even in the midst of haggling with them over the price of their repairs on his lawnmower. Alvin is a remarkable man, able to share his insights without coming across as preachy or tiresome, as some elderly gentlemen unfortunately have the tendency of doing. Alvin does not cross the line. He has important things to say if you want to hear it, but otherwise he minds his own business.
David Lynch's director of photography on The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984) is Freddie Francis, who returned to work with Lynch one last time on The Straight Story (1999) before retiring. We read that Mr. Francis passed away a few years ago. Freddie Francis captured some of the world's most beautiful cinematography ever seen on screen and we wanted to acknowledge his final masterwork on this visually luscious production.
Lynch always hires remarkable directors of photography, and Freddie Francis is truly one of the greatest. His understanding of classical composition was extensive, yet his experimental nature elevated his work to the top rung of his profession. Rest in peace Mr. Francis. Your photography lives on brightly.
A kindly preacher has a heart-to-heart discussion with Alvin about Lyle, who the preacher recently met after the stroke. Their conversation is simple, poignant, and helps clarify some things. But at the end of the day, David Lynch purposefully keeps the reasons for Alvin and Lyle's falling out vague. We do not need to know why they argued to understand their rift. Yet, a part of us wishes Lynch would have revealed more details to give their past fighting more context.
But whether we know the reasons for their falling out, or not, David Lynch masterfully helps the audience feel what the brothers finally meet again at last. Words are mostly unnecessary in this moment as Lyle looks at Alvin's mode of transportation. David Lynch remarked: "I think you've got to dig deep to do what Alvin did. He had to be stubborn, had to get over a lot of obstacles to prove to his brother he cared for him."
As we approach the end of this series of article, we look back on David Lynch's decades of artistic achievements with admiration. Throughout his career, Lynch boldly cleared a new path in the film industry while simultaneously developing his beautifully unique style, ever refining his craft. And now for the first time in Lynch's career, The Straight Story (1999) earned him universal rather than mixed critical acclaim.
The Straight Story (1999) is available in a beautifully rendered DVD release by Disney, which we give our full recommendation. However, you should be aware that because of David Lynch's opinion that a film should be viewed from beginning to end without interruption, at the time he did not include any chapter stops in this DVD release. You will need to use your high-speed rewind or fast forward options to search the scenes. This quirk is also present in the DVD release of Mulholland Dr. (2001) and the early releases of Eraserhead (1976) and The Elephant Man (1980). But Lynch came around and now includes useful chapter stops on all his subsequent DVD releases.
David Lynch Interview and Roundtable Review
Next week we will discuss the second film in David Lynch's unofficial identity confusion trilogy, and the second-to-last feature film released as of this date: Mulholland Dr. (2001). While personal tastes vary from person to person about which Lynch films are most enjoyable to watch, a near consensus of critics and fans declare Mulholland Dr. as the culminating film of Lynch's career and his masterpiece. And in a career filled with cinematic masterpieces, that is saying something.
Mulholland Dr. Official Trailer

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these articles. Can't wait for Mulholland Drive.

    ReplyDelete