10 Films: No.3 “The Straight Story”

September 30, 2010

The Straight Story (1999)

directed by David Lynch
written by John Roach  and Mary Sweeny

Often, I love the opening shot most of all. (In fact, the first shot has been the only tolerable part of plenty of terrible films). The Straight Story begins with a gliding abstract made from the rows of an  Iowa corn field. Our view gently turns to follow, and then pass barely over, a combine cutting its first row through the field. Beautiful to look at, and a nicely gentle hint at a film which follows an absurdly slow-moving vehicle across the midwestern landscape.

The film’s pace, especially after its opening third, is strikingly relaxed. But don’t think of anything like a 1950s melodrama… Straight Story, more than requiring patience, is patient. Taking a close look back at the opening credits, I found a sensible fact. The editor – crafter of Straight Story’s dawdling pace – was also a co-writers of the spare, unhurried script.

Also in the opening credits, the name of the director rings an odd bell. Not many people follow directors, or give them much thought. But a (very) few call out a widely known signature. David Lynch is certainly one of these… and Straight Story – far from creepy, frightening, confusing and perverse – is almost as different as possible from Lynch-expectations. It is – literally a Walt Disney production. (The credit immediately precedes Lynch’s own name).

Straight Story’s narrative follows Alvin Straight, travelling by lawnmower to visit his estranged brother. The film drastically condenses the trip (240 miles, which actually took Mr.Straight six weeks to complete) – a wonderfully strange counterpart to the film’s overwhelmingly slow sense of pace. We watch Alvin sharing evenings and one barstool afternoon with strangers – with a teenage runaway, members of a cycling tour, a fellow veteran, and a country priest… plus an undefined span in the backyard of a kindly stranger while waiting for repairs.

These encounters move at the same speed as Alvin’s lawnmower. Long silences are studded with sadness, memory and wisdom which manage – against all odds – to be sentimental, but not saccharin.  I think it’s gentleness which avoids me bracing with annoyed cynicism. Despite straightforward simplicity, I don’t feel whacked over the head.

A caveat… There are aspects of Straight Story which I have to will myself to get through. I am tired of celluloid simpletons, here Alvin’s daughter Rose. Maybe it’s important that Alvin has a daughter in his mind, maybe it’s important that somebody both tries to convince him not to go on his ridiculous road trip, and then understands that he must.
To be honest, the film’s opening quarter – which seems to be trying to be quaintly cute – comes off as juvenile.  If you’ll forgive, it makes the rest of the film seem even better.

Straight Story ends with one last encounter. Alvin, and us along with him, eventually reach his brother Lyle.  After all that way, they say very little to each other. But what pair of estranged brothers would?

Watch, through his eyes, Lyle’s mind churn.

“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?”

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