What’s it like to watch a movie known more for its extratextual context than its actual content? Watching The Straight Story, David Lynch’s 1999 G-rated Disney feature about an elderly man’s 240 mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his brother, is an exercise in experiencing a film outshadowed by its reputation.
The Straight Story is a very conventional film. It’s a road movie whose only divergence from the genre is that its protagonist drives a tractor instead of a car. This movie was surely more than welcome in the “Family” section of the video store, rented alongside Fly Away Home and My Dog Skip. But it doesn’t fit so comfortably among Lynch’s body of work.
The stark contrast between the definitive Lynchian style and The Straight Story’s representation of traditional narrative storytelling is truly a unique attribute.¹ It’s not just that the rest of Lynch’s work is formalistically left-of-center and this film isn’t; it’s that his work is most palpable when he’s directly confronting and inverting conventions - both narrative conventions and the conventional representation of Middle America. Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, for instance, insert the odd, eccentric and dark within the rigorously blue collar American milieu. The former, especially, might be the purest example of Lynch’s style, because of how it literally implanted his peculiar and nightmarish vision into Middle American homes due to its medium and genre: a broadcast primetime soap. Lynch’s 1990 film Wild At Heart also fits the “Lynchian” bill as a disturbing refraction of the fairy tale.
The Straight Story, on its face, is devoid of this kind of interrogation. Instead, it revels in the banal. It’s a G-rated film about an old man riding a tractor. Just think, this film is couched in his catalogue between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It’s hard to think of a starker juxtaposition of films from all of cinema, let alone from within one director’s body of work. Thus, the title can be seen as a metatextual comment on the film’s lack of Lynch’s notoriously oblique and often imperceptive style. Is this a type of performance art? Is it hyperrealism? Is it a piece of art that, through its recitation of mundane reality, becomes commentary?
Whether the answer is “yes” or not, the aforementioned contrast between The Straight Story and Lynch’s other work has severely affected the discourse around this film. People have had a tendency to try and place it within Lynch’s context. For instance, OpVac contributor Jack Eason recently made mention of The Straight Story’s sense of humor, and how it carries a wryness consistent among Lynch’s oeuvre. I didn’t exactly get that in my revisit. If anything, there is a more visible tendon between The Straight Story and Twin Peaks. Both texts are interested in surveying the simple kindness of blue collar [white] Americans. However, the comparisons don’t go much further than that. In fact, I’d do the film a better service describing it as “Kevin McCallister’s neighbor got a spin-off.”
One of the staples of the Lynch canon is his unusual dialogue. It’s opaque, postmodern and playful. Alongside overarching methodologies, little touches we’ve grown accustomed to in his work are also absent from The Straight Story. It actually has more in common with the style of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. A large part of the film becomes explicit conversations, or more precisely, monologues from Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) lamenting the undeniable march toward death. Really, for both Ozu and Lynch here, it’s not so much death that’s troubling but old age and the social and physical disenfranchisement it’s coupled with. At one point, a new friend asks Alvin what the worst part about being old is. “Rememberin’ when you was young,” he replies. Only in The Straight Story, these discussions are had over campfire, not on house pillows. And of course, something like Tokyo Story or Late Spring make The Straight Story look as sentimental as Old Yeller. But both this film and Ozu’s work are largely about the emotional significance of “simple people.”
Although the odd occurrence of The Straight Story within Lynch’s oeuvre has a massive effect on the way people discuss the film, I found my viewing hardly colored as “Lynch’s oddball.” The work stands on its own. Farnsworth’s performance quickly extinguishes that line of thought, that this is Lynch as a performance artist, merely playing in the sandbox of sincerity. This is the director flexing his muscles in the subtleties of social realism.
Lynch’s candor can be seen from the opening shot - a slow zoom into the faded white siding of a rural home before we hear a thud from inside; Alvin has collapsed. Juxtapose this with the iconic opening of Blue Velvet, another slow crawl on a residence. As we get closer to the front yard of a white picket house, we realize the soil is ridden with cockroaches. It’s a visual metaphor for the pernicious evil festering below the artifice of perfection. Though basically identical openings, there is no mystery or metaphorical preface with The Straight Story. Lynch offers us everything at face value so genuinely that I expect most fans and critics approached the film bearishly, anticipating the inevitable dark turn.
Of course, this reading of The Straight Story is purely an auteurist reading, which is limited in audience to those familiar with the director’s catalogue. The trip Alvin takes to see his brother is to, in the face of mortality, stamp out old differences between each other. Perhaps the film’s centerpiece is a moment in a small town bar between Alvin and another elderly man. Without looking at each other, they both share memories from their experiences in World War II that they’ve never been able to psychologically outrun. These are moments of emotional truth that are universal, and portrayed with an honesty fit for a G-rated Disney production. It surely touched many as a generally warm feature with heart, if its 90+% Rotten Tomatoes user and critic scores are any evidence.
But the strength of The Straight Story will always be outshadowed in discourse by David Lynch’s eccentric image and surreal body of work. Ironically, it’s legacy lives on as Lynch’s weirdest film. What is simply a thoughtful, pensive film about an old man trying to reconnect with his brother is destined to be discussed as an aberration in the career of one of Hollywood’s notorious oddballs.
¹ I think of Dune also as an aberration in his catalogue for its lack of inspired weirdness. One could say Dune is odd, but it’s almost conventional in its oddness, and certainly bland.