Friday, July 14, 2006
The Straight Story (1999, USA, David Lynch)
Where Ben and I wrangle over the film's hokiness quotient.
I really was looking forward to Manhatten last night but Max, who is usually cool about being left out, actively campaigned to be included, probably because it was Monica's birthday yesterday, and I just figured Manhatten would be too slow for him. Little did I know that Monica would select an even slower film, good for the whole family... oh vey, is it good for the whole family. I don't like this film very much but I will begin with the good stuff because there is some good stuff and besides, Monica says that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and if I would just suck on this one, my objections to TSS would disappear in a puff of smoke. Maybe. But I figure a cigar is a good one if it can stand a little chewing.
First and foremost, the true story aspect of the film is very moving. Knowing that some old fellow actually did drive his lawn mower gives the film a genuine heart. I am sure the tale has in various ways been "improved" by the picture, but hey, the raw fact of the matter is pretty heavy. Second, Farnsworth is wonderful in the role as is Spacek in hers, but she's always good, a female Robert Duvall, and Harry Dean Stanton absolutely nails his cameo, the reunion of the brothers is going to either make or break the story and Stanton gets it just right. The supporting work is also good and naturalistic. Third, the screenplay is prosaic in the extreme, effective because the language is so dull and minimal, leading us to wring the most meaning we can out of words spoken by people of few words. This is a cliche about Midwestern culture but cliches don't just fall out of the sky, right? Fourth, the pace was close to courageous. This is perhaps the most impressive feature of the film, the way it mirrors the 10 miles per hour of the lawn mower itself. This pace is not just the central aesthetic experience the film has to offer, it is also one of the main social messages, the wisdom of the elder, slow down. Just as I admire the geezer for going the distance at the only speed he could manage, I admire the film for breaking with the acceleration inherent in everything today. (In passing, Lynch is not Tarkovsky but I will give him his props on this generally.) Far from boring, the pace takes on a degree of grace if not gradeur, substantiating the man's sense of purpose and the beauty of the country he travels. The panoramic sweeping aerial shots of the agriculture, sunsets and the night sky provide just the right touch of relief. All in all, the film is refreshingly "small" and sincere.
So much for the pleasure in a bit of good tobacco. Now to sink in the teeth. And speaking of smoking, this is the only vice acknowledged in the film. Is it just me or is TSS a Canadian Tire commercial on barbiturates? I suppose the Disney label says it all. This is some major Norman Rockwell mythology about middle America. I can accept some wholesome fare. Dig it, I'm not complaining that the total absence of profanity in the dialogue is fucking bullshit. No problem, make a G movie and fill a few Saturday matinee seats. And I sure as hell ain't looking for more product placements in films these days, but what America was that guy traveling though? It was the America of yester-year if ever-year, not an Exxon or 7-11 anywhere on the landscape. This is a Canadian Tire commercial without any photographic evidence of a single Canadian Tire store. It's all good ol' Mom-and-Pop retail, in fine upstanding rural America, where everyone is ready to lend a helping hand, where basically honest repair guys may try to fleece an out-of-towner but darn it and shucks too if the old stranger didn't catch those young whippersnappers at their game, where private property is the cornerstone of every man's freedom but there's no such thing as trespassing, where a priest will come out in the middle of the night with a plate of warm food in his hand to give a noble white man his blessing, where it's November 11th every day of the week because we must always be reminded of the Good War if we are to remain a proud, patriotic nation ready to go to war again and again and again to keep the world safe for democracy and apple pie. No wonder smoking is pretty much promoted in TSS. We are supposed to be returning to the golden age of the USA when the only bad thing folks did - without even knowing it was a bad thing, mind you Opey - was puff away on Marlboroughs. Golly gee, if everyone would just get religion, kick the bottle and drive John Deere tractors at the safe speed they're supposed to, why then this ol' world wouldn't be in the mess it's in, what with racing automobiles mowing down God's own real deers every other day. And you know I could go on. And don't tell me that I'm just being a bummer because I watched TSS immediately after Annie Hall; uh-huh, Annie's grammy is one of the decent country folk in TSS, to be sure, with money.
As with The Elephant Man, that Lynch wants to tell this kind of story, based as it is in fact, is highly commendable. But unlike TEM, TSS is a very schlocky movie. The whole Dalmatian-on-the-red-fire-truck side of Blue Velvet appears here to be taken seriously. It's as if he is trying to atone for his sins, giving up a morsel of County Fair prize-winning pie, (in the film it's one-step removed, brownies), to make up for the Hopper-huffing sicko stuff and all the rest of it. Whatever his motives and intentions, TSS is just too Ned Flanders for me. And for a 10 year old, it was on the boring side. The kid's been to New York more than once. Should have shown him Manhatten.
I've only given your review a quick once-over (I was more keen to jump on the Persona bandwagon than engage in another debate on Lynch), so more substantive engagement with your critique will have to follow. Here's what I wrote back in '99 when the film was released:
"Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is 73, suffering from the multiple injuries that the disease of age inflicts on him, but refusing to surrender to them. His daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) has emotional injuries of her own that she carries with an equal amount of grace, despite a speech impediment that leads people to incorrectly assume that she is mentally handicapped.
When Alvin learns that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, he embarks on a 300 mile journey on his ride-a-mower (he has lost his driver's license) across the Midwest to forge a rapprochement with him (anger, vanity and liquor separated them ten years before). Along the way, Alvin spends many a contemplative moment studying the world around him. Lynchian obsessions crop up here—plenty of shots of fire, sky, stars, deer, amber fields of grain, as Alvin quietly works at salving his emotional wounds. He also gets plenty of opportunities to offer homespun wisdom to the fragile damaged and confused souls he meets along the way.
Simple, linear and symmetrical: not words normally associated with the works of David Lynch, but The Straight Story is not your typical Lynch film. The only other Lynch movie that bears even the slightest resemblance to this is The Elephant Man, also one of his strongest. Both are based on true tales, and both are profoundly humanistic works, and while The Straight Story may lack Elephant Man's depth, the film has its charms.
Chief among them is Richard Farnsworth, who is letter perfect as Alvin, the simple man with a straightforward plan. People like him are rarely the focus of films today. He's not only too bloody old, he's also just too darned nice. On his odyssey of self-healing, the straight-shooting Alvin applies balm to the hurts of others, thereby helping himself. Though the road stretches out far before him, Alvin realises his journey is almost done and while the film's themes aren't exactly profound, Alvin's embodiment of the American ideal of the rugged individual who is determined to finish this journey his own way, the way he started out, manages to make for compelling drama. Near the film's conclusion, when Alvin calls out his brother's name, and a quick catch gathers in his throat as he waits to hear if there will be a reply, we witness a moment of understated acting rarely seen in this craft that usually rewards gestures full of sound and fury.
It would be easy to dismiss The Straight Story as one giant can of corn, like the fields of maize that blanket the American heartland in this tale. While clearly an homage to a bygone era that probably never really was, the film manages to rise above its limitations to become one of the most unassuming, unaffected and touching films of Lynch's canon.
Lynch's film is, along with Spike Jonze's terrific directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, one of 1999's most entertaining films. It is hard to imagine two movies more unalike than this pairing. Malkovich, an intellectually provocative journey into the surreal, is a cinematic cousin to Lynch's more typical and strange works. Interestingly, The Straight Story's apparently corny all-American tale, is the most atypical yet sweet of all of Lynch's films."
Jesus Jardine, we say the same shit to each other, the only difference being that you are succinct and generous of spirit while I am long-winded and intolerant.
Can of corn indeed.
And finally Dan:
Yeah, but it is a can of kernel corn. Not that mushy shit.