The Straight Story: On the Passage of Time and David Lynch’s Cautious, Small-scale Optimism

“It was a really hopeful time, and things were going up instead of going down. You got the feeling that you could do anything. The future was bright. Little did we know we were laying the groundwork then for a disastrous future. All the problems were there, but it was somehow glossed over.  And then the gloss broke, or rotted, and it all came oozing out.”

– David Lynch, speaking about his 1950s childhood in Lynch on Lynch

David Lynch’s long and varied career is united in a shared preoccupation for the 1950s. More broadly, his work is concerned with how earlier periods laid the groundwork for contemporary life and how the past continues to nightmarishly manifest itself. This idea is at the forefront of Lynch’s The Straight Story (from 1999), which is often characterized as a departure for the director. While certainly more accessible than something like Lost Highway, The Straight Story is only a departure in terms of tone and style. Although cautiously more optimistic than other efforts, Lynch’s The Straight Story again focuses on how the past co-exists with the present and how this truth can only be temporarily ignored.

Two easy examples of this thematic preoccupation are how Blue Velvet reference to the atrocities of Tiger Force in Vietnam, seen when the feckless Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles across a severed ear sticking out of the grass, and Mulholland Drive’s deconstruction of how Hollywood’s routinely exploits its aspiring actresses.

Both of these films premiered years or even decades after their problematic images or themes. Blue Velvet emerged when the horror of Vietnam had been concluded for nearly a decade. Mulholland Drive appeared in what many thought to be an almost post-feminist world (the early 2000s), which was of course not the case. The ultimate point is that both of these works are clearly aligned with the Lynchian interests outlined above. Both movies establish how supposedly past events and paradigms continuously reveal themselves in what we delusionally view as a more civil and equitable present.

The Straight Story also toes this thematic through line. Set in the 1990s, Lynch’s film is a biographical look at a man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). At 73, Straight decided to ride his John Deere lawnmower from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin in order to visit his estranged and ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). Although the real life events on which the movie is based occurred in the 90s, its major aesthetic elements could ostensibly belong to any era. This is congruent with the overall arc of the main character’s journey, which quickly becomes about more than an elderly eccentric’s road trip. The film depicts a man at the end of his life confronting the reality of past experience and the reality of how that experience is still all around him.

The nexus of the film’s juxtaposition of past and present is Alvin Straight himself. Visually defined by blue jeans, an array of plaid button-downs, cowboy hat and his trusty Swisher Sweets, Straight is a man who, although living in the 90s, would easily look at home in the early to mid-20th century. The landscapes he traverses are also emblematic of that time. One in particular, a small homestead that he passes soon after leaving the city center of his hometown, looks like a semi-rural environment one would find in old photos of Depression-era America. It is also not a coincidence that the lawnmower Alvin is actually riding upon is a relic: a John Deere antique from the 60s.

It is not just aesthetically that The Straight Story parses the interconnectedness of the past and present. Alvin is a haunted man, and not just due to the unnamed factors that led to his estrangement from Lyle. This comes out verbally as much as it does visually, particularly in Alvin’s cryptic comments throughout the film, where he alludes to his history in the second half of the 20th century being one marked by rage, chemical abuse and all around dysfunction.

The two most important exchanges that allude to this baggage are when Alvin comes across a young, pregnant runaway in an early scene, and when he sits down with an old WWII veteran much later in the story. When taken together, these two scenes dismiss the idea of Alvin being nothing more than an inspiring old codger. In the scene with the WWII veteran, Alvin and the man swap traumatic war stories, and the invisible marks the conflict left are explicitly revealed. Alvin remarks that his experiences with wartime violence propelled him into the amber depths of the bottle, and when he came home from Europe he came home a “mean” drunk.

This conversation fills in the blanks regarding the character’s sparse references to his past. In the scene with the young runaway, Alvin attempts to convince the teenage girl to return to her family. In order to do so, he attempts to illustrate the importance of family in general, telling a story about how much his own daughter Rose (played by Sissy Spacek) misses her children.

In turns out that Rose, who is referred to as having some sort of cognitive impairment, was declared incompetent by the state and stripped of her children following a fire breaking out in her home. The tragedy in this case – as insinuated by Alvin – is that Rose had nothing to do with the fire, which ended up burning one of her children. Instead, “someone else” was charged with watching the children that night, which as writer Tim Kreider points out in this excellent essay (far better than this one) was more than likely was Alvin himself. Such an outcome would be a plausible trajectory for a man who had descended into alcohol abuse in his post-war life.

Such anecdotes imbue Farnsworth’s Straight with an inner-darkness. They also color other statements the character makes about his fallout with Lyle. “Story as old as the Bible. Cain and Abel,” he says, when asked about the estrangement. “Anger, vanity. You mix that together with liquor and you’ve got two brothers who haven’t spoken in ten years.” Taken together with his retelling of the fire and the subsequent loss of Rose’s children, a thinly-sketched portrait of Alvin’s journey in the second half of the 20th century begins to take shape. One gets the sense that although Alvin emerged relatively unscathed from the war (physically speaking), this belied an emotional and mental fragility which crippled him moving forward.

Generalized dysfunction, and the concept of reckonings between past and present selves, is reflected back towards Alvin through certain strangers he encounters on his journey. One vignette occurs in a small town that Alvin passes through near the end of his trip. This section of the film opens with shots of some of the town’s locals, who are watching (complete with lawn chairs and refreshments) fire fighters attend to a small structure near the side of the road that is engulfed in flame. As Alvin approaches the community he gradually loses control over his lawnmower as he descends down a small hill. Tim Kreider discusses how this moment represents a probable flashback to the fire that started when Alvin was supposed to be watching his daughter Rose’s children. While Kreider’s analysis is certainly strong, the interesting element of this scene is not Alvin’s wild descent down a hillside but the way in which utter destruction (represented by the flaming building) is depicted as a source of human fascination.

Like car crashes or cinematic violence, fire holds a powerful grip on the human being’s imagination. It has a supreme spectator appeal. It offers the viewer an exciting brush with oblivion, which we all must return to, and perhaps where we secretly want to return. The fact that Lynch introduces these residents while they are observing fire cannot be coincidental. Many of these characters could obviously be read as little more than folksy beacons of heartland goodness (especially as they all uniformly embrace, welcome, and assist Alvin after his perilous ride down the hill); yet, when viewed through this introductory lens, this group actually seems governed by boredom as much as altruism.

This is most blatant in the character of Danny (James Cada), who is not coincidentally a retired John Deere worker, and whose affable graciousness appears fueled by a mixture of awe and inertia. He is clearly inspired by Alvin and his journey and assists him in fixing his mower (which was damaged during the hill descent). He even offers to drive Alvin the rest of the way to Lyle’s house, citing that there are many more significant hills between the two towns. While these actions are obviously charitable, the character’s motivations are more complex than they initially appear. Danny, who worked “for John Deere for 30 years,” seems governed by uselessness. He lives in a small community with nothing to do, no children in sight and with a wife who is affectionate but also doesn’t really seem to need him.

Witnessing Alvin’s journey seems to awaken something in Danny and draws his attention to a long forgotten truth. Could it be a past self which still exists inside of him? Could it be that the simple, idyllic varnish of Midwestern comfort has begun to wash away? Finally, could it be that Danny’s milieu, established prior to the film’s events, and consisting largely of stagnant existing, be starting to eat away at him?

This is left open-ended by Lynch, although it is a strong possibility. The fire-gazing sequence that introduces viewers to the character of Danny is a corroborating factor. It portrays a man who knows deep down that he is waiting around for death, but is both placating himself and indulging in this drive through exposure to destruction. The last shot of Cada’s Danny also suggests that he is conflicted, that he is uncertain of past decisions and is now contending with something that he had long-ago forgotten. It focuses on the character watching Alvin putter away from inside his quaint home. Lynch zooms in on the man’s face in this moment, and his expression is highly notable. There is no contentment, no broad grin or celebratory, “go-get-em” nod. Instead, there is a stone-like quality to the man’s mug, a frozen stillness, with eyes that could be interpreted as full of longing.

For Danny, his interactions with Alvin seem to reorient him to the complexities of time, that is, how time can be both linear or chronological or how different periods can overlap and coexist. This theme is at the core of The Straight Story, dominating the nature of its central character. Alvin himself becomes acutely aware of time’s passage at the very beginning of the film when he is issued a dire warning about his physical health, and when doubt is cast over his overall longevity. However, having an end point to his life’s story also unearths the past, unearths the factors which led him to his present state. This leads to Alvin’s “straight” story being anything but; he is caught in a perpetual oscillation, between the grave and youth, the early and mid-points of the 20th century and the end of it.

As mentioned, this theme manifests itself in some form or another in a variety of Lynchian efforts, often with an incredibly bleak tone of finality as in Mulholland Drive. Although maintaining a similar albeit more muted darkness, and again parsing characters caught up in the overlap of the past and the present, The Straight Story is more optimistic about human nature. Although far from the sanctimonious, Disneyfied paean that some interpreted it as, The Straight Story showcases a world different from other Lynch efforts. It posits that epochal-shaping events like war (and its ravaging effects) are perhaps ineluctable, yet human beings have some semblance of agency. They can make small changes of infinitesimal scope, such as Alvin attempting to rectify his fallout with Lyle, or Danny attempting to pull himself out of personal stagnation.

Even this uplifting cord is tempered by Lynch’s restrained direction. This is evident in the film’s powerful finale, where we watch as Alvin finally reaches Lyle’s ramshackle country home. In this scene the film’s already sparse script (by John Roach and Mary Sweeney) is fully utilized, with the magnitude of the two brothers’ reunion being augmented by silence and the largely non-verbal acting of Farnsworth and Stanton. Nothing of obvious substance is said between the two brothers, with Lyle simply inquiring if Alvin rode his mower “all the way out here to see” him. “I did Lyle” is Alvin’s brief reply.

What is clear is that both men are overwhelmed by the emotion of their reunion, which was facilitated by Alvin’s extraordinary efforts. Definitive absolution though is missing; no verbal apology or expression of forgiveness is exchanged. Instead, the two men simply sit with each other and eventually look into the stars, an activity that Alvin had mentioned as having sustained them while growing up on a brutal farm in Moorhead, Minnesota.

This shot is a perfect way to end the film, but not because it could symbolize a rebonding of sorts for the two brothers over a shared experience of old. Instead, the image of stars represents the culmination of a journey, and not just in the context of Alvin Straight, but for human life in general. The meaning of the movie is that in order to become whole we have to go back to the place where we started, and when that’s accomplished, as Elliot said, “we will know that place for the very first time.” In order to become whole or straight Alvin is forced to reintegrate his past self. He is forced to own up to the history of violence, abuse and dysfunction set in motion during his experiences in the larger context and events of mid-20th century America.

The film’s postulate is that this is only possible when one is cognizant of the future and of an eventual end. With this knowledge in mind, one can be motivated to change, although no reconciliation is guaranteed. This is something emphasized in Lyle’s emotional acceptance of Alvin’s actions but not (at least not that we see) of his intentions. And while this may not be the happiest or most-conclusive of endings, in the finite course of a human life, where we go from to dust to dust in the cosmic blink of an eye, it’s truly all we’ve got.

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