Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Straight Story. (1999) David Lynch

In the eighteen months in which I've blogged here at Filmsweep, I've probably tackled all sorts of strange subjects, some weird ideas in film. Some of the weird ideas are also some of the most fun to examine and pick apart. And speaking of weird, this isn't the first film I've blogged that is directed by Mr. David Lynch.

Additionally, it isn't the first G-rated film I've blogged. (Unless I'm forced by Child #1 or Child #2, more likely both at the same time, I'm just not much of a G-Rated kind of guy.)

But this is the first (and only) G-Rated film that I (or anyone else) will be able to track down by the master of the absurd, the swami of the surreal, Mr. Lynch. (And why do I always sing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," switching Grinch for Lynch in my head?)

The Straight Story feels like Lynch paused from all the weirdness, took a long, deep breath, stepped outside of koo-koo Land if only for a moment, and wrote a story that doesn't contain any of his typical Strangely Bizarre - no small feat for the auteur who seems to have landed from the world of the strangely bizarre.

You might have seen the trailers, and you might have avoided The Straight Story for the same reasons I did. "Wow, does that look sappy." "Oh my word, it just looks so sentimental." And I'm not going to lie about it - I'd shy away from the word "sappy," but I am certain that "sentimental" captures portions just right. On first appearance, the film looks nothing like typical Lynch.

If you're familiar with the film then you already know it's about an old guy, Alvin, that rides a lawn mower from Iowa (which he pronounces with a hard "A", "I-Oh-WAY") to Wisconsin, to meet with his brother, who is suffering from a stroke and whom Alvin had a falling out with years ago. Don't ask why he rides the lawn mower, at least not yet. He just does.

Along the way he shares a meal of a wiener with a pregnant hitchhiker, gazes at a cross-country bicycle marathon, finds a half-crazed woman who just ran over her thirteenth deer in seven weeks, lives it up with some frolicking college kids, and meets a few grown-ups who help when his mower goes out of control on the downward side of a very large hill. In quite a few of these moments the old guy is a typical wise old movie-man scholar, maybe the Morgan Freeman type: has seen a few things, even done a few more, he's known the good, the bad, and the ugly. The wrinkles on his face, like the rings inside a tree, can't be made through buying or selling - only aging.

And yet, just because there's wisdom, or because you've aged and have those strong encouraging words, it doesn't mean you've always been wise, or have always done the thing that's right. In many ways, this is a film about a stubborn old geezer riding his way to repentance, on the downward side of a roller coaster life of aches and addictions, moments of joy and moments of doom. Alvin got back from the Great War years ago and, having to deal with the atrocities that accompany war, turned to the bottle to get him through, and he didn't look back for years. He may have lost a grandchild due to his drunkenness, and it's obvious he's lost relationships with some of his kids - his wife gave birth fourteen times and seven survived, but we only get the chance to meet one (Sissy Spacek). (And we wonder why he couldn't get a ride? Why he's actually on the lawn mower to begin with?)

That's what makes it an interesting film. It's not the idea of a funny old codger on his cross-country lawn mower, but it's his history - His Story, however harsh his background is. We're witnessing a survivor, a man who not only survived the Great War but the wars within himself. He's not wiser because he's older, it doesn't work that way. He's wiser because he has obviously faced himself. He took the long gaze into what Arcade Fire refers to as the "Black Mirror." He chose to deal with his own stink, he faced Reality and seems to have beaten his demons.

Alvin is willing to drive that mower for weeks at a time to get to a brother that's been dealt a physical hardship, because he's lived long enough to realize the importance of close ties, the importance of making peace and returning to relational health. No matter what was said in the past, a brother is still a brother. It's a bond that will always be, and it might be forever if they reconcile now.

So while it is a beautiful film with wonderful, hope-filled themes, it's also got that background Lynchian ethos that we've loved in films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive. It's a departure in the Lynchian oeuvre that I've avoided for sentimental reasons, and yet it's a sentimental film I know I'll go back to again and again over the years.

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