I decided to diverge from my choice of films featuring old women and offer our film group at the Lexi a screening of The Straight Story (1999). As I remembered, it was about an end-of-life serene journey and visually beautiful. I do not know any of Lynch’s work so had no expectations, but when I viewed the film again in preparation for the Lexi I realised that far from being asimple story the film was a puzzle that needed solving.
It became obvious for me that the story was about tying up loose ends in preparation for death. The idea of death is present right from the beginning of the film. Alvin who is 73 lives with his disabled daughter Rose. She has a speech impediment. People think she is mentally slow but she has a good memory, good head for figures and dates and thinks very logically. Alvin who has a bad hip falls at home and injures his other leg. In his interview with the doctor it becomes clear that he also is disabled, being partially blind and with restricted mobility. It is clear that he refuses any tests, treatment or change of life style to prolong life. He is ready to face the ‘serious consequences’ the doctor warns him about. When he hears that his estranged brother has had a stroke he decides to travel 350 miles on his lawnmower for a reconciliation with him.
When his old lawnmower malfunctions and he has to return home he destroys it by shooting at it with a gun. We learn later that he was a sniper during the war. We have here an image of obsolescence that can be taken metaphorically. (I am told that the John Deer lawnmower he buys to restart his journey is legendary.)
From then on the episodes of contemplation, night skies, sunsets, tractors and harvesters in rolling fields, changing autumn colours, filmed in slow panning and aerial shots or the close-ups of Alvin’s old wrinkled face white beard and sparkling blue eyes, contrast with the darker information we are given during the night episodes around a campfire. The cinematography is seductive and the homilies deceptive.
In his first encounter “My wife Frances brought fourteen kids into the world. Only seven made it….My daughter Rose lives with me…My daughter Rose that lives with me…she’s what some people would calla little slow. But she’s not. She’s got a mind like a bear trap for facts and keeps everything organized around the house. She was a real good mom….My daughter…One night…….someone else was watchin’ the kids…There was a fire. Her second boy got burned real bad. Rose didn’t have nothin’ to do with it” … .We also learn that the other children have been taken into care.
The second encounter involves a woman whose negligent driving results in the death of a deer “He is dead… and I love deer…”
During the third encounter with a group of young male cyclists and in the night around a fire : “What’s the worst thing about being old Alvin?” …. He replies: “The worst thing about being old is remembering when you were young. “
The fourth encounter which happens in a small community is longer. His lawnmower has broken down and needs repair. Here Alvin asserts his desire to continue his journey on his own terms, he accepts shelter but refuses help and shows his sense of humour and skill in negotiation. An exchange of reminiscences with a veteran about the experience of war is about the violence death. What is shocking is the confession that Alvin makes of having shot in the head a scout in what is called a ‘friendly fire incident’, something he has never told anybody about before.
Finally he spends the last night of his journey camping in a cemetery. In conversation with the priest who offers him food and company Alvin says “So…whatever it was made me and Lyle so mad doesn’t matter to me now…I want to make peace…I want to sit with him again and look up at all the stars….. ”
He reaches Lyle who lives in a shack and uses a walker. The film ends with the two old disabled brothers in silent tears looking at the stars.
I was surprised when I read the reviews that few of them mentioned death or preparing for death. Seen as a preparation for death film, every scene has a function. Some reviewers found the hysterical ‘deer woman’ scene misplaced but if it stands for the unintended killing that Alvin experienced it makes perfect sense. One incident that I could not explain was the burning house associated with Alvin’s careering down the hill having lost control of his mower. No reviewers mentioned its significance. It is an article by Tim Kreider in the Film Quarterly Fall 2000 that solved the puzzle for me. Kreider informed by the knowledge of Lynch’s work sees a much darker film and interprets Alvin’s journey as one of atonement.
David Lynch tells the ugly truth in The Straight Story not in words but in images, powerfully suggestive visual metaphors. In the film’s only scene of genuine action or suspense, Alvin Straight almost loses control of his makeshift mower/wagon coming downhill into a small town where the local fire department is conducting a training exercise on a burning abandoned house. As the old man desperately brakes and grapples with the wheel, hurtling faster and faster downhill, out of control, the camera cuts back and forth in a blur between his frantic face and the blazing house nearby. The high scream of the mower’s overstrained engine and the engulfing roar of the fire become one terrifying noise. Anthony Lane shrugs this scene off as one of Lynch’s “bursts of calculated strangeness”–those irrepressibly wacky trademark idiosyncrasies popping up again in a film where they’re only distracting. But this burning house is not just a surreal non sequitur; it’s one of the central images in the film. This scene functions as a flashback to the earlier fire, the one in which Alvin’s grandchildren were burned. Alvin’s face, bathed in sweat and flickering orange with firelight, and his eyes, bulging and rolling in his head like a frightened animal’s, express a terror that transcends his immediate situation. When intercut with those quick, jarring shots of the blazing house, the real object of that terror is unmistakable. Alvin is the unnamed “someone” who was supposed to be watching Rose’s kids. He let his grandson get burned. He caused his daughter’s children to be taken away by the state. After he manages to stop his tractor, he sits panting and shaking in terror, staring at nothing, the burning house clearly framed in the background. He is trembling not just in reaction to his near-accident, but in an abreaction to that original trauma–another time when Alvin Straight lost control and events took on their own scary, unstoppable momentum.
Kreider’s full analysis does involve some interpretations but is much closer to the film than Chivers’. My mistrust of Chivers’ book is growing after reading her analysis of this film. Again I do not pretend that I have read her silvering screen argument but multiple inaccuracies, unwarranted statements and assumptions in what she calls an analysis are not forgivable. Some of them make me more angry than others. Chivers’ writes a book about disability age and death. Describing Spacek’s Rose she says “a vaguely disabled character”. A vaguely disabled character? What does this mean? I quote again “As an old man on the road he appears incongruous and incapable”. Not to me, or anybody else I know who have seen the film, he does not. Neither is there any evidence on-screen that other characters perceive him as such. His mode of transport is incongruous on the highways but not him as an old man. Alvin’s decision not to accept treatment is an important issue in the context of disability and death, yet it is ignored. I will not go on but this film about age, disability and death deserves better than this superficial and misguided nonsense.
End of life films are few. The Straight Story is intelligent, beautifully directed and filmed. In avoiding the usual nostalgic flashbacks typical of the genre it highlights serious issues of old age, disability, and death.
I urge my readers to read Kreider’s analysis in
PS : there is so much in this film that I cannot, like with other classics, cover everything in a blog. But I would be pleased if people did comment.