PRINT January 2000


The Straight Story

SEVENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Richard Farnsworth’s performance in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) has a beautiful, disarming nakedness: There doesn’t seem to be anything between the elements and his weathered skin except the stubborn pride the old actor projects. As seventy-three-year-old Alvin Straight, who can barely walk yet drives a battered lawn mower nearly 300 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his sick, estranged brother, Farnsworth takes in the world and his own increasing frailty with an aching watchfulness. Farnsworth’s eyes articulate what Straight himself can’t put into words, conveying what it means to bear witness to decades of silent tragedy, shame, fear, and loss (Alvin mentions almost in passing that his late wife gave birth to “fourteen babies—seven made it”). Straight’s eyesight is failing, too, but he can read the signs of encroaching mortality in the mirror. (Lynch’s camera registers every sagging fold and wrinkle of Farnsworth’s skin until it becomes a kind of narrative in itself.) Inching forward in a quixotic line, The Straight Story’s funereal procession of open expanses and Still-Life-with-Lawn-Mower close-ups hovers calmly at the edge of the abyss. And when Lynch cuts away from an aerial shot of the septuagenarian crossing the Mississippi to a view of a pitch-dark cemetery, Alvin is transformed into a hick from the Styx. Bringing oddball myth down to it’s-all-true midwestern earth, this is one of the tenderest, most plangent spiritual odysseys ever filmed—a bucolic Wisconsin death trip undertaken to make peace with the life Straight can feel ebbing away, breath by halting breath.

In its regard for ordinary people and the ways it finds to honor the mysteries of everyday life—along with the film’s diffuse sense of time and its synthesis of almost pure visual abstraction with unadorned emotional intimacy—The Straight Story has obvious affinities with Iranian cinema’s meld of realism and fable. But although the film was by and large enthusiastically if not very perceptively received by mainstream reviewers, the serious critics who have championed like-minded foreign films were less generous, even condescending or outright dismissive. Both camps tended to fixate on the dirty-David-Lynch-makes-a-G-rated-movie aspect of the production, but while unctuous middle-brows like New York Times critic Janet Maslin were enthralled by the film’s supposed wholesomeness, the highbrows were deeply suspicious. Even a largely sympathetic reviewer like the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum called the movie “propaganda,” as if Lynch’s taking money from Disney were inherently more compromising than Abbas Kiarostami working under the aegis of a totalitarian theocracy. J. Hoberman’s appraisal of the film in the Village Voice was tacked on to the end of his near-devotional assessment of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai) as “the world’s greatest working narrative movie-maker,” implicitly contrasting Lynch’s cultural conservatism and mid-American attitudes (“Disney material with a vengeance,” “shamelessly feel-good,” plus the obligatory dismissive Reagan reference) with Hou’s homespun chickens-come- home-to-Proust reveries (“Time ripples and folds in on itself like a brocaded curtain”). The notion that Lynch might be Hou’s peer—let alone a more expressive, daring, boundary-crossing artist than the cloistered Taiwanese grandmaster—was simply beneath consideration. After all, Lynch is an American, and not the good indie sick-soul-of-the-nation-hating variety, but the worst kind of American at that: He actually likes his own people.

A peculiar double vision exists when it comes to the way art-house critics view foreign and American films, a myopia most ludicrously apparent in John Patterson’s rabid denunciation of The Straight Story, which ran in the LA Weekly and concluded with the sneer: “David Lynch meet Bill Bennett—you guys are gonna get along just fine.” Patterson’s shrill, holier-than-Mao attack on the movie, Lynch, and indeed the very humanity of folks like Alvin Straight amounts to a cultural Red Guard action, parading the film as a dunce-capped example of “bourgeois triumphalism.” Seeing reactionary conspiracy behind every frame, Patterson declares that “non-whites might as well not exist” in Lynch’s Iowa, which is like faulting Kiarostami for neglecting to include Iranian Jews in, say, The Taste of Cherry. Patterson is blind to Farnsworth’s nuanced performance, perceiving him only as a wizened stand-in for Reagan—and “Gingrich, Armey, and Robertson,” the whole vast right-wing, fundamentalist plot Lynch “would like us all to choke on.” Funny thing is, the hysterical tone of the piece—not one worthwhile moment is conceded to Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek’s out-on-a-limb performance as Alvin’s mentally challenged daughter, or anything else in the picture—resembles a Pat Buchanan tirade turned on its head. All that paranoid xenophobia has been displaced back onto the rural American masses to whom it is unfairly attributed, as if they were nothing more than a pack of pitchfork-wielding, gay-bashing, National Endowment for the Arts–defunding yokels. Yet The Straight Story’s headstrong old gentleman and the relentlessly single-minded protagonists of Kiarostami’s films, or the equally determined little girl of Jafar Panahi’s 1995, Kiarostami-scripted White Balloon (not to mention the upright, fiercely independent senior citizen Umberto D. of an earlier, no less allegorical brand of Neorealism), have an innate kinship—they are gnarled branches of the same cinematic family tree.

Yet there is a widespread view among the film intelligentsia that humanity is the specialized province of the salt of the foreign earth, where indigenous cultures are typically mediated through familiar Eurocentric tropes and gestures (depoliticized avant-Godardisms, Bresson-oil rubdowns, the many moods of Antonioni). For these rigidly positioned film missionaries, places like Iowa are what they fly over on their pilgrimages to Lourdes-like film festivals—where true believers seek healing epiphanies, artistic “miracles,” the blessings of directorial saints. The corollary to this critical fundamentalism is a self-flagellating notion of Americans as Hanna-Barbaric “Other,” a derisive cartoon wrapped in a cliché wrapped in a tourniquet. Harry Dean Stanton’s great, grubby credo in Repo Man—“Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ’em”—has been taken up selectively by the pious gatekeepers, who are content to imagine the rest of the world as the repository of every virtue we soulless Americans have forsaken. (Thus the enthusiasm for neat-freak smorgasbords of schematic formalism and shrewdly compartmentalized affect à la Safe, Kids, Happiness, and Affliction: one-note arias in the key of smug.)

Stanton, as it happens, turns up at the end of The Straight Story, as Alvin’s dilapidated brother—a lean-to shack on legs—and there’s something immensely satisfying about the pairing of Farnsworth and the eternally ornery ex–repo man. Together, these two aged character actors embody a range of American experience that encompasses the iconic and the breathtakingly quotidian, and in turn the incongruous serendipity of their reconciliation speaks to just how much of that far-flung experience David Lynch’s films have laid claim to. From 1977’s Eraserhead to 1999’s Straight Story, no living filmmaker has gone further into the unresolved recesses of America’s dream life or fashioned so indelible a universe from such spectral matter. Yet in spite of that—or maybe because of it—he is close to a joke among film purists, an eccentric poor relation to those lofty saints who have raised movies up from their embarrassing popular origins and made them fit for monkish contemplation.

Film theologians like Kent Jones lament the absence in this country of “a genuine, shared sense of national poetics,” the kind “that exists now in France, Taiwan, and Iran.” Of course what these movie mullahs have in mind by that is a renunciation of the idiosyncratic, visionary, irreverent strain of American culture (which produced, don’t forget, Melville, Ellington, Pollock, and Dylan) in favor of dour burnt offerings purged of America’s wicked temptations. When a real work of loopy American poetry like The Straight Story comes along, giving faces and voices to people no less worthy than their brethren in Iran, the cineasts are oblivious to the national poetics right in front of them. Greil Marcus saw what most critics missed in The Straight Story, the sense of ungainly folk communicating in their own made-up sign languages. As he wrote in Salon, “They make gestures that are in some profound and casual way absolutely self-legitimating: gestures that say that those who wave their hands, stutter or proffer strange talismans have as much a right to speak, to tell the story, as anyone else.” To lose sight of that, of what it means to see America in the fullness of its desires and contradictions, the promises it has broken and the promises it has kept, is to give up on the chance of ever really understanding the country you live in. The critic becomes nothing more than a belligerent tourist, insulated, ignorant, and resentful, wishing he or she were anywhere but here.

Howard Hampton writes regularly on film for Artforum.