November 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Dear John Deere

There was a scene in the film I saw the other day that goes like this: It's dawn in a campsite in the woods. A camper awakes to find a companion is missing. Near the burnt-out ashes of the previous night's fire, he find a bundle of sticks, tied with a strip of flannel torn from a shirt.

Okay, so now a lot of you must be thinking old Brian just got his copy of the Blair Witch Project DVD in the mail and he's going to use up another column writing about that. Uh-uh, that's not the case. Though it may not be unusual these days to find two films made simultaneously on the same subject - brace yourselves for next year's barge load of movies about Mars - it's still very strange to find such similar scenes in two entirely different films made at the same time. Stranger still is the fact that the film I'm writing about was directed by David Lynch, while Blair Witch is much more like what we've come to expect from David Lynch.

The name of the movie is The Straight Story. It's about an old man named Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth. Alvin starts the film by falling and not being able to get up, and he doesn't have a MedicAlert. He also doesn't have much of a hip left, his eyes are bad, and he's about to get emphysema. But he's still got guts.

When Alvin hears that his estranged brother has had a stroke, he knows that he has to go visit him and make up before it's too late. He also knows in his heart that he has to make the trip alone, without help - a kind of spiritual quest to flush out some of the demons that haunt him. The problem is that Alvin's eyes are so bad that he can't drive a car, and his brother lives in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, hundreds of miles from jis home in Laurens, Iowa. And he doesn't have a horse either. He finds a kangaroo in his bathtub, mocking him!

No, there's no kangaroo - I told you this is a different kind of Lynch film. The Straight Story owes it's title to more than the lead character's name - the is indeed a Straight Story, based on fact and told in a simple, guileless fashion. There really was an Alvin Straight - though he died a few years ago - and, lacking a horse to make his journey, the real Alvin Straight turned to the plainsman's second best friend: a John Deere lawn tractor.

Oh, how this takes me back: I, a simple barefoot Illinois farmboy, running through a dusty meadow in the sunlight, slapping at mosquitoes. We didn't have a John Deere. No, my accursed family provided me with means to mow, plow and tow acquired from that accursed fount of evil, Sears. So I could only stare in envy as boys from other farms rode by in their handsome, gleaming green machines with a shining image of a silhouetted buck welded to the front.

Years ago, when Lynch was hitting the height of his fame as the mind behind television's oddest soap opera, Twin Peaks, post-pre-post-modern society was filled with glee at Lynch's glorification of such simple pleasures as pie and coffee. They all thought it was high camp, and ran out to get some coffee for themselves and join the "joke". Starbucks should hand over some stock options. What no one seemed to realized is that Lynch was just saying how much he liked a slice of pie and a cup of good coffee, honest appreciation of life's little treats. Well, also an appreciation of the horror of common objects, but you get my point, I hope.

Straight set out to do the only thing that made sense. It may be unusual, but driving a lawn tractor a few hundred miles is just a practical solution to his given situation. Two hundred years ago, it would be thought of as a wonder, not a Ripley's Believe It or Not item to be joked over in a tabloid newspaper. Lynch, along with screenwriters Mary Sweeney and John Roach, saw the drama inherent in the story, and saw the dignity in Alvin Straight. He saw majesty in the image of this man riding over a hill on a lawn mower. He saw a specter of Death (Robert Blake) rising from behind a woodpile!

Sorry, still not that kind of David Lynch movie. About the most surreal image in it is the scene where Alvin loses control of the tractor as it barrels down a hill past a burning house.

This is also the first Lynch film in which his vision does not dominate all others. It's a true collaboration, with the genius cameraman Freddie Francis bringing out the beauty of Midwestern farm country, and another wonderful score by maestro Angelo Badalamenti, both of whom Lynch has worked with before. Farnsworth, who came out of retirement to take the role, is simply amazing, making Sissy Spacek (who plays Straight's addled daughter) seem like she's hamming it up. She's not - he's just that much better.

But it's Lynch who ultimately chose to primarily let the faces tell the story. The film has more close-ups than any Lynch film before it, and we can see worry, anger, fear, frustration, and fear again pass over Farnsworth's face as he ponders his mortality all within a few second's time.

I'm as big a fan as there can be of the kind of weirdness that David Lynch can bring to life on screen. There are many that can't abide his oft-disturbing sense of pace and mind-bending juxtapositions, but I'm not one of them. However, it's nice to see that the master of twisted cinema can also tell a straight story when he wants to, and tell a darn good one.

what disturbing social trends have you seen in the movies lately?


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