Film: Strange. The man seems so normal

In his new film there's no weird stuff - no dead homecoming queens, no filicide. And he's even taken to wearing a tie. Has David Lynch gone soft?
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The Independent Culture
News from the first previews was truly shocking: David Lynch's latest film, The Straight Story, did not disturb, offend or mystify. It contained no scenes of twisted sexual desire or violence. Surely there was just a little filicide? Some incest maybe? Uxoricide even? No. And before you ask, there are no dwarves, Mystery Men, strange hairdos, doughnuts, drugs or dead homecoming queens.

The director is in town promoting this apparent abberation and - shock horror - he's even wearing a tie. This, from the man who created an entire aesthetic out of the buttoned-up white shirt, sans-tie look.

So what's happened to David Lynch? Stay calm. The press kit for The Straight Story still includes what has always been his preferred biographical note, word for word - all four of them: "Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana." No change there. And that trademark tall hair is still cocking a snook at gravity. And chances are he's still probably "lost in darkness and confusion".

With that characteristic Jimmy Stewart-style good nature, Lynch quizzically reflects on the puzzlement his new movie has caused: "Somebody was standing in line for a preview screening and a lady behind them said `Isn't it odd that there are two directors named David Lynch'." He laughs.

Lynch fans can relax. The director is still that slightly bemused innocent, in a world out of whack, incapable of making a movie that doesn't mystify his public in some way. With his last, Lost Highway, critics and audiences found his representation of the interior struggles of a man who murders his wife for her infidelity too abstract and confusing. This time round they've been wrong-footed by the absolute simplicity and - at times - heartbreaking humanity - of The Straight Story. "Every story is different," observes Lynch "but you work the same way. This movie passed through the same machinery that Lost Highway passed through."

Which brings us to the lawnmower. The Straight Story is about 73-year- old Alvin Straight (an excoriating performance by Richard Farnsworth) going to visit his ailing older brother, Lyle, (poignantly played by Harry Dean Stanton). They haven't spoken for 10 years and it's time to put things right. The only trouble is, Alvin - too blind to drive - lives in Laurens, Iowa and Lyle lives some 300 miles away in Mt Zion, Wisconsin. Having spent most of his life on the road, a stubborn Alvin is determined to make the trip on his own terms - alone.

Despite the fears of his emotionally scarred daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) he hits the highway astride a John Deere lawnmower - top speed five miles an hour - for what might be the last journey of his life.

Lynch more often than not writes or co-writes his own scripts. This time that credit goes to John Roach and Mary Sweeney. Sweeney began working with Lynch as an assistant editor on Blue Velvet 13 years ago, but now produces and edits all his work, as well as being his "sweetheart" (their son, Riley, is now six). Lynch admits to being surprised by his reaction to the script. "Originally, I said I wasn't going to direct it, but I changed my mind. I don't know that I could have written it. But it doesn't matter where the ideas come from. At some point you make them your own."

Original Lynch ideas are notoriously difficult to finance. Ronnie Rocket, a film "about electricity and a three-foot guy with red hair", Dream of the Bovine, "about three guys who used to be cows" and One Saliva Bubble, "about an electric bubble from a computer that bursts above a town and changes people's personalities" all remain in a state of arrested development.

One experiment we'll probably never see is Mullholland Drive, Lynch's new television series. He made a pilot for ABC and the network not only abandoned the idea of continuing the show but decided they may never even show the first, feature-length episode. "They hated everything about it." Lynch says. "The guy from ABC said he had to watch it standing up to stop himself falling asleep." As ever, Lynch makes this sound funny, but you know he's heartbroken. "As far as I'm concerned it's dead." Cynics will see The Straight Story as Lynch's attempt to regain some commercial ground. Certainly, Sweeney has, for some time, been trawling for more "legible" books, scripts or ideas that might work for Lynch.

So is the new movie his response to the incomprehension that greeted Lost Highway? "Not a bit," he asserts. "It just so happened that this is what I fell in love with next. Maybe there are reasons I don't know about why I fell in love with it, but I don't really care about finding out about those."

It's my guess that, among other things, the painfully slow pace of Alvin's progress appealed very specifically to Lynch's sensibilities. Just think of all those somnambulistic, highly detailed moves made by Jack Nance in Eraserhead. Or the comically slow old folk often glimpsed in the margins of Twin Peaks. "When you slow down, you see things differently," says Lynch, "and The Straight Story is not a sprinter's movie." For someone with a Muybridge-like fascination for the minuti of human locomotion, Alvin the Easy Lawnmower Rider, has aided Lynch in his own quest to arrest not only the often mindless speed of much of contemporary American cinema but also of the world itself.

"When we took the first trip for the recce, we would sometimes go slow by the side of the road. But the car would hardly go that slow. If you took your foot off the accelerator, you'd still be doing 15mph. So you'd have to use the brake. But the speedometer wouldn't even hover at five mph.It doesn't know that area."

Following in Alvin's lawnmower tracks, Lynch has been able - more than ever before - to look at the American landscape in extreme detail. "You have certain things to choose from, and a lot that's given to you. It's not a documentary, but the sun is your only light, this is your landscape, and there's not a lot you can fiddle around with." The Straight Story is all texture, colour, light and dark (Richard Farnsworth's face itself becomes a feature of the landscape - all crags, wattles and liver spots).

Even though Lynch is completely uninterested in genre film-making, this is classic Western imagery, painstakingly captured by our very own maestro, cinematographer, Freddie Francis. "There was something that just felt so right about working with Freddie on this film," Lynch enthuses. "I think it would have been very different if it had been someone younger," Lynch said, alluding to the fact that Francis is 82 years old. "Richard could look behind the camera and see someone older than he is. It was important to the feeling." For his part, an underawed Francis simply states that he was happy to work a 10-hour day, "and not an hour more".

Lynch is all about feeling and mood. That's why music and sound have always been as important to him as the imagery. In The Straight Story, he again uses the landscape as his source. "There's music in the air there. It's really beautiful. If you pull off the road and kill the engine and walk away from the car - because the ticks of the engine just drive you nuts - if you just listen to the wind and the insects, it's like music. It's completely quiet there except for those two things."

It's tempting to see The Straight Story as tapping directly into David Lynch's childhood. The Lynch family lived an itinerate lifestyle, following his father, Donald (a research scientist for the government's department of agriculture) to Montana, Idaho, Washington, Durham, North Carolina, back to Idaho and finally Virginia - by which time Lynch was still only 14 years old. "Sometimes Richard reminds me of my father," Lynch says, "and other times he doesn't. It's not something I even thought about while shooting."

I know this particular Eagle Scout from Missoula Montana and he's never forgotten the motto "Be Prepared" - particularly when it comes to questions about personal stuff. In 1992, Lynch was quoted as saying "I've heard that exiting the body is painful. You've got to pull yourself out of your earthly existence, and it's hard to do that unless you're really old. It's like getting the stone out of a peach. It's hard to do when the peach is ripe. When George Burns dies he'll be such an old peach that stone will just pop right out of there. It'll be such a beautiful thing."

Does growing old like Alvin Straight scare Lynch? "No. Dying scares me because it's a big change," So what is the worse thing about growing old? "I'll tell you when I get there."

`The Straight Story' is released 3 December