FILM: Where the grass is always greener

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The Independent Culture
There's a perplexing paradox at the heart of The Straight Story. It's already been widely acclaimed by its many admirers as not just a new departure for David Lynch but - in its warmth and humanism, its readiness to embrace emotion and even sentimentality, its rejection, above all, of the director's trademark looniness - as a total volte face. Yet, when you think of it, what could be weirder than a David Lynch movie that isn't weird?

Is it, anyway, all that conventional? Consider its plot (based, amazingly, on a true incident). The Straight Story is a record of the odyssey (or oddyssey) of Alvin Straight, an ageing, ailing, Iowan widower who, when his estranged brother suffers a life-threatening stroke, decides to make the several-hundred-mile trip to Wisconsin by the sole means of transport permitted to him: a motorised lawnmower. Now, if someone asked you to guess which contemporary American director could have conceived of such a bizarrerie, David Lynch's might not be the first name you'd come up with, but it wouldn't be the last either. He himself has described The Straight Story as his most "experimental" work, which is less of a provocation than it sounds.

If nothing else, then, it's an extremely curious cinematic object, of initial interest, like Dr Johnson's performing dog, because of its very existence. But its curiosity value does not end there. With an endearing faux-naif aplomb, it addresses and explores those areas of human experience to which current Hollywood cinema, as well as its distorted (albeit only slightly distorted) mirror image, the independent sector, is no longer willing to give the time of day.

It is, for example, about - and also for - mostly the old and middle- aged, not the young. Alvin, played by the veteran Richard Farnsworth, who once acted for Ford, Hawks and Mann, and apparently even turned up uncredited in Gone With the Wind, is 73, and practically all his encounters en route are with individuals closer to him in age, mentality and manners than to the fast-forward generation of pubescent kids at whom most movies now are targeted.

It's also about the country, not the city. In this movie, be warned, there are no arching, glinting glass-and-steel skyscrapers, no automobiles rocketing through crowded urban thoroughfares like metal balls buffeted down the slope of a pinball machine, no "...and it looks to be another hot one today in downtown Dallas..." on someone's car radio. A long time ago, the American cinema lost what you might call its green belt and became an oppressively built-up area. The Straight Story does its modest bit to reverse the process.

Finally, it's about slowness, not speed. In fact, it's the opposite of Speed, the 1994 Jan de Bont hit. It's almost as though Lynch decided to make a movie that was everything Speed was not, a movie about an old man, not a young woman, driving a lawnmower, not a bus, primed to explode if its speed exceeds, not drops below, 50 miles an hour. There's even a witty in-joke that makes retrospective fun of the director's own Lost Highway - a forward tracking shot along the freeway which advances, not at the earlier movie's dizzy-making velocity, but at Alvin's own serene slowpoke pace.

So if ever a Hollywood production was designed to appeal to a fogey like me, The Straight Story is it. And yet, and yet. It may appear churlish to criticise a film-maker who has pulled off a seldom-achieved ideal - making a movie that contrives to be both completely personal and completely different from any other in his filmography. But as Alvin chugged ever onward on his lawnmower, scattering homilies to left and right of him like rose petals - there's a faintly nauseating scene with a young pregnant runaway - a word insidiously floated to the surface of my mind, one I realised I'd been trying to stifle from the start. The word was "crackerbarrel".

Part of the problem, as far as I'm concerned, is the twinkly-eyed Farnsworth himself who, it must be said, doesn't wear his advanced years lightly. He seems almost smugly elderly, as though old age weren't something that happens to all of us sooner or later (if we're lucky) but were an earned and enviable condition, like having pots of money or being lusted after by a dishy 20-year-old. As played by Farnsworth, Alvin isn't merely a character, he's a "character", an adorably cussed eccentric, an uncontradictable repository of truth and wisdom. No wonder his daughter (a superb study in apathetic melancholia from Sissy Spacek) is psychologically damaged.

And Lynch makes a disastrous misjudgment at the very end, when Alvin and his brother are at last reunited. Instead of wondering what they were about to say to one another, I found myself thinking, "Why, it's ... it's ... Oh God, whatsisname? Harry something ... Harry Dean Stanton!" In a movie with relatively few familiar faces, any minor jobbing actor could, and should, have been cast in the role.

The Straight Story has much to take pleasure in. Its opening half-hour in particular, before Alvin hits the road, offers an enchanted evocation, a la Blue Velvet, of the American hinterland's surreal ordinariness. But if, to be honest, it's mostly downhill after that, it is for the basic reason that, though sentimentality by David Lynch will always make for a more beguilingly paradoxical spectacle than sentimentality by, say, Garry Marshall, it's sentimentality nevertheless. As such, I'm afraid, it sticks just as unbudgeably in the craw.