If Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda may serve as icons of sixties filmmaking, then surely David Lynch is cinema's emblem of the Reagan years. Jeering irony, empty mystery, stylishness in the service of style and a very pronounced liking for brutality: Such were the qualities appropriate to an era of conservatives as self-proclaimed rebels. You got the whole package in Blue Velvet in the scene where Laura Dern, as Blond Virgin, was posed against a stained-glass window to the accompaniment of organ music. By making the use of a stereotype seem hip, Lynch got credit for being an innovator--and reasserted the stereotype.
I've often thought Lynch ought to do the honorable thing by tearing up his career and starting over. And that, to some degree, is what he's done in his surprising new film, The Straight Story.
Once again, Lynch proposes that there's a "normal" America--a small-town place, with little houses set behind their yards--where all manner of thrilling "oddity" waits to be discovered. The difference this time is that he found the fusion of "normal" and "odd" in an irreducibly real figure: Alvin Straight. In 1994, when he was in his 70s and in frail health, Straight undertook a journey of several hundred miles to visit his brother Lyle, whom he hadn't seen in ten years. Unable to drive a car because of his poor eyesight and unwilling to be driven on a bus, Straight fitted a trailer to a John Deere lawnmower and puttered his way from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.
Another irreducibly real figure plays the role of Alvin in The Straight Story: longtime stuntman and character actor Richard Farnsworth. Working without his dentures, walking with the aid of a pair of canes he actually seems to need, speaking in a soft, high voice that is nevertheless always firm, Farnsworth breathes an unapologetic simplicity into the character--and Lynch, for once in his career, doesn't interfere, almost. There is one godawful Lynchian scene in The Straight Story, where a motorist bewails her unaccountable bad luck in running into deer. How do they manage to jump onto the highway from the Iowa plain? But once the Deer Lady has been voided from the screen, not a moment too soon, the movie settles again into a study of the Midwestern landscape and Farnsworth's face, proceeding at a pace that's suited to Alvin's lawnmower. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is forced.
I still think Lynch has a lot to answer for. But by the time Alvin got to the Wisconsin border, I felt The Straight Story had rediscovered a sense of wonder that is no less redemptive for risking sentimentality. I saw the lawnmower clatter onto a bridge, and suddenly I could recall the awe I'd felt on car trips as a child when we drove over certain very important bridges. Lynch has made the Mississippi River seem epic again, and he's brought to the screen someone who seems worthy of the crossing. It's a beginning.