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[whitespace] Richard Farnsworth
Lawnmower Man: Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) cuts a straight swath across middle America in 'The Straight Story.'

Like an Arrow

David Lynch plays it straight

By Richard von Busack

ON THE SURFACE, it seems as if The Straight Story is the most ironic film of David Lynch's career. Lynch is still best known for his 1986 film, Blue Velvet, which shows up American Beauty as the cautious, overpraised film that it is. In Blue Velvet, a film about the seen and the unseen, there is no refuge for the sexually aware adolescent played by Kyle MacLachlan. Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks and his films Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway, although ostensibly murder mysteries, were more like horror films. The devils in these stories, like the demon "Bob," could be explained as delusions of the possessed, but they could have been actual demons. However, Lynch's films also suggested that there were places where these devils could not trespass. So his work has always been full of a Thoreau-like passion for the quietness of woods and water.

His newest film, The Straight Story, is all about peace and quiet. Yet it is one of the most moving films of the year. The tale of Alvin Straight is a true story, one of those items that used to make up a couple of paragraphs on the back page of the newspaper. An ancient Iowa man named Straight (Richard Farnsworth) has a bad fall in his house. Feeling that death isn't far away, he decides to outfit a John Deere rider mower and drive all the way to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. John Roach's and Mary Sweeney's script makes this inexplicable trip plausible: the old man had cataracts and couldn't drive, and he hated buses.

Angelo Badalamenti provides the traveling music: sweet but disturbing, with the throb of grain silos as an undertone. The big skies and cornfields of Iowa are the backdrop. The fall colors, photographed by Freddie Francis, make the quirky trip look like something natural and unspoken, like a migration. Alvin--God's own laconic man--reveals himself bit by bit to passersby. We learn of his own regrets and tragedies, such as his experiences in World War II, which he'd never gotten over.

For those sickened by Lynch's frequent use of violence and shock, The Straight Story is a chance to see his other superior qualities as a director. His sick sense of humor has often looked like cynicism, but there's always been a plainness to him, an inner Iowa. In The Straight Story, we can see Lynch's fascination with solitude and vast landscapes, with empty roads and small towns one step away from being haunted ruins. Here is his love of the half-joking, half-understood, pregnant sentence. Also striking is Lynch's intoxication with unusual personalities: for example Alvin's daughter (Sissy Spacek), who has her own dialect, a gasp of aspirated words. The Straight Story will be too long and quiet for some viewers--it should drive teenagers screaming from the theater, actually. Still, Lynch's peerless moods and unexpected comedy, and the near-indescribable integrity of Farnsworth, make The Straight Story one grand, heroic film.


The Straight Story (G; 111 min.), directed by David Lynch, written by Mary Sweeney and John Roach, photographed by Freddie Francis and starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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