The transcendental Midwestern journey of “The Straight Story”

Co-writer and producer Mary Sweeney will introduce David Lynch’s idiosyncratic 1999 biographical road movie at UW Cinematheque on July 15.
Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight wearing blue jeans, a cowboy hat, and a plaid shirt, with a package of Swisher Sweets cigars in his pocket. He proudly sits on his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower against amber fields of grain somewhere in the rural Midwest.
Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight wears blue jeans, a cowboy hat, and a plaid shirt, with a package of Swisher Sweets cigars in his pocket. He proudly sits on his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower against amber fields of grain somewhere in the rural Midwest.

Co-writer and producer Mary Sweeney will introduce David Lynch’s idiosyncratic 1999 biographical road movie at UW Cinematheque on July 15.

“Fantasy and reality often overlap.” —Walt Disney

The only film directed by David Lynch to be released by Walt Disney Pictures with a “G” rating from the Motion Picture Association Of America, The Straight Story (1999) certainly seems like an anomaly in the oeuvre of an avant-garde artist known for his fractured, elliptical narratives, disturbingly bizarre imagery, and investigations of the dark, seamy, hidden side of American life.

Indeed, on its surface, Lynch’s eighth feature might appear to be the work of an entirely different filmmaker. In Chris Rodley’s interview book Lynch On Lynch, the director tells an anecdote about someone standing in line for a preview screening of the film who overheard a woman say, “Isn’t it odd that there are two directors named David Lynch?” Prior to The Straight Story, the one and only Lynch made the surrealist neo-noir thriller Lost Highway (1997) and the lurid, hallucinatory romantic road movie Wild At Heart (1990).

A road movie of a different sort, The Straight Story screens on 35mm at the UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on Friday, July 15 at 7 p.m. The film was inspired by the epic real-life journey of Alvin Straight, an eccentric, strong-minded 73-year-old World War II veteran who drove a riding lawn mower 240 miles from Iowa to visit his ailing, estranged brother in Wisconsin. With its surprisingly simple narrative structure, naturalistic depiction of the rural Midwest, minimalist style, and lack of sex and violence, The Straight Story remains Lynch’s most unusual picture.  

In fact, the director has called The Straight Story his “most experimental film.” Lynch became acquainted with the project through his longtime romantic partner and creative collaborator Mary Sweeney, who co-wrote the screenplay, in addition to producing and editing the film. She was touched by Alvin Straight’s story when he was actually making his journey (and headlines) in the summer of 1994. Following this particular screening on July 15, UW Cinematheque will also welcome Sweeney for an in-person discussion. Herself a Wisconsin native and UW-Madison alum who once shared a vacation home on Lake Mendota with Lynch and their son Riley, Sweeney felt a strong personal connection to Straight’s journey. When she looked into obtaining the rights to film his tale, she discovered that producer Ray Stark had beaten her to it, acquiring the property as a vehicle for Paul Newman. However, Stark let the rights lapse after Straight died in 1996, whereupon the rights reverted to his heirs.

Sweeney visited them in Des Moines, secured the rights, and started working on a script with a childhood friend from Wisconsin named John Roach in April of 1998. They decided to retrace Straight’s course from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. Along the way, they talked to six of Straight’s seven children and listened to stories shared by people who had encountered him as he traveled. Their respect for the widowed former farmer and his determination deepened while they collected details to develop Straight’s character in their screenplay. “At first, it seemed like just a funny thing, that a man would travel this route on his lawn mower,” Roach recalled in a press kit for the film. “But we discovered as we went that it was not always safe; it was very challenging at times; and, if you take into consideration Alvin’s age and physical condition, it was an adventure.”

Although Lynch was supportive of Sweeney’s foray into screenwriting, he had zero interest in directing the film. When she asked him to read the completed script, he “fell in love with it” and changed his mind.

Atypically for the director, Lynch shot Straight’s unhurried six-week odyssey across America’s heartland in chronological order and along his actual route, thus capturing the same gradual change of seasons that Straight experienced on his adventure. The late Richard Farnsworth was cast as the titular hero of the story. A veteran Hollywood stuntman and character actor who retired in 1997 and had never heard of Lynch, Farnsworth was 78 years old and terminally ill with cancer when The Straight Story was filmed. Lynch felt he “was born to play Alvin Straight,” as the filmmaker recalls in his book Room To Dream (2018), co-written with Kristine McKenna.

The Straight Story opens with a shot of a starry sky that dissolves into amber fields of grain and then a montage of idyllic small-town life that instantly recalls Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991). With those earlier works, Lynch establishes the serene, immaculate façade of a fictional all-American town before suddenly exposing the chaotic, nightmarish underworld beneath the surface. The first episode of Twin Peaks begins with the discovery of Laura Palmer’s dead body. In Blue Velvet, Mr. Beaumont suffers a seizure and collapses on his manicured suburban lawn. Lynch’s camera penetrates below the lush blades of vivid green grass to reveal a grotesque subterranean realm teeming with ravenous, glossy black beetles buzzing and hissing. 

Likewise, in The Straight Story, a middle-aged woman languidly sun-tanning on the lawn gets up to replenish her snacks when a dull heavy sound comes from within the house next door. Poor Straight has fallen on the kitchen floor on account of his worn-out hips. Throughout the movie, Lynch hints at themes of death, decay, and the fragility of human existence. The Straight Story eschews the explicit horrors of his previous efforts, instead opting for a more discreet approach. But make no mistake—we are definitely watching a Lynch film. Time and time again the director demonstrates that everyday reality can distort and conceal the deeper truth beneath its surface.

While Wild At Heart takes viewers on a garish, violent, frenzied fairy-tale joyride into America’s heart of darkness, The Straight Story quietly reflects the contemplative rhythms of Straight’s trip through the pastoral Midwestern landscape. As he diligently plods along at a maximum speed of five miles per hour on his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower, Lynch’s film unfolds in a series of elegant, sweeping, painterly compositions that often evoke the stark realism of Edward Hopper. Like Sailor Ripley’s treasured snakeskin jacket in Wild At Heart, Straight’s unorthodox mode of transportation represents a potent symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom.

During the course of his colorful journey, Straight encounters a wide range of characters, including a pregnant teenage runaway, a fellow veteran haunted by his wartime memories, twin mechanics, a team of young cyclists on a long-distance ride, a thoughtful Catholic priest, and a beneficent retired John Deere employee. By sharing the accumulated wisdom of his years on earth with simple anecdotes, Straight makes a powerful impression on every person he meets.  All of these episodes are genuinely compelling, without feeling contrived or overly sentimental.

At one point, Straight comes upon a distraught commuter and the oddly bloodless corpse of an eight-point deer that she has just struck with her car. Despite the fact that she loves deer and has tried everything—including rolling the window down, banging on the side of the door, and playing Public Enemy real loud—the woman crashes into at least one deer every week on the same road. After she speeds away, Straight cooks and eats the deer’s flesh, while sheepishly glancing over his shoulder at a bunch of life-sized deer statues behind him. (Lynch cites these concrete figures as an example of “the strange places” one encounters in the rural Midwest.)

While The Straight Story marks a departure for Lynch in terms of tone, style, and subject matter, it nevertheless retains much of his inimitable cinematic language. Lynch frequently stretches the boundaries of narrative time in his films, and The Straight Story feels like a natural outlet for such tendencies. For instance, in “Part 7” of the third season of Twin Peaks (2017), a janitor sweeps the floor of the Roadhouse for several minutes to the sound of Booker T. & The M.G.’s “Green Onions.” The director also incorporates several furtive Lynchian touches into The Straight Story, for it abounds with his everyday surrealism, quirky small-town humor, and sequences of pure visual poetry layered with meaning. Early on, a brief shot of a towering, vaguely ominous grain elevator abruptly appears to the sound of rumbling industrial noise. During a charged moment between Alvin and his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), the two sit side-by-side near a window watching a ferocious lightning storm at night as shadows of streaks of rain play on their faces.

As Lynch follows Straight on his spiritual odyssey and the film gradually reveals details about his life and experiences, perceptions of him subtly change like the transformation of autumn leaves. At once a heartwarming, gently absurdist portrait of rural American life; a radical experiment in accessible mainstream filmmaking; a beautiful tribute to its subject; and a profound meditation on family, forgiveness, and the human condition, The Straight Story finds Lynch in his element, while revealing a hidden side of the artist. Despite working within the limitations of conventional entertainment, Lynch successfully transports the viewer to a place both wonderful and strange.

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