' Cinema Romantico: Friday's {New} Old Fashioned: The Straight Story (1999)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday's {New} Old Fashioned: The Straight Story (1999)

A little over ten years ago I got a call from my best friend in Brooklyn. I was living in Des Moines, Iowa at the time, and my best friend had a friend driving cross-country with two others to attend the fabled Burning Man Festival in California. These three needed a place to crash for the night so my best friend asked if I might provide shelter and without a moment’s hesitation I said sure. I told friends about this after the fact, how I let three people I’d never met and would never see again (and only one of whom my best friend could officially vouch for) into my home to have the run of my living room for an entire evening, and my friends often seemed weirded out and confused. I was confused by their confusion. Why wouldn’t I give these people a place to stay for the night? Am I not an Iowan? (Spoiler Alert: the bunkers were very nice and very gracious, and even folded up the blankets that I’d provided the next morning.)


“The Straight Story” (or: David Lynch’s G-rated Film) is a film from 1999 about a legally blind farmer from Laurens, Iowa who hops aboard a John Deere tractor and motors it all the way to Wisconsin to visit his ill brother (Harry Dean Stanton). It would seem a fable if it wasn’t true, and it is. The farmer, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), concocts a rudimentary bunk that he hitches up to the tractor and off he goes, off into the green loping hills and past the amber waves of grain that decorate the back country of my home state. There are setbacks, sure, and semi trucks laying on the horn and blowing up dust as they roar by, but the majority of hardships that Alvin encounters merely work to illuminate the kindness of strangers. And to eventually unearth Alvin’s own story at a pace akin to his journey.

You may recall that Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar, and it is truly a marvelous performance, so perfectly effortless. You may also recall that it emerged post-picture that Farnsworth was in great pain for the duration of the shoot, suffering from bone cancer that would cause him to take his own life. Apparently, however, he kept this to himself on set. He didn’t want to trouble anyone and didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. It’s so true to his character, and so true to an undemonstrative spirit prevalent in the Midwest. Which is why his character’s gregarious reluctance to assistance on the open road, until he has no choice but to accept it, come across wholly authentic. That reminded me of the Grandfather on my Dad’s side – a Minnesotan, not an Iowan, but still a Midwesterner, and a man of immense individual resource who I often remember sticking to his stoic guns of self-reliance.

No matter how much toll the journey and his health and his emotional well-being may take, Farnsworth’s weathered face appears content. Oh, but that contentment masks a sadness, what with the mentally ill daughter he cares for back at home, his simmering memories of days in the trenches during WWII and, of course, the estranged relationship with his brother he is striking off to see. He reveals, bit by bit, the totality of his story to the various strangers he encounters, a wonderfully natural – the way that getting a clammed up Iowan to spill the beans of the past is like, as they say, pulling teeth, except that once the teeth have been pulled then we are more than willing to talk to whomever is willing to listen. But listen to the way he talks. It is simple recitation of facts, a person who mentally has already made peace with his lot in life. The script by John Roach and Mary Sweeney is not so numb-skulled as to have him say "Every day is a blessing", but this is the sentiment sublty conveyed by Farnsworth throughout.

This is why the final sequence and the inevitable confrontation with his brother, which turns out not to be a confrontation at all, astonishes in its genuine simplicity. These people and this place is not where you come for dramatic confrontations. Midwesterners are not about Big Scenes and Teary Monologues. That stays inside. Mere acknowledgment is all the moment requires, and a chance to sit together once more in silence and look at the stars.

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