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NewCityNet Lynch's Road Less Traveled

David Lynch's highway regained

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Our stories die when we die.

Our stories fall away when there's no longer anyone to tell them to. Once the children and the grandchildren have heard them, once the wife or husband is gone, there is the silence before death.

David Lynch knows this -- and shows this -- in "The Straight Story," his marvelous, meditative new comedy about the unlikely five-week journey by a 73-year-old Alvin Straight, who, in 1996 took a 1966 John Deere riding lawnmower across Iowa and Wisconsin for a reunion with his brother.

The last words my grandmother's second husband said to me were, "Remember me, honey." I still know only a few dozen stories that lay behind his eyes. Lynch's portrait of Alvin (embodied by the affable, timelessly craggy, 82-year-old Richard Farnsworth) doesn't try to explain Alvin or dig under his skin for story. And instead of taking the "Lost Highway" route and showing us the boil and tumult of Fred Madison's mind, Lynch shows us the taciturn visage of a man who has slowly receded to silence, lost his wife fifteen years earlier, seen his children go away as they grow older, no one left to tell the old stories to.

The film is filled with swooping shots of cornfields, harvesting, sunsets, sunrises. Farnsworth's face is shown the same way: this man at the end of his life is as much a force of nature, of the cycle of life, death and rebirth as any of the other, seemingly more majestic bits of scenery. Richard Farnsworth's eyes are the hidden secret in "The Straight Story." The script by Mary Sweeney and John Roach is smart enough to know that. "The Straight Story" may not be the best picture of the year, but it could easily win Best Picture of the year. (Lynch's more "wholesome" contemplations have been embraced by the Academy before.)

Laurens, Iowa is near silence. Folks are getting old. Lynch, acting as his own sound designer, seeks digital hush throughout. He stops to listen: the breeze in trees, crickets, a gentle Angelo Badalamenti score. There is an effortless small town pictorialism in the manner of Terrence Malick's "Badlands," lacking the cruelty that distorts "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks." (A pack of town dogs are the last free spirits in a near-deserted main street. )

For my tastes, his last, "Lost Highway," is some kind of malefic masterpiece, an unsettling, beautiful, inscrutable piece of work. This movie is recognizably Lynch's, but shows him in a less unsettling mood, observant and uncommonly generous. The autumnal quietude is filled with details as small and right as bananas in a bunch, spotting in an old man's cluttered, common kitchen. There is a night when Alvin sits with his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek) watching rain fall outside his modest home. When he says, "I love a lightning storm," is that a bromide or an indication of an enduring truth? Lynch and Alvin share the moment, as the shadow on rain on window pane melts over his beaming face. A phone call comes. He hears his brother has had a stroke -- and at that fateful word, there is a blanching sheet of white -- lightning as empathetic aneurysm coursing over his face. Lynch has always embraced mortality and emotion, but never so directly.

It would be facile to say we learn nothing about Alvin Straight. He speaks mostly in hard-won gut-nuggets like "The worst part about being old is remembering when you were young." Lynch does not mean to explain a life, a stubborn man's motives. He presents him as a fact, like hill and harvest, like field and Farnsworth's face. It is as important to watch the sky as his feature: The onset of night is indicated by the undulation of falling light over a dip in a deserted state highway. Lynch's themes rise out of images. Folks don't want to realize that images hold inchoate meanings and mystery, not defined ideas. Eighty-two-year-old cinematographer Freddie Francis' are more studious than lush. You can all but smell Iowa. You'll seldom see cold rain shot with this kind of glassy green and blue.

Early on, Alvin must hitch a ride on a tour bus filled with older women. They are happy to see him. He's a spectacle, but one they can understand. One woman says a line of the most adept truth, indicating several lifetimes lived, suffered, remembered, cross-referenced, held dear: "My Edward loved his riding mower." There's no special emphasis on any of the words, only all of them.

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