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The Boston Phoenix Lawn Ranger

David Lynch has mower meaning

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  Maybe the double meaning ends with the title. David Lynch's latest shocker, the G-rated Disney movie The Straight Story, has elicited more controversy and praise than any of his films since Blue Velvet. As plays on words go, this is a mild one: Lynch seems to tell the story straight, and it's about a real-life character named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, who will be remembered at Oscar time), a 73-year-old Iowa farmer who travels 370 miles to visit his ailing septuagenarian brother Lyle (Henry Dean Stanton, who if they were giving out Oscars for single scenes would get one) on a John Deere lawnmower. Daunted perhaps by the possibility that life could come up with something weirder than even he could imagine, Lynch relates the tale with an awe, innocence, and simplicity that are not usually associated with the creator of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks.

Those qualities, however, are the virtues of a voyeuristic boy scout: they make Lynch's weirdness all the more disturbing and freight even his sunniest moments with darker implications. That The Straight Story works as the most moving and wholesome Hollywood family picture in ages doesn't make it any less powerful as an ambiguous myth about mortality, guilt, and redemption. And vice versa.

From the opening scene it's clear that Story takes place in the David Lynch universe. The image of a starry night sky fades into a crane shot of a lawn, a big woman on a chaise longue, and a window in a weathered bungalow. The loud thud and outcry of a falling person comes from inside. It's a variation on the opening to Blue Velvet, which begins with a cloudless sunny sky fading to the image of a older man watering his suburban lawn and collapsing from a stroke. This time, though, the fall is not followed by Blue Velvet's bizarre zoom shot into the grass and a close-up of battling bugs. Instead, we are shown fields of grain from higher and higher above rippling in the autumn dusk by the roadside, ripe for harvest.

As is Alvin Straight, the unfortunate codger prostrate on the kitchen floor. Dragged by his "slow" daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, in a small gem of a performance) to a clinic, Alvin is diagnosed with a host of maladies including arthritic hips and a bad heart, but he refuses any treatment other than taking on a second cane. Feeling cocky, he jump-starts his old John Deere to mow his lawn. But a thunderstorm (mirrored beautifully in the faces of Alvin and Rose; in this and other scenes Lynch's use of sound is masterful) and a phone call interrupt. Alvin's brother Lyle (Henry Dean Stanton), from whom he's been estranged for years, has fallen too. A stroke has landed him in the hospital.

These details are murmured off screen; what is shown is Alvin's reaction, which mirrors a lifetime of conflict, bad behavior, and worse decisions remembered, and a new direction resolved. His eyes too bad to let him drive a car, his disposition too ornery to let him ride a bus, he slaps together a trailer, hooks it to his mower, and heads off down the breakdown lane for a long overdue reconciliation.

The route is an easy-going Bunyanesque allegory, as Alvin encounters various obstacles -- the first mower breaks down, as does the second -- and folks, almost all nice and helpful, along the way to the Mississippi River and the town of Mt. Zion on the other side. The Freddie Francis cinematography is just this side of Days of Heaven, and the acting is as flat and seemly as the Midwestern accents and vistas. Unlike Blue Velvet, though, where such pleasing surfaces concealed demonic depths, here angelic faces seem to lie beneath the Norman Rockwell masks.

Or do they? Some of those Alvin meets on his pilgrimage have the uneasy aura of long-buried ghosts. Like the pregnant runaway girl whom he comforts with wieners and counsels with his parable about a family being like a bundle of sticks tied together -- stronger bound together than each stick alone (is Alvin or Lynch aware that this is also the emblem of fascism?). Or the old-timer with whom he shares long-repressed memories of World War II, or the twin mechanics (Kevin and John Farley) who take time out from cheating him on a repair bill to squabble with each other.

What Alvin and Lyle squabbled about is never specified, but bit by bit questions about Alvin's past emerge that belie his mien of crotchety wisdom and benignity. When did he quit drinking? What happened to his wife, his other kids? One suspects he was not a model father, husband, or brother. The stuff of another David Lynch movie, perhaps, one beneath the freshly harvested fields seen from the starry skies of The Straight Story.

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