Sunday, May 27, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: The Straight Story

The Story: The story of Alvin Straight is true. The real-life Alvin actually did what transpires in the film, and I remember seeing it on the news. But David Lynch turned it into a lyrically strange, G-rated movie for Disney—a reminder that Lynch is a multi-faceted director, not an odd-ball, who can make powerful, moving films of great beauty*—movies that find the miracle in the everyday, in the way sun shines and smoke curls, and how life is strange on its own without having to pour on the gothic melodrama. Lynch is adept at turning over a rock to examine what's underneath, but he's just as fascinated with the rock without embellishment.

So, Lynch made The Straight Story about an elderly farmer who drives a John Deere mower across state to visit his ailing brother. The story transpires, moving slowly, topping out at 5 miles an hour, but there's a lot of country to see, and many stops along the way. One of them occurs while Alvin has some repairs done on his John Deere. During that respite, this scene occurs, though giving no comfort.

I once asked a grandfather-in-law about his participation in the Normandy Invasion. "What was that like?" I asked, naively. There was a pause. "Well," he said, fighting off the dark clouds. "I got through it..."

I guess that was the good part.

My Uncle (Bill) served in Europe, and he and some of his boys took a trip back there to look at some of the places he'd been during the war during the overland campaign with Patton. He showed them a field he and his troop had to sprint across under fire, and he mentioned how long it took them to do so. His kids were all athletes and one of them said "...Doesn't look so far..." to which the father replied, "Well, you're not seeing it with bullets!"

When I was going through my Father's things, I found a lot of interesting things: one was a letter that he got—I presume everyone got one—saying that their tour was over, and that they should go home and put it all behind them. "Just live your lives and forget it."

"Well, you're not seeing it with bullets."

Because we have not fought a war on our soil in 150 years, we've become somewhat inured by the thought of our nation at war and, probably, the idea of war in general. Our image of war is the sanitized, censored version our government (made up mostly of prominent sons who got deferments) lets us see. There is always feigned shock when there's a reported incident of friendly fire when we should be used to it by now, as used to anything that can go down in the chaos of war.

As I was going over this scene, I couldn't proceed without also including the next scene of The Straight Story, where Alvin, still thinking of the war, and as he does many times in the film, looks up at the stars at night, which Lynch subtly, importantly, sets in motion.

This is why Lynch is one of our greatest directors.

It's why this is the scene for the day before Memorial Day.

The Set-Up: Straight (the late, great Richard Farnsworth)** is on a cross-state ride on his customized John Deere mower to see his ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton), maybe for the last time. Among the people he meets on the way is Verlynn Heller (Wiley Harker), who eyes him during one of Straight's mis-adventures, and one day turns up at his temporary quarters to see if he'll have a beer. Straight is wary (after all, it is a David Lynch movie), but once bellied-up to the bar, it's time for old war-stories and some Straight talk.


Alvin Straight: I picked up a mournful taste for liquor in France. When I came back I couldn't drink enough of it. I wasn't worth a stick of stove-wood.
Straight: I was mean.
Straight: A preacher helped me put some distance between me and the bottle. And he helped me see'd the reason I was drinkin' I was seein' all them things here that I'd seen over there.
Heller takes a swig.
Verlynn Heller: Lotsa men came back drinkin' hard.
Straight: Oh. Everyone tryin' ta forget. I can see it in a man right away.
Heller looks at him.
Heller: Yep.
He takes another pull.
Heller: There was one time....
Straight knows what's coming, and steels himself.
Heller:...when we just...
Heller:...were waiting for that first warm meal in ten days. (chuckles) We'd thought we'd seen the worst. We hadn't had much trouble from the air.
Heller: I was on the rise.
Heller: There was a quartermaster workin' on some more coffee for me and my buddies. A stray Fokke-Wolff came over the tree-tops and dropped an incendiary on the mess-tent...
Heller: All my buddies.
Heller (struggling now): The kraut then banked right in front of me on that hill,...and...
Straight nods.
Heller: ...and I can see the swastika. (Heller is shaking, trying to maintain control).
Straight: That is one thing I can't shake loose. All my buddies' faces are still young.
Straight: And the thing is, the more years I have, the more they've lost.
Heller's barely holding on.

Straight: And it's not always...
Straight: ...buddies' faces that I see. Sometimes, they're German faces. Near the end we were shootin' moon-faced boys.
Heller looks at him.
Straight: I was a sniper. Where I grew up, you learned how to shoot to hunt food.
Straight: They'd post me up front, darn...
Straight: ...near ahead of the lines. And I'd sit...forever.
Straight: It's an amazing thing what you can see while you're sittin'.
Heller smiles.

Straight: I'd look for the officers, their radio-guys, or artillery spotter.
Straight: Sometime, I'd spot a gun-nest by the smoke. An' I'd fire into it. Sometime, it was just a movement in the woods.
Straight takes a ragged breath. Heller glances at him.
Straight: We had a scout. A little o' Kotz. He was a Polish boy from Milwaukee. He'd always take recon and he was darn good at it. We went by his word, and he saved our skin many a time. He was a little fella. We'd broken outta the hedgerows. We were makin' a run across the open. And we come upon the woods. We started drawin' fire. I took my usual position. And I saw somethin' movin'...real slow-like. I waited ten minutes. It moved again...and I shot. The movement stopped. The next day we found Kotz...head shot. He'd been workin' his way back toward our lines. Everyone in the unit thought a German sniper had taken him.
Straight: (takes a breath) Everyone all these years. (takes a breath)
Straight: Everyone but me.
The two old men sit at the bar, shaken.

The Straight Story

Words by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

Pictures by Freddie Francis and David Lynch

The Straight Story is available on DVD from Walt Disney Home Video.

* And let's drop the sophistication long enough to acknowledge that...sometimes...Disney can drop the princesses and the "Mickey Mouse" attitude and take a truly creative chance on a project that might be worthwhile (although, don't think that if the movie had made money there would be an "Alvin Straight" tractor ride in Disneyland-Florida.

** Farnsworth was dying of cancer when he was making this movie. He'd started an acting career late in life, starting out as a wrangler, stunt man and extra. You can see him in odd little roles throughout the 60's and 70's, and if you're from the Pacific Northwest, you might remember him as the Olympia Beer groundskeeper who saw "Artesians." His first major role was in Alan J. Pakula's Comes a Horseman, for which he was nominated for an Oscar (as he was for The Straight Story) When he finished the film, he did the press junkets, the Awards circuit, he participated in the selling of the movie. He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. Then, he went home and finished his battle, which ended when he took his own life on October 6, 2000. I met him once when he was doing publicity for The Grey Fox, and he was as gentlemanly and cordial he was on-screen.

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