Abstract Tenderness

The Straight Story (1999)

The Straight Story | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Despite the past year having been defined by the term “stay at home orders,” I seem to have spent a lot of time on the road. Just as we’ve discovered how much work can be accomplished from home, we’ve discovered how many errands can be accomplished without leaving the driver’s seat—the restaurant will bring my food to the curb; the store will put my items in the trunk. I take a seat in my driveway and accumulate so much without standing up again until I return with the bounty, a Thank you shouted through a cracked window serving as the only evidence that I was anywhere at all. Daily life can so easily feel like it’s been broken down into abstraction these days, human connection reduced to its thinnest form.

I bring my kids along on errands as often as they’ll agree to it, all for the illusory good of getting them out of the house, as though watching the world pass by from inside the car is that much better than watching it pass by from the couch. At least we can listen to music, and we can listen to audiobooks. And lately, my daughter has found a new button she can press for diversion: “Daddy, can you tell me about a movie?”

So I rack my brain for the most recent viewing that’s stuck with me enough to be recounted with some level of detail and engagement. And though a David Lynch feature might sound like the wrong choice to spin out for a 4-year-old, The Straight Story—his Walt Disney Picture, his G-rated movie—strikes me one day as a safe bet to happily pass a few minutes on the road. I tell her about septuagenarian Iowan Alvin Straight, and the interstate odyssey he undertook atop his riding lawnmower to visit his ailing brother in Wisconsin. I tell her about his six weeks on the road, how he roasted hot dogs on a campfire before sleeping under the stars. I slow the car to 5 miles per hour to show her what the top-speed of his lawnmower felt like—“Still too fast,” I tell her as our Subaru drifts towards standstill. “Not quite slow enough,” I say as the trees go from speeding to strolling by. I tell her about the people he encountered on his trek, the lives he intersected with briefly before passing on his way with only a few kind words left in his wake.

And then I describe the final scene: two fragile old men, one having just survived a fall and the other a stroke, facing each other down for the first time in a decade. Two brothers who were once each other’s sole support system, their connection now severed by resentment. Two faces coiled with mistrust but two pairs of eyes connecting in anxious hope. And as I describe that moment of stillness, I experience the same thing that’s happened each time I’ve revisited it over the past year: my throat grows tight and tears flood my eyes. Trying to keep my breath from hitching, I force out the film’s final two lines: 

“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?” 

“I did, Lyle.”

In the four years she’s spent observing her parents, my daughter has become accustomed to our unruly emotions with a speed and acuity that sometimes shocks me. But still I feel the need to account for myself as we pull into the driveway, and so after sitting for another moment to compose myself, I look in the rear view mirror. 

“Did you know,” I ask her, “that my grandfather had a brother?”

It’s never entirely clear what caused Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) and Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) to stop speaking; Alvin tends to skim past that part when describing the reason for his trip. The story of their falling out, he tells the minister who finds him sleeping in one of the midwest’s oldest cemeteries, is “as old as the Bible…Anger. Vanity. Mix that together with liquor.” Rather than the decade of resentment in between, he prefers to focus on what came before—“He and I used to sleep out in the yard every summer night…We’d talk about the stars…and it made our trials seem smaller”—and what he hopes might come after—“I want to make peace. I want to sit with him and look up at the stars like we used to do so long ago.”

Alvin decides to go to Wisconsin after the dual blows of his own dire physical (“If you don’t make some changes quickly,” his doctor warns, “there will be some serious consequences”) and the phone call alerting him to Lyle’s stroke. If he means to make the trip himself, the lawnmower is his only recourse—legally blind, he lost his driver’s license prior to this story’s events—and doing it himself is an essential component of the journey. Along the way he refuses several offers of escort; as we’re reminded by these incredulous good samaritans, the entire trip would only take a few hours by car. There’s no good reason, they think, that this journey should be so long, and so lonely. But Alvin can fathom no other option—after a first attempt aboard his trusty old mower is thwarted by a busted engine, he turns back and buys another one. 

That sort of narrative cul-de-sac should be anathema to good drama. But, as Lynch and screenwriters Mary Sweeney and John Roach know, it’s essential that we understand Alvin intends for this to be an odyssey. The trip isn’t just a long-overdue visit; it’s a penance. If it were easy, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much. As we see in those final two lines, these aren’t men who’ll be able to say what they mean outright, express their regret and their love directly. It’s the lawnmower sitting in his driveway that causes Lyle’s eyes to well up. It’s not the fact that Alvin came to see him, it’s the fact that he rode that thing all the way.

For as little as I know about what happened between Alvin and Lyle, I may know even less about what happened between my grandfather and his brother. In that graveyard discussion with the minister, Alvin admits that neither he nor Lyle has really had a brother for the past decade, and you could have said the same about my grandfather since before I was born. His brother was a shadowy figure in my mind, more valuable as a manifestation of spite than a human being. From what little I do know, it would seem that both my grandfather and his brother were at fault for their estrangement, which may be another way of saying that neither one of them entirely was. 

“No one knows your life better than a brother,” Alvin tells the pair of squabbling twin mechanics he meets after pushing his mower to the brink of its capabilities. “He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth.” The admonishment seems stranded somewhere between a reminder of something valuable and a warning of something ominous. In 2013, Tim Kreider coined the term “the mortifying ordeal of being known,” and its eventual memetic ubiquity testifies to its painful relatability. But David Lynch was ahead of the curve; describing the horrific power of Frank Booth, one of the greatest embodiments of Lynchian evil, he’s argued that “what’s scary is when someone gets your number and they seem to know you.”

If The Straight Story is a film notoriously devoid of Lynchian horror, this is the agony lying just beneath the surface: the awareness that all the places you feel most broken have been recognized by someone who’s known you as long as you’ve been knowable, and the urge to run from that benign observation—“embarrassed and angry,” as Kreider wrote, “[damning] our betrayers as vicious two-faced hypocrites.”

This much I do know: when his brother died, decades of animosity melted away and my grandfather found himself consumed by grief. For the first time, he realized the unconscious hope he’d harbored for an eventual reconciliation. Isn’t it amazing, I think now, how we can always tell ourselves there’s more time, even when all available evidence tells us it’s eternally running out.

The Straight Story, as anyone with a passing awareness of his work will recognize, is an outlier in David Lynch’s filmography. Much of that factor might be chalked up to the fact that it’s the only film he’s directed without having a hand in scripting; co-writer Mary Sweeney is his longtime editor and one-time romantic partner, but he had little interest in her project until she shared a draft, at which point he became captivated by the story’s simplicity. “I saw that there were fewer elements running together” than in a typical film, he says in Lynch on Lynch. “But because there were so few elements going on…those elements became BIG.” 

As a function of this independent development, The Straight Story is the only Lynch film to feature predominantly naturalistic acting rather than performances so stylized they approach expressionism. It also comes to an unusually satisfying sense of narrative completion, the two brothers reconciled as Alvin achieves his dream of gazing heavenward together once more. This level of catharsis is typically anathema to Lynch, who prefers to end his stories on some unsettling abstraction. Yet even with that catharsis, there’s a lingering quality to the unspoken apology and forgiveness Lyle and Alvin simultaneously offer and accept, an ineffable power hidden within just a few succinct syllables. “Tenderness can be just as abstract as insanity,” Lynch has said in describing his approach to The Straight Story, and there could be no more powerful demonstration of that fact than this near-wordless burying of the hatchet in a quiet pocket of rural Wisconsin.

The film’s outlier status has posed a conundrum since its premiere at the 1999 Cannes film festival: is this Lynch movie Lynchian? That term, so famously indefinable, carries such clear associations that critics felt compelled to call out the lack thereof—“No pustules, no raging cretins are to be found,” Peter Rainer wrote in New York magazine. Gone are the “apocalyptic conflagrations, Grand Guignol bloodbaths and lurid, lewd, erotic freak shows,” wrote Wesley Morris for The San Francisco Examiner. Though the film received virtually unanimous praise, “we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” wrote Roger Ebert, “for Alvin’s odyssey to intersect with The Twilight Zone.” 

Yet despite this absence of hallmark horrors, The Straight Story is rich with Lynchian resonance. Breathing life into Sweeney and Roach’s conception of Alvin’s community, he infuses normal scenes—the debate over how to deal with a prone Alvin in the opening scene; a hardware store negotiation as he prepares for his journey—with all the eerie pauses and robotic miscommunications that so often convey Lynchian uncanny dread, letting them come across here as absurdist comedy of manners. Present, too, is a characteristic dual focus on the inhuman hum of machinery and the unknowable power of the elements. “In that part of the country, nature’s a force that people have to pay attention to,” Lynch told a reporter for Positif in 1999, and the struggle to reconcile human existence with the universe’s implacable forces has long been a source of Lynchian fascination. The ominous Washingtonian woods seem perpetually on the verge of swallowing Twin Peaks whole; the arid plains of Dune force survivalists to wear suits recycling their own waste water; and any number of Lynch’s paintings depict lone figures against barren landscapes, lugubrious black forms gathering all around.

In one of the most elaborate efforts yet to offer “an academic definition of Lynchian,” David Foster Wallace described the term as signifying “the very macabre and the very mundane [combined] in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” The Straight Story is a Lynchian landscape in which the macabre has been muted, leaving the mundane all the more vibrant. Lynch’s fascination with the American quotidian, all of the nation’s rarely photographed faces and places, has never been a sneering one; his empathy is too finely-tuned for that. The montage that opens The Straight Story, all sweeping pastoral fragments (including the first of many looks at a motorized harvester, a literal reaping of what’s been sowed) and swooning Angelo Badalamenti theme, is a close cousin to the opening credits of Twin Peaks, while the Lynchian view of Laurens, Iowa isn’t too far from that of Deer Meadow, Washington as visited in the unnerving opening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or Big Tuna, Texas as glimpsed in the brutal last act of Wild at Heart. All that’s changed is the crucial lifting of the bleak lens that amplifies inhuman anguish.

His wholesome demeanor has long been a source of bemused press coverage given the gruesome content he favors, but Lynch has always been quick to centralize classical American values within the sphere of the Lynchian. In David Lynch: The Man From Another Place, Dennis Lim focuses on the resonance Lynch found in a series of Truman-era early-reader books titled Good Times on Our Street, which depict the wholesome exploits of apple-cheeked youngsters navigating all the wonders of their suburban neighborhood. Lynch was so “enchanted” by these books, according to Lim, that they became synonymous with his own memory; describing his childhood in 1982, he said, “it was good times on our street—that’s my life.”

Many of Lynch’s protagonists are in the process of moving beyond the good times on our street phase of their own development. Lynch often describes his characters as “lost in darkness and confusion,” from Eraserhead’s Henry navigating a nightmare version of young fatherhood to Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey discovering the violence lurking beneath the good times on his own street; from Mulholland Drive’s Betty and Rita (or are they Diane and Camilla?) unraveling the mystery of the latter’s identity to Inland Empire’s Nikki Grace stumbling through a reality that seems to be fractalizing. 

While Alvin might seem in a different class of protagonist, Lynch hastens to clarify his alignment: “Alvin had been lost in darkness and confusion,” he says in Lynch on Lynch. Alvin is the Lynchian protagonist who’s survived his own dark odyssey and emerged to tell the tale. Over the course of The Straight Story, we learn of Alvin’s alcoholism, his abuse of his family, the deaths of his wife and seven of his 14 children, and, underlying it all, the unshakeable guilt over having accidentally killed a member of his own company while serving as a sniper in World War II. We learn, too, that his grown daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), mourns the loss of her own children, who were removed by child protective services after she was deemed unfit due to an unspecified cognitive ailment. The Straights are a family intimately familiar with life’s darkness and confusion, and their story neither downplays it nor amplifies it. In this way, The Straight Story represents the Lynchian world redeemed, a pocket of America that battled dread and violence and won, earning its just reward.

An essential quality of the Lynchian is its access to unbounded emotionality. Lynch’s characters put no dampers on their feelings—when tragedy strikes Twin Peaks, the characters howl and sob no matter how public the setting; when Sailor and Lula make eyes at one another in Wild at Heart they are erotic passion incarnate; when Fred returns to the start of Lost Highway’s narrative ouroboros, he does so screaming like there’s no tomorrow (which, given the slippery nature of Lynchian time, there may well not be). Lynch’s stylistic indulgences may strike some viewers as weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but his heightened worlds circumvent the need for realistic expression of emotion, and the freest possible forms of ecstasy and horror flow freely as a result.

The Straight Story carries this same level of Lynchian emotionality, even as it’s bounded by uncharacteristic realism. Overwhelming feeling strains against those parameters, undergirding the action as palpably as a typical Lynchian thrumming soundscape. Lynch has described sitting in the editing bay with Sweeney, tears streaming down his cheeks as he observed the depth of feeling held within Farnsworth’s eyes, and it’s this surfeit of suppressed feeling that renders those two plainspoken closing lines into a soaring conclusion. The words may be simple, but the feelings they carry are as vast as the cosmos the two men turn their eyes towards next.

I could never have predicted it, but after I casually related The Straight Story to my daughter during a dull drive, it became something of a beloved myth for her. For weeks afterwards, she would ask to hear it again as we pulled out of the driveway for some new round of errands, and it wasn’t long before she was able to take the baton from me once we came to the last scene. Rather than allow me to try and describe it through rising tears, she would pipe up—And then Alvin gets there, and he goes up, and they look at each other, and his brother says, did you ride that thing all the way here to see me? And Alvin says, I did. Thanks to my own description and the intuitive weight of those few dramatic brushstrokes, she can tell it as well as if she’d seen it herself.

Her interest in the story has given me free rein to tell it with as much detail as I please, puzzling out the significance of the more enigmatic pockets within this seemingly straightforward story. What, I’ve always wondered, could be the meaning of the scene in which Alvin encounters a woman on a desolate strip of prairie highway, a dead deer lying in front of her crumpled hood? In the film’s sole example of Lynchian hyperbolic feeling, she shrieks and rages over the cosmic unfairness of her plight—she’s hit 13 deer in the past seven weeks during her daily commute, and no matter how she’s attempted to warn them of her approach with a blaring horn or loud music, no matter how much she’s prayed, still she kills at least one deer every week. “And I love deer!” she sobs at last before getting back in her car and speeding off. 

All I can figure, I’ll tell my daughter as we drive, is that the deer lady scene is there to remind us that we can’t really plan for what absurdities and injustices life might throw at us, and that trying too hard to fight this pattern can only lead to sorrow. And then she’ll ask me once again to slow the car down and show her how slowly Alvin traveled. It really is such a strange sensation.

I’ve watched The Straight Story three times in the year since my grandfather died. Lynch’s work often requires that kind of repeated scrutiny to feel like you’ve truly gotten your head around it, but this one, with its atypical cathartic closure, wouldn’t seem to demand such treatment. Soon after I got that call, though—I wish I was calling to say happy birthday, my mother said the morning I turned 34, and without needing to hear another word my legs gave out and I dropped to a squat in the middle of the woods midway through my daily socially distant walk—I came back to Lynch’s Disney movie, and I haven’t left it behind for very long since. There’s a comfort to settling into Alvin Straight’s company; Lynch has spoken of feeling a closeness with his own memories of his grandfather as he worked on the film. “Sitting with my grandfather, I got a lot of feelings I would never be able to articulate,” he said later, and those lingering sensations—“pretty profound but never really spoken”—were the ones he channeled into The Straight Story.

I had planned to go see my own grandfather just before he died. His illness was long enough that we were able to prepare ourselves, yet he stayed well enough that we could never be sure which farewell might be the last. For more than a year, every time I visited his home to sit beside him in the leather recliner that matched his own—the one that had been my grandmother’s, and then became the rotating spot for his visitors—I would say goodbye knowing it was more than likely I wouldn’t be saying it again. Eventually, though, it became clear there would be just one more chance to say it, express once and for all whatever love and appreciation I’d ever struggled to put into words through my own bounded emotions. I made the plan to drive up, but the day before I got in the car, my mother and I agreed I should wait—people were being cautioned to stay home for a while as this virus started going around, so it seemed best to hold off and see how things shook out.

Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t distinctly remember our last goodbye that makes his absence feel so unreal. In this year of suspended time, I regularly forget he’s gone, and when I experience some bit of good news, I’ll think briefly of how it might bring him a smile as he sits in that leather recliner. Without the typical communal rituals of grief and mourning, that kind of loss can feel so abstract as to be potentially illusory. Then it will hit me all over again, that bizarre sense that time is being simultaneously slowed down and lost at a breathtaking rate.

Each time I tell my daughter the story of Alvin Straight, I puzzle over the same question: why is it that the ending so impacts me? “I guess,” I told her one day as we sat in the car at our final destination before disembarking, “it’s nice to remember that it’s never too late to fix something you regret.”

“But that’s wrong!” she cried from the back seat. After all, she reminded me, it can be too late—like it was for my grandfather. “He waited too long, and his brother died.” 

Her reminder struck me like a physical blow. How could I have lapsed into believing that comforting pablum about there always being more time? Of course there’s a point on the horizon where never too late ceases to be true. And it’s that inescapable fact that makes life so urgent.

My own experience with The Straight Story’s power was so distracting that it took me several repetitions to realize which moment was most impacting my daughter. I don’t remember first describing the scene in which Alvin camps alongside the cyclistslike so many of his brief encounters, it’s easy to let it slip into a haze of pleasantness as you consider the overall impact. But the next time I told her about one of the cyclists asking Alvin for the wisdom he’s accrued with age, and about Alvin’s reply that while there’s no good part of aging, he’s at least learned to separate the wheat from the chaff and let the small stuff fall away, she stopped me short: “What does that mean?” 

“Well,” I told her, “Alvin wasn’t good to his family when he was younger. He was nasty and he hurt their feelings, but now that he’s older, he’s realized that nothing matters except being good to each other.”

“So you mean,” she asked, straining to force the story into some alignment, “when you get old, you don’t get mad anymore?”

I explained that it isn’t quite that simple, but that sure, it seems like a lot of people go in one of two directions as they get older, either becoming more bitter or less. Alvin overcame his anger with the help of a minister who linked his postwar trauma with his alcoholism, and it’s easy to think Lynch might have related to this element of the story—central to his own history are the stress and anger that he took out on his family early in his career, and how he overcame it through the spiritual guidance of transcendental meditation, a practice he credits with nearly 50 years of sustained serenity.

At first, I didn’t think much of my daughter’s fascination with Alvin’s growth. I let it slip my mind as I was distracted once more by all the daily stresses of trying to keep life as both an individual and a family member afloat during a year of suspension and loss. It’s an all-encompassing task, and there are days when I look back and feel like I forgot to enjoy myself for even a moment, so consumed was I by the frustrations that I turn outwards far too often.

But her interest in the notion that age can soften us came flooding back to me as I put her to bed a few nights later. Sitting in her darkened room, listening to her white noise machine and taking a few quiet breaths before going back down to dishes and laundry and preparation for yet another day, I heard her turn towards me. “We didn’t used to be a cranky family,” she observed. “But lately, it’s been cranky times in our house.”

I barely made it out of her room before I was consumed by my own wave of Lynchian emotion. I started to cry, and I kept crying for what seemed like an hour, caught in an undertow of sorrow and regret that felt more like drowning. And all I could think, three words circling my mind like a poisoned mantra, was: I feel broken.

Even after I managed to get my feet back under me, those words that had surged unbidden into my mind struck me in a way I couldn’t quite place. And then, finally, I remembered the old woman I met almost a decade ago in a hotel in the Pacific Northwest. I never learned her name, we were just two travelers going in opposite directions on our own journeys, but sitting together at a communal breakfast table, I asked her if she had any advice I could bring along as I went on my way.

She thought for a while, and then she told me about having gone through a hard time when she was younger, and how she unburdened herself to a priest as he took her to look into social service agencies. “What’s really stuck with me,” she said, “is what he told me: The places you feel most broken now will someday be your greatest strength.” They’re words that have drifted closer to and further from my mind over the years, but every time I feel the fissures forming, that memory seems to come back to me, and I tell myself to wait and hope for that rawness to be retrofitted into armor.

After reminding me during one of our drives that my grandfather had passed the tipping point between never too late, and too late, my daughter smiled, and said, “But it’s not too late for me.” I thought she might be thinking of her little brother and sister, that maybe I’d imparted some wisdom she could use to strengthen her own sibling bonds, the same lesson Alvin taught his children when he demonstrated how difficult it is to snap a bundle of sticks—that bundle, he told them, that’s family. But instead, she said, “It’s not too late to sit with my daddy and look at the stars.” 

I can’t know what was going through her 4-year-old mind at that moment, but I know what went through my own after we left the car: it’s not too late for me, either. I’m not cured of darkness and confusion—I still feel lost, and there are days when it only seems to be getting worse. But there’s still time to see the stars.