Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Putting Things Straight

Needless to say, but what Tolstoy wrote about families at the beginning of Anna Karenina is true. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This Thanksgiving Day, I thought it might be timely to write about a film that takes family as its subject.

No other subject, except perhaps "America", makes Americans reach for a tissue more quickly than family. Part of the reason must surely be because no other subject touches such a sore spot.

Based on real people and events, the 1999 film The Straight Story is about family - a typically fractured American family. Alvin Straight is retired and living in Laurens, Iowa when he learns that his only brother Lyle, who lives in Wisconsin, has suffered a stroke. The two haven't spoken to each other in ten years because of some unexplained argument. But Alvin determines to go and see Lyle, despite his lack of a driver's license, a car, and even the ability to walk without two canes. He does have a riding mower, for which a driver's license isn't needed. So he sets out on the mower, at slightly greater than a walking pace, with a small trailer hitched behind it.

When Alvin embarks on his journey, the film subtly adapts its pace to the riding mower's. As it putters away from us down the highway, the camera uses a crane shot to pan up to the sky. But instead of giving us the usual segue to the next scene, the camera pans back down to the highway, showing Alvin and the mower only a few yards farther on its way. I burst out laughing when I first watched it, because it tells the audience to settle in their seats. It's going to be a long ride.

If I were to call The Straight Story a great American film, I'd be selling it short. It features the final performance of Richard Farnsworth, playing Alvin with tangible integrity. Freddie Francis did the cinematography. A few weeks ago I watched Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961) and when I saw Francis' name in the credits, I made the surprised connection with The Straight Story. He makes Iowa look a great deal more beautiful than I remember it, but who can complain about beauty?

But David Lynch's film is not without it's flaws. He overindulges in aerial shots of the golden Iowa landscape at harvest time, with giant tractors cutting swathes through the corn fields. (Talk about product placement - the film is a huge commercial for John Deere.) It breaks up the monotony - which is precisely what Lynch needn't have done. Enduring every mile of Alvin's long journey was the point of the film.

And Lynch uses Alvin as a font of wisdom a few times too many. He tells a runaway teen aged girl a story: "When my kids were real little, I used to play a game with 'em. I'd give each one of 'em a stick and - one for each one of 'em. Then I'd say, 'You break that.' Course they could, real easy. Then I'd say, 'Tie them sticks in a bundle and try to break that.' Course they couldn't. Then I'd say 'that bundle - that's family.'"

When a young biker asks him, "What's the worst thing about getting old?" he replies, "Rememberin' when you was young."

But the clincher is something he says to the twin mechanics (played by Chris Farley's brothers, Kevin and John): "There's no one knows your life better than a brother that's near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. . . . A brother's a brother."

Alvin completed his journey, and David Lynch allowed us to complete it with him in his marvelous film. It was shot in the actual places, and along the actual route that Alvin took from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin to be with his brother again, to sit on the porch and look up at the stars with him, just as they did when they were boys.

This Thanksgiving Day, I won't have a chance to do as I habitually did when I lived in the States. I won't watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. I won't be watching the football games. And I won't be eating turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie or pecan pie and feeling stuffed by evening. I could ask the people I live with to celebrate this old American holiday with me, but I'm too broke to afford any of those things - even if I could find a turkey or a cranberry or a pumpkin or a pecan.

What I will be doing is thinking of home, and what's left of my own family - my brother and my sister, and wishing I could see them both again if only for the duration of a hug. Happy Thanksgiving.

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