“The Straight Story”: A Film For Now

by James M. Wall

A few years back, Phillip Lee, editor of Media Development, a World Association of Christian Communications (WACC) publication, interviewed me. During this time of self-isolation, I thought it was appropriate to share it.

 Phillip Lee: My last question has to do with your passion for cinema. If you were to pick one film that has born the test of repeated viewing and still has “something to say”, what would the film be and why?

James M. Wall: Emily Dickinson left us a quote that I have always cherished. She was something of a recluse, surrounded, as she put it, by her “Kinsmen of the Shelf”, the books that were crucial to her. Our topic here is films, and since DVDs perch on shelves around me, I consider them my kinsmen on the shelf.

If I must select one film to be my companion isolated alone, after considerable pondering, with apologies to John Ford and the Coen brothers, I choose The Straight Story. 

I have a personal history with that film’s director, David Lynch. I was in Hollywood for a meeting when a religious Los Angeles Film Critics group gave an award to Lynch for The Straight Story in 1999. I ended up sitting next to Lynch at lunch, and told him how much I liked the film. I also told him something I assumed he did not know.

I had written a film column in The Christian Century, in which I praised Blue Velvet, an earlier 1986 Lynch film. I called the film outstanding for its unvarnished portrait of sheer evil rooted in a small Middle Western community, a vision that was the polar opposite of The Straight Story. A Chicago columnist had one comment for that reading from a religious writer, “O Lordy”. Lynch told me he had heard the strange news that a religious publication had praised Blue Velvet. He was glad to meet me.

I believe Lynch and I agree on one point: Evil and good coexist in human existence. In these two contrasting works of film art, Blue Velvet and The Straight Story, Lynch covered the extremes. It is The Straight Story side of Lynch that I choose for my single movie companion. Here is why.

The Straight Story is based on a true story which first surfaced in a news report about a 73-year-old man, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who attempts to drive a motorized lawn mower from Iowa to the Wisconsin home of his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). As the film opens, Alvin lives quietly with his adult daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Laurens, Iowa. Life is slow there. One night a telephone caller tells Rose that Alvin’s brother has had a stroke. As a storm rages outside, the look on Alvin’s face as he hears Rose in the next room, announces that his life will no longer be quiet. There is a past to confront.

Lynch’s close-up shot of Alvin, his face lit by lightning, captured my admiration early in the film. So also did the performance of Richard Farnsworth, as he interacted with his small-town retired buddies. Or when his daughter Rose takes Alvin to see a doctor. Alvin is a stubborn man, rejecting the doctor’s advice at every turn.

After the visit to the doctor, where Alvin refuses to change his habits, Alvin tells his daughter he will travel to see his brother. Rose reminds him that his obstacles are great. He does not own a car and Rose does not drive. Still, Alvin prepares to begin his journey. This is a trip he must make alone. He and his brother are estranged. Now is the time to address that estrangement.

Lynch’s script-writers withhold details. The nature of the brothers’ disagreement has deep consequences, but nothing earth-shattering, just some vague conflict which led to ugly words within the family.

Alvin builds a trailer and attaches it to his motorized lawn mower. The smile that crosses his face as he leaves town on what he hopes will be a successful 370-mile trip, is the quiet smile of a man making up for lost time. He sleeps in his trailer and cooks simple meals close to the highway. One stop requires Alvin to camp for a few days while his mower is repaired by two bickering brothers. He sees them as mirror images of his own younger self and his brother.

Director Lynch filmed Alvin’s journey along the same route the real Alvin Straight travelled in 1994. The Chicago Tribune said of The Straight Story, “this is the most compassionate movie Lynch has ever made”. It is also that rare film, a serious adult story with touches of humour, rated G. Imagine that, a G-rated film in 1999 which is not just for children. That is one reason I want this side of Lynch and his mower-driving Alvin to stay with me.

As Blue Velvet attests, Lynch does have a sure grip on portraying evil. In contrast, with his cinematic palette, Lynch gives us Alvin Straight in a story which celebrates family, perseverance and love. The farmland and small town scenes, shot on location, undergirded by a solemn musical score, plus the love Alvin demonstrates for his daughter and, in a moment of reconciliation, for his journey to see his brother, all contribute to one of the finest works of cinematic art from the 20th century.

This is a film that is as steady as a rain storm in an Iowa night, or as uplifting as an early morning sunrise in Wisconsin. It sustains the viewer as it calls for whatever steps are needed to make amends for decisions made, or not made.

This is a film with moments that are to be cherished and embraced, like, for example, Alvin talking his way to buying a “grabber” device he likes in a store, or the scene where Alvin’s neighbour lady rushes into his kitchen to find he has fallen to the floor. She grabs the telephone and shouts, “What’s the number for 911?” That is a line I reach for when I need a lift.

I hereby officially take Rose and Alvin as my companions in isolation. We will, together, enjoy the sunset and long for the rain. For companions, I prefer those friends who speak a G-rated language, while we converse together on a stage of middle-American farmland. 

Lee, Phillip (2017). “A Road Movie from Georgia to Palestine and Home Again: Interview with James M. Wall”. Media Development. LXIV (3): 21–27

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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4 Responses to “The Straight Story”: A Film For Now

  1. John and Sharon Kleinheksel says:

    thanks Jim, I and Sharon will dig out the film and view it. Always looking for quality stuff. How are you doing? I”m attaching a major paper on the history of Christian Zionism from the New Testament to Bibi/Gantz. It’s a history overview. Shalom. Salaam, my colleague. John. (What do you think?)

  2. oldkahuna says:

    It’s great to hear from you again, Jim!!
    I think my choice of a film would be “The Life and Times of Jim Wall.” It WILL be made some day!
    Safe hugs!!!

  3. Hanna Nasir says:

    I have been waiting to read your column for several months and almost gave up – until I read the present one. Now I look forward to read your next column. Your columns, Jim. have been quite inspirational
    Best- Hanna Nasir

  4. Ed McNulty says:

    Jim,
    Good hearing from you again, especially commenting upon such a beloved film. Like you, I reviewed David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET favorably, appreciating his taking us beneath the placid surface of the suburban lawn to reveal what was going on beneath it, a fitting prelude to the story to come. I was pleasantly surprised by his simple story of persistence and reconciliation between the 2 estranged brothers. You can see my review at https://readthespirit.com/visual-parables/the-straight-story-1999/, written very much from a Midwestern perspective.
    Although I’d be happy with this one, given a choice of just one film, I’d probably choose TENDER MERCIES or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Thank God we don’t have to make such a choice! It’s good seeing you hold forth on film again. You’ve been a guide for many of us going back more years than I care to think about. Your CHURCH AND CINEMA stills is a valued part of my film book collection. May we hear much more from you about the subject during these days when our film viewing is restricted to DVDs and streaming video.

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