The Straight Story and Slowing Down

20 years ago this week, David Lynch’s atypical road movie The Straight Story debuted. It seemed like an outlier in his career (at least on the surface). That trademark ‘Lynchian’ craziness was tempered for the most part. The narrative fitted its title. A Disney financed U certificate film, it charts the true-life exploits of 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) who, on hearing of the ill-health of his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), elects to drive 370 miles to see him on the only vehicle at his disposal… a lawnmower.

Alvin’s journey is dotted with kooky experiences and the charms found in the personalities of strangers, while Lynch’s film glides at a tempo in keeping with his hero’s unusual mode of transport. This slowness allows for patient and romantic space in the film, which Lynch often uses to admire the pastoral roots of Middle America. Harvesters whirl and chomp in the fields, bisecting the corn of the country’s heartland, while Lynch’s musical mainstay Angelo Badalamenti accentuates the hayseed gentleness of these cross-fading images. There’s great warmth in these moments.

Lynch is often associated with fractured mindsets and the nightmarish underbelly of society. The underneath of the  internal and external. But this lifelong preoccupation has frequently been set against the country’s ideals of wholesomeness, real or imagined. Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive all contrast their tales of darkness with a ‘pretty 50s’ aesthetic, as though its creator were wrestling with the loss of innocence associated with this unsustainable vision of life.

The Straight Story doesn’t explicitly play in the dark, though it is inferred in some of the film’s more expressionistic moments; a near collision at the site of a controlled barn burning, or the memories of war revealed during a bar conversation – the sounds of the past infiltrating the peace of the present.

It is far more generous, however, in its optimism and celebration of the better angels in our nature. The charity of others. The passing on of wisdom. The appreciation of things.

And of taking the time to do so.

Revisiting the film, it seems clear that Lynch’s avid interest in transcendental meditation had some influence on his decision to make the thing when his editor and former partner Mary Sweeney brought him the material. The film is, in its own way, a quest for peace. Once Alvin and Lyle are reunited, not a word is spoken or needs to be. Theirs is a wordless reconciliation. But the journey itself makes sense as a kind of exercise in slowing down.

The sedate nature of the piece was notable on its release in 1999, but looking at it now, its message of taking your time seems all the more pressing.

We are inundated with information. There is not only so much more news, but now a concerted sense that we ought to play journalist ourselves; seek sources; dig deeper. Our phones have become handheld computers. Our emails are therefore always with us, always pressing. And social media apps draw more of our attention than we care to admit. Attention spans are shortening and is there any wonder with so many different things clamouring for our time.

I live a life largely free of responsibilities; a position of privilege that is exceedingly easy to take for granted with the simulation of bustle and urgency surrounding me. Downtime is often viewed as procrastination and not ‘useful’, when actually it is exceedingly valuable. I often feel burned out in spite of living a life that I deliberately try to keep as simple as possible. It’s a combination of work stress (not this site) and pressures I evidently place on myself to adhere to purely perceived expectations.

Still, I could do more. I joke that I’m an ‘indoorsman’. Being an avid cinephile with streaming services making this easy in the home only exacerbates this. What I feel on rewatching The Straight Story is the urge to escape. Close the app. Switch the TV off. Put my phone on flight mode, turn it off, or leave it behind me completely and venture out into nature and get some distance from the ‘noise’. The time of year, with the evenings drawing in, doesn’t quite tally with this increasing sense, but that doesn’t mean the urge should be ignored…

I recently read an essay in the magazine Huck about the benefits of finding a natural oasis for yourself. A place to sit and do nothing. Take in the natural world. Be in the moment outside of the hubbub. These spaces exist, though they are threatened in our over-populated and increasingly over-developed society. But they are findable, or reclaimable.

Slowing down might not be productive, but perhaps the importance of productivity is overrated? The Straight Story makes a great case for reconnecting (with others, with ourselves) and taking in nature for its own sake, and at a different pace. Everything else might not seem as though it can wait, but it will.

We can still be busy. We should still be engaged. But more balance would do a lot of us some good.


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