In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"The worst part of being old is rememberin' when you was young."
After the back-to-back box office failures of 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' and 'Lost Highway', not to mention no less than four canceled TV series, David Lynch's career in the 1990s was perhaps at its lowest ebb since he'd made 'Dune'. Pigeon-holed as the creator of impenetrably weird movies and TV shows that had fallen out of fashion and increasingly catered only to his dwindling cult following, the director made a bold and unexpected decision for his next project. David Lynch, the man repeatedly accused of moral depravity with every project he'd made since 'Blue Velvet', would close out the decade with a G-rated family film for Disney. Such a strange state of affairs might lead to the assumption that the filmmaker had finally sold out in a bid for mainstream success. However, 'The Straight Story' is far too distinctive, enjoyable and heartfelt to be dismissed so easily.
Based on a true story, the film presents the tale of 73-year-old Alvin Straight, a man half-blind and half-lame from years of hard living. When word comes that his brother Lyle, with whom he hadn't spoken in a decade since a volatile falling-out, has suffered a stroke, Alvin makes up his mind to go see him and make amends. This is a worthy, noble plan, but one with significant obstacles to success. For one, Lyle lives a state away, and Alvin can't drive. Nor does he care to take a bus. A stubborn yet pragmatic man, Alvin puts in motion a plan to make the trip in his own fashion, by hooking up a small trailer and riding all the way from Iowa to Wisconsin… on a lawnmower. It's a long, fascinating journey at 4 miles per hour.
Along the way, as he passes from town to town and traverses long stretches of empty road at a pace slow enough to count every stalk of corn, Alvin meets some colorful characters, most of whom turn out to be friendly, decent folk. He shares a touching conversation with a pregnant hitchhiker, ruminates on the travails of aging with a group of marathon cyclists, and is taken in by a kind family when his transport breaks down. Between these encounters, he braves the threats of bad weather and trucks passing him at high speed, and finds that even a simple hill or traffic intersection can be fraught with danger for an elderly man on a lawnmower.
In lesser hands, material like this could spell out a recipe for cloying melodrama, especially when released under the Disney banner. Fortunately, Lynch is much too sophisticated a filmmaker for that. As he directs it, 'The Straight Story' is a poetic and lyrical journey through the so-called "flyover states," parts of the country not usually considered glamorous or exciting enough to depict on film. Although Alvin may dispense some homespun wisdom along the way, the movie never lapses into maudlin sentimentalism. The character is no 'Forrest Gump' idiot savant dishing out trite platitudes. Rather, he's just a perceptive man who has seen many things in his time and is still trying to make sense of them.
The film is a rumination on the way the past haunts us, the fragility of familial bonds, and the need for forgiveness and redemption. The performances are universally excellent. Sissy Spacek is especially affecting as Alvin's intellectually challenged daughter. Richard Farnsworth was reportedly dying of cancer during the filming of the movie, in great pain throughout the shooting. You can see the truth in his eyes when Alvin looks back over his life.
If seemingly miles away from his usual subject matter, this is decidedly still a David Lynch film. Scenes are infused with the director's idiosyncratic style and humor, though perhaps put to gentler use here. Sadly, Disney had no idea what to do with the movie during its theatrical run. The studio gave this poignant tale of the American heartland only a limited release, primary to major cities and urban areas, and later let it slip into obscurity on video with nondescript packaging and little to no advertising. Despite a modest budget and overwhelmingly positive critical support (even notorious Lynch-hater Roger Ebert gave it a Thumbs-Up), the movie lost money and was soon forgotten. That's a genuine shame, because it's certainly Lynch's least alienating and most accessible picture since 'The Elephant Man'. With the right support, it could have easily found an appreciative audience.
'The Straight Story' was released on Blu-ray in Japan by Comstock Group and Paramount Home Entertainment, which appear to have licensed it from Studio Canal in Europe. At present, this is the first and only Blu-ray edition in the world. Neither Studio Canal nor the film's American distributor, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Disney), has made any indication of Blu-ray plans. (This seems like the sort of title that Disney would probably license out to a smaller label like Olive Films or Echo Bridge anyway.)
The Japanese Blu-ray is region-free and will function in any standard American Blu-ray player. (Japan is a Blu-ray Region A territory like the United States in any case.) However, the DVD in the package that contains most of the bonus features is locked to Region 2 and can only be played in a DVD or Blu-ray player with region code modification (if you're in the United States).
The 2-disc set comes packaged in a black Blu-ray keepcase within a very handsome glossy slipcover. The disc has both chapter stops and a Scene Selections menu. The menus on Disc 1 (the Blu-ray) are in the English language, but the movie launches straight into playback without stopping at its top menu first. That's a shame, because the animated menu itself is adorable. The menus on Disc 2 (the DVD) are mostly in Japanese, but aren't terribly difficult to navigate.
For 'The Straight Story', David Lynch pulled Freddie Francis, the legendary cinematographer who'd shot 'The Elephant Man' and 'Dune' for him, out of retirement. Francis was 82-years-old at the time, and this was to be his final film. (He passed away in 2007.) His work here, which consists of many sweeping 2.35:1 aerial vista shots and scenic location footage photographed primarily in natural light, was quite breathtaking on cinema screens. Unfortunately, it isn't done many favors by this ancient high-def master that no doubt dates back to the movie's initial DVD release in 2000.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has a very "processed" appearance, with weak, smudgy detail and recurring edge ringing artifacts, sometimes quite severe. Some scenes are far too contrasty, while many others are faded and flat. Colors generally look bland. The film source elements also suffer from a lot of speckling that the studio (whichever one the master came from, presumably Studio Canal) has made no attempt to clean up.
With that said, I pulled out an old DVD edition for comparison, and man, does it look a thousand times worse. Back in the day, I'd actually rated Disney's domestic DVD release fairly well, but thought even more highly of a Japanese disc from Pony Canyon. My standards, and the quality of my playback equipment, have both risen exponentially in the meantime. That import is the only DVD I still have on hand, and it's just ghastly on my current projection screen, a virtually unwatchable smear of Digital Noise Reduction and compression artifacts. In an early scene, a character's blue jeans look to be made out of plastic. If this was truly the better of the DVD options, I don't even want to know how badly Disney's disc holds up. By that measure, as flawed as it is, the Blu-ray is at least watchable, and thus is a huge upgrade. I suppose that counts for something.
Produced in 1999, 'The Straight Story' was the last film that David Lynch made before deciding that he hates surround sound. The Blu-ray's uncompressed PCM soundtrack comes from the original mix, without any after-the-fact revision. The 5.1 track has noticeable surround activity, though it's dialed back considerably from the director's previous movie, 'Lost Highway'. That's likely a function of both Lynch's growing distaste for the surround format, and also this particular film's subdued subject matter. The rear channels are mainly reserved for atmospherics, with occasional discrete directional effects for the sounds of traffic passing Alvin on the road.
This is a very quiet, understated movie, and the soundtrack reflects that. It isn't a showy mix. In fact, its subtlety will really benefit from a silent listening environment. Lynch makes interesting use of engine sounds, weather and ambient noises. A thunderstorm provides a bit of dynamic range, but the track never gets too rumbly. Angelo Badalamenti's gentle score has nice instrumental separation and rich resonance.
In three scenes that were photographed in long shots (at approximately the 67-, 74- and 103-minute marks), Lynch has intentionally lowered the dialogue to an almost inaudible level. This was a deliberate artistic effect, not a disc mastering flaw. The movie played the same way in theaters.
Disney's domestic DVD had no bonus features except a trailer. This Japanese Blu-ray carries over most of the supplements from the old Pony Canyon import DVD. Other than the trailer, the remaining content is all located on Disc 2.
Even though it might be considered an uncharacteristic film for David Lynch of all people to make, 'The Straight Story' is a very touching and emotional tale assembled with considerable skill. It ably demonstrates that, beyond his predilection for the weird and surreal, the director is also an extremely capable craftsman and storyteller. However, the film never answers one mystery: If the real Alvin Straight actually spent six weeks on a riding mower, eating processed meats and going without a change of clothes or anywhere to bathe, were people really so anxious to share his company?
While this Blu-ray edition from Japan is far from ideal, as the only high-def release of the movie to date, it's still an improvement over DVD and is adequately watchable. I wish that I could drum up more enthusiasm for it than that, but the title is desperately in need of a fresh film-to-video scan. Sadly, as one of the filmmaker's least commercial works, that sort of care and attention seems unlikely anytime soon. I hope to be proven wrong about that.