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Lynch Mob Returns?

Former fans uncertain of the new direction for a dynamic director

For The Straight Story to have become a David Lynch movie required that Lynch recognize that Alvin's story could be -- of all things -- a David Lynch movie. And of course, once you've seen it that way, once Lynch had transformed it and made it his own, that's the only way it can ever be seen.

In the movie's opening scene -- destined to be a classic -- we hear a thud inside the house. We're outside, focused on an older woman taking a sunbath. Seconds, minutes, a lot of minutes go by. Nothing. Some time later, Alvin is missed at an appointment by friends, who come to see why he is late. When they find him, he's on the kitchen floor of his house, unable to get up. His daughter, Rose, played by Sissy Spacek in a remarkably empathetic performance, is among those who find him. Naturally he hasn't uttered a sound since he hit the deck. Somebody was bound to come along. Sometime.

It's a perfect David Lynch joke, utterly dependent on timing and pace. For Lynch, pace is everything. It's the life's breath of a movie, its essence. In content, The Straight Story is unlike anything Lynch has ever attempted. And yet, miraculously, it couldn't be more a more perfect fit. It may seem like a departure at first glance, but on closer inspection one sees that it isn't.

David Lynch's The Straight Story is a major departure for the director known for darkness. Could it be a metaphor for the country's optimism?
Billy Higgins
David Lynch's The Straight Story is a major departure for the director known for darkness. Could it be a metaphor for the country's optimism?
Lynch with writer/producer Mary Sweeney of The Straight Story.
John Churchill
Lynch with writer/producer Mary Sweeney of The Straight Story.

Which is ironic, since Lynch wasn't looking for a departure. According to the director, it just doesn't work that way. He explains that there are two major factors he considers when trying to decide whether or not to embark on a project. The first is his personal response to a particular script, whether he feels it has enough emotionally to sustain his interest for the year or two or three it takes to make a film.

The second factor is less concrete. When he talks about it, he talks about something he feels, something that hasn't been verbalized, that perhaps can't be verbalized. He calls it "the air." In all his previous films, the thing that was in "the air" was depravity, darkness, confusion, sickness, rage. It suffused his movies, the movie industry and perhaps even America itself.

However, America now is not the same country as it was in the late '80s, and The Straight Story signals the mood of a nation in repair, cautiously optimistic and eager to make amends. Alvin Straight is a most uncommon breed of hero: a hero whose strength is based entirely on his being the most average of men. Once you know the story, the thought of Paul Newman in the part becomes almost ridiculous. Alvin's not simply a character, he's a plan of action. And so at the end of the American century, this is the reading that Lynch gives us for what's in the air.

When Lynch is asked if the store of personal darkness that he works out of is greater for him than most people, he answers, modestly, "No more than anyone else. Everyone has their own mix. They have light things, dark things, middle gray -- the whole spectrum. For me, it is the project or the story that determines what part of that spectrum comes out."

In terms of violence, Lynch continues: "If you are going to make a film with violence, you want the audience to be able to feel the violence. In the '40s, for example, when films showed violence, only a very few actually did it in such a way that the audience could feel it. Now, people are so used to seeing violence on-screen that you have to push it and push it, almost to an absurd level just so people will feel it. And we've pushed it so far, I think, that there is not much room for us to push it much farther. The pendulum has swung as far as it can in one direction and is starting to swing back the other way."

Many years ago a much younger David Lynch confessed that he had no intention of getting married or having kids. His goal was to live the almost monastic life of an artist, dedicated wholly and completely to his art. Indeed, some have suggested seriously that Eraserhead, which describes married life in the most horrifically dark terms imaginable, was a direct response to his recently having become a new father and husband. (His daughter, Jennifer -- herself a filmmaker now -- had just been born. In 1993 she wrote and directed the infamous Boxing Helena.) Since then he has been married twice, seriously partnered on at least two other occasions and has fathered three children. Again, there has been some speculation that the positive tone of The Straight Story owes its existence to the apparently happy domestic life he has been able to create with Mary Sweeney. And about that he has virtually zero to say.

"It's tricky," Lynch says, closing one eye while exhaling smoke. "And that is all I'm gonna to say about that. It's tricky."

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