Life in the Slow Lane 

*The Straight Story (G)

For millennia, humans have traveled at a steady speed. We have walked, covering about three miles per hour, ridden horses, camels, elephants and yaks at about four miles per hour and occasionally reached heady speeds of six or eight miles per hour if we pushed those animals hard. When the steam engine was first put into widespread use in the 1860s, there were serious concerns that humans couldn't survive ground speeds over 20 miles per hour.

Once we survived such, however, we have had a love affair with speed. So addicted are we to ever an ever faster pace that filmmakers -- who examine everything from the meaning of pi to the explosions of the heavens -- have rarely attempted to look at the world in the slow motion of our ancestors. Until, that is, David Lynch took on The Straight Story.

At first blush, Lynch, director of such creepy stories as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, is the last director you would imagine being attracted to this true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old man who, in 1994, rode 350 miles on a John Deere lawnmower to visit his brother Lyle. At the beginning of the film, Alvin and Lyle haven't spoken in ten years due to a stupid feud that both are too stubborn to break, and now Lyle has had a stroke. Alvin is neither none too well -- his vision is so poor that he cannot drive, his smoking is causing emphysema, both of his hips need replacing -- nor none too wealthy, living from one Social Security check to another. What he has going for him are a strong sense of family and a stubborn streak as wide as the Mississippi that he has to cross on his lawnmower.

For a filmmaker less sophisticated than Lynch, there is no material here: all of the people that Alvin meets on his journey are nice, the only dramatic conflict is 'will he make it alive and in time?' and the pacing is absolutely glacial. Despite this, or because of it, Lynch has created a stunning, haunting, surprising film.

So many elements work beautifully in The Straight Story. To begin with, Lynch opts to tell the story, well, straight, without even a breath of cynicism. These men of Iowa know a great deal but say little and carry on their lives in their decaying agricultural towns without complaint. Richard Farnsworth is perfect in the role of Alvin -- expressive, reserved and grizzled with no trace of makeup or beautification to him. Sissy Spacek as his daughter Rose is equally plain, beautiful and poignant.

It's the pacing, though, that I found miraculous. There are long sequences where almost nothing happens: the sky turns grey and it slowly begins to drizzle. Alvin sees a barn up ahead. The showers turn to torrents just as he pulls into the old barn. He sits back with a look of satisfaction -- at the beautiful landscape and the pleasure of being dry. We watch the rain, and watch Alvin watching it. If you think this is boring when I write it, ignore the last sentence and go see the film instead. Under Lynch's careful guidance, and that of screenwriters John Roach and Mary Sweeney, we slow down from our hectic world and share Alvin's simple pleasures.

This is an American story rarely told by native filmmakers: the heartland as heartland. This is not the Iowa town where evil lurks behind every crumbling chimney, but the one where good people live, trying to do their best, where the pace of life can accommodate the very slow and very eccentric, where the land is beautiful and almost empty of humans. By following the pilgrimage of Alvin, Lynch has managed to give us a gorgeous vision of America as it is and as it has been. We are lucky to be allowed to share the director's vision, and to experience, once again, the world at two miles per hour.


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