David Lynch’s new movie, The Straight Story, is nearly over before we see any evidence — in this case, a television set — that it takes place in the modern world. The 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) has traveled from Iowa to Wisconsin on a souped-up backyard mower to visit his estranged brother, Lyle, whom he hasn‘t spoken to in a decade. (”Anger, vanity, liquor,“ explains Alvin. ”A story as old as the Bible, Cain and Abel.“) When Alvin asks for directions in a bar, bedecked with signs reading ”Old Style,“ the TV has these words on the screen: ”Big Storm Ahead.“ Narratively, there is no big storm coming. Metaphorically, however, that’s how Lynch seems to regard the future in general, and perhaps even the present.
In Alvin‘s world there are barely any vehicles newer than 1966. There are precious few radios or TV sets, computers or gadgets. The swearing never rises above the ”aw, gee“ level (nor does the film’s rating, which is impressive from the man who bore the Eraserhead baby). Scarcely anyone‘s younger than 50, and apart from one hostile incantation of the words ”Public Enemy,“ non-whites might as well not exist. Alvin and his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), are big fans of making their own entertainment, watching rain and lightning, or listening to the mournful humming of the grain silos in their small Iowa town (”Ioway“ to Alvin). No TV for us folks, thanks — and no big storms either.
The movie lacks most of the Lynch tropes we’ve become so accustomed to on the long and winding road that led him to The Straight Story: the pervy sex, the fear of one‘s own mutinous biology, the dashed-out brains, beheadings and suchlike. Neither is there much of his trademark tendency to traffic in the willfully weird. Apart from the fact that Alvin rides a lawnmower-steed on his odyssey — on his progress toward Calvary, his metaphorical one-man Red River cattle-drive, or whatever it is — and that Rose has a stutter that’s the auditory equivalent of the flickering fluorescent light in the Twin Peaks morgue, there‘s little other evidence of Lynch’s tendency to make 100-mile detours into freak-show land (leave that to Harmony Korine). Oh, except for the G rating.
Also gone is what‘s been termed Lynch’s ”ironic“ perspective. Actually, it‘s not gone — it was never there in the first place. To call Lynch’s world-view ironic just shields us from his films‘ ”Morning in America,“ bourgeois triumphalism. The idea being that if it’s intentional irony, it‘s okay. I don’t think Lynch has or has ever had an ironic bone in his body. The Straight Story unfolds gently with an evenness and rural patience that call to mind those allegedly ”better times“ that Gingrich, Armey and Robertson would like us all to choke on. Characters say beaming, country-doofus stuff like ”How the heck are ya?“ and ”You‘re a good man, Danny Riordan. That’s why I married you.“ Or ”The sky sure is fulla stars tonight.“ Alvin is a figure from the past, dispensing Walter Brennan–ish tidbits of folk wisdom to the benighted moderns he meets. ”Coolidge was president when you were born,“ Rose reminds him. Which reminds us that the Coolidge administration was a fat, complacent foretaste of both the Eisenhower boom that spawned Lynch, and for which he‘s so nostalgic, and the retread Reagan years, which were his high tide and precise ideological mirror.
Why does Lynch desire and proselytize so heartily for the quiet life? After all, he as much as anyone — thanks to Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks — is partly responsible for the insufferable pseudo-postmodernist shit that now clogs the culture around us, and which The Straight Story hates. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum point out in their book Midnight Movies, Lynch in his ’80s heyday strip-mined American popular culture in precisely the same way that Reagan and his larcenous freebooters strip-mined the national economy. And he still thinks he can go home again? The Straight Story is one of those inspirational movies — like The Spitfire Grill, or any garden-variety Olsen Twins heartstring-plucker — that Christian Web sites rhapsodize over as oases in the lake of lust and fornication that is Clinton‘s America. David Lynch meet Bill Bennett — you guys are gonna get along just fine.