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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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David Lynch revealed his view of America on Twin Peaks. He continues his offbeat portrait with the true story of Alvin Straight.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is an old Iowan with hip, circulation, and lung problems (to name a few). He lives with his Daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) who has a strange, Lynchian speech impediment. They get a call from Wisconsin, where Alvin’s brother has just had a stroke. Alvin moons and pines for a few days — he’s not really fit for travel— but ultimately decides to go visit. With all his health problems, the only vehicle he can legally operate is a riding mower, so he hooks his old Red’s to a trailer and heads north across Iowa.

At first his journey is merely functional: the destination is the goal. But over time it becomes Alvin’s last great quest, the thing that will give meaning to his last years of life. Offers for help are politely answered with “I wanna finish this one my own way.” It becomes a ritual for him, a way to put all his affairs right before he goes.

Along the way Alvin meets a handful of characters. I was going to say “colorful” characters, but on reflection, they all seemed pretty ordinary. What makes them seem quirky is that they are presented in a David Lynch film.

Lynch has a unique talent for making the ordinary seem strange. He does this by focusing attention on details that most directors would gloss over. Alvin meets a woman who has hit a deer with her car every day this week. It’s not implausible, but when that’s all we know about a person, they might seem, well, “colorful.”

Lynch does likewise with props and scenes. A shot of a sprinkler stays on screen long enough to give it some significance. It has nothing to do with the plot, but Lynch lingers, obsessed with this detail. In another scene, Alvin buys a grabber tool from the local Ace hardware store. The scene might have been shortened or cut altogether by another filmmaker, but Lynch shows the whole 2-minute transaction between Alvin and the clerk. Why? Only Lynch knows.

Other trademarks of Lynch’s are beautifully photographed settings and appropriately evocative music. Twin Peaks was set in the foggy northwest scored by a sad, simple electric bass. This time the cinematographer is Freddie Francis, who shot Cape Fear and Lynch’s Dune. He captures all the lush beauty of the Midwest. Rows of corn, rolling hills, vast expanses of fields and roads all fill his wide screen. The music (by Angelo Badalamenti, who also scored Twin Peaks) has a calm, folksy feel that matches the cinematography perfectly.

The worst thing about The Straight Story is that it is slow. The pace of the movie matches Alvin’s own pace, which is ambling, at best. Combine this with Lynch’s lingering details, and to the casual viewer or the average 8-year old, The Straight Story could be downright boring.

But this movie isn’t about action or events. It’s about characters, reflection, and old age. Taken on its own terms, The Straight Story is an excellent, thoughtful piece of filmmaking.