In 1994 73-year-old Alvin Straight travelled by lawn mower several hundred miles across Northern Iowa to visit his brother who had taken a stroke, in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. He had not seen or spoken to him in 10 years. Strongly independent, Straight could no longer drive a car because of bad eyesight and didn’t like the idea of travelling by bus. Filmmaker David Lynch has chosen to fictionally recreate Straight’s journey. The start of the movie opens with the contrast of stars on a black backround and is quite typical of a Disney film.
The motif of the stars continuously reoccurs during the film and it only near the end of the film that we learn of their significance. The opening music is wistful and slow, it is non-diagetic. The music sets the scene quite well, as it is reflective of small town life; Angelo Badalamenti composes all the music. The first scene opens with a spinning aerial shot of cornfields and gives an idea of the location. The camera then zooms in on a combine harvester in an enormous field; this image is also repeated throughout the film.
The camera then moves along the track of the combine harvester and then dissolves into an aerial shot of a small mid-western town. Lynch uses the edit technique of dissolving scenes to incorporate most of the scenes together throughout the film. The music fades to silence as the camera slowly bring us from space, down to meet the first character. Simply this can be seen as just a road movie, but it is much more. All the conventions of a road movie appear in it.
The long shots of the road, shots of the wheels spinning and the many characters he meets and helps along the way but there are many themes that appear in the film which evoke emotion and make this film more than just a road movie. 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.
His subsequent journey takes him to places and meets him up with people and adventures. Many of the film’s long, thoughtful camera pans focus simply on Alvin riding on his mower or the sky or just the fields in the background. Midwestern life unfiltered. Lynch understands the Midwest, both its beauty and its unrefined nature and tries to show the audience this. The film deals with many themes throughout such as ageism, forgiveness and reconciliation, past regrets and the end of life. I will look at different sections of the film in which these views are dominant.
I will look at the ideology of ageism within the film. The two scenes, which predominant this theme are the scene with the pregnant girl and in the bicycle camp. In these scenes binary oppositions are present between youth and age. In the scene with the campfire Alvin meets a young girl who is pregnant, they share sausages over a campfire and their story of why they are out on the road. This scene resembles that out of the wizard of oz. This scene shows naivety against experience. During this particular scene there is long silences.
A little more about Alvin and his family is revealed as he moves along and meets other people. He has no disillusions about himself and tells the young girl that she’d rather be at home than sitting with an “old gezzer” eating sausages off a campfire. He links the girl’s problem with his experience with rose. He tells the young girl about rose and during this the Spanish guitar is the only instrument used, which plays an emotional piece which evokes sorrow. He then tells the girl the story of the sticks, a conservative message, and about how family structures society.
When he wakes up to find the girl gone and a bundle of sticks, like in his story we are contented as we know she has returned home to her family due to the advice of Alvin. Another scene in which this theme is strong is in the bicycle camp. It shows Alvin sitting with two young men talking about the inevitability of life. There is a circularity of scenes during the film and this is also present in this one as once again he is sitting around a campfire talking to people younger than himself.
Alvin does not sentimentalise old age, like in Hollywood he tells the truth. In this scene there is a continuous use of close up’s to show the emotion in Alvin’s face. One of the most moving scenes of the whole film is when the young man asks “whats the worst thing about being old Alvin? ” and he replies; “The worst thing about being old is, remembering when you is young” The non-verbal codes show us the regretful acceptance of his past and the known acceptance of his fate i. e. death. Another theme in the film is that of past regrets.
In the scene in the bar with the old man we learn about Alvin’s past. He fought in world war two and developed a drinking problem when he returned; this shows us his human faults. The music in the backround to this scene is slow and depressing. It is 1940’s or 1950’s music, associated with the period during the war. As the scene progresses the camera gets closer and as they talk their faces are full of emotion. The old man picks at the label of his beer, which shows his agitation and nervousness. The music fades out and is replaced by sound effects of battle.
At this stage there is intense close up’s to show the regret and emotion on their faces. It makes us think that many people ignore the elderly and don’t appreciate the sacrifices they have made for their country like Alvin did in world war two. Alvin obviously remembers his friends and his time in the trenches quite well and says “The more years I have, the more they’ve lost” The theme of past regrets and forgiveness is present in the scene in the graveyard. The setting is important, as it is symbolic that Alvin’s journey is close to and end.
Alvin tells the priest that him and his brother “grew up as close as brothers could be” and it is in this scene that we learn the significance of the stars motif that has been present throughout the film. He tells the priest that he brother and he grew up real close and that they used to sleep out in the summer and watch the stars and talk about them and wondering if there was other people in space. He says that it was anger, vanity and liquor that drove them apart but that he wanted to make peace, the scene then fades to black which is very unusual.
Lynch then stretches out the tension of his audience by making Alvin stop in the bar. As Alvin is coming close to his brother’s house there is a violin playing mournfully suggesting that Alvin might be too late. As Alvin gets off the lawn mower the camera moves behind him. Alvin stands in front of the house and calls for Lyle, there is no response and he quickly calls again but his second attempt is more pathetic. We then hear Lyle call and we can see the relief on Alvin’s face and the audience is also relieved. Alvin makes his way up to the house and Lyle tells him to sit down, there is silence and the tension is explosive.
By the expression on Lyle’s face it looks like forgiveness won’t be easily won until he turns round and sees that Alvin has arrived on a lawnmower and his expression suddenly changes and we can see a tear in his eye. There is one strangled sob by Alvin to end the scene. There were no overblown apologies and it was not polluted by Hollywood standards. It then changes to stars on a black backround as it began showing the circularity of the film and life. David Lynch has said “This is a story about old age, and it’s a story about a man’s life.
Alvin Straight is a man who in 1994 made a trip to visit his brother on a riding lawnmower. He’s a lot more than that, but that’s the story we told. You learn a lot about a regular man’s life, and what he’s gone through is similar to a lot of people. He had a problem, and he solved it. ” And Roy Opochinski has compared the film to “watching a bead of water roll slowly down the side of a beer bottle. You know it’ll reach the end of its journey at some point. You just don’t know exactly what route it will take and whether it will get there by itself or whether it will merge with another drop and speed along its way. “