In David Lynch’s new film, The Straight Story, the 73-year-old hero is urged by well-wishers to mind how he goes, because “there are some weird people out there”. Of course there are – this is Lynch country, isn’t it? Yet this time there aren’t – The Straight Story is peopled with neighbourly types who cheerfully help venerable Alvin Straight on his odyssey across Iowa by lawnmower.
“Where are the dwarves?” a mystified colleague asked me after the film’s Cannes screening. Hiding in the cornfields, I guess. The Straight Story is not the sort of Lynch film we expect. In his previous road movies, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, freaks and deviants lurk at every bend – when the journey’s horrors aren’t cloaked in blackest night. This time, Lynch opts for rural thoroughfares, broad daylight and a real-life hero ever ready with homespun wisdom. This tender vignette seems to be the work of a director with no dark side whatsoever – a David Lynch that Twin Peaks’ gosh-darnit Agent Cooper would recognise as kin.
In many ways, The Straight Story is as much Mary Sweeney’s film as Lynch’s. His regular editor and long-standing domestic partner, Sweeney co-produced and, with John Roach, co-wrote the film, after reading a news report on Alvin Straight’s 1994 journey by John Deere lawnmower to see his estranged brother in Wisconsin. Sweeney showed the script to Lynch, who – against his expectations, he says – was won over. You suspect that what appealed was the hero’s name. “Any kind of arbitrary reason,” Lynch says firmly, “is not enough to spend a year on a picture.”
The film’s upbeat world is no invention, Lynch says: “In reality, Alvin never met any gun-toting, strange, dark people.” Midwest people, he claims, live a charmed life, protected by a bubble of old-world values. He remembers his first visit to Madison, Wisconsin, where Sweeney grew up. “I thought people were joking with me, pulling my leg. How could people be so nice?”
That bubble, he says, is threatened by what locals see in the media about the grim outside world. “It’s almost more frightening for them because their imagination kicks in – they don’t really know it but they feel it’s out there. So that person could say, ‘There’s a lot of weird people around nowadays’, and that could just be from a newspaper, not from personal experience.” You begin to imagine these alleged pure souls going to see a Lynch movie and emerging a-tremble with righteous paranoia.
The great cliché about Lynch is that, as Mel Brooks put it, he’s “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”. But he doesn’t sound remotely like Stewart. He actually speaks like a higher-pitched Ronald Reagan – the same slightly creaky plain talk, punctuated by hesitations, as if trying to remember where he left off.
Reagan might have approved of Lynch’s first family-values film – a tale of moral fibre and brotherly reconciliation. Yet The Straight Story is not as alien as it seems, Lynch insists. “Y’know, there’s many different stories, and when I translate ideas into film, they pass through my own machine. If there were 10 different directors who made the same script, it’d be 10 different films. So it has to be a David Lynch film.”
Paradoxically, The Straight Story may be one of the riskiest ventures ever undertaken by a major director. It may strike a chord with audiences who would normally be repelled by Lynch’s febrile visions, while perplexing long-term fans. It wouldn’t be the first time Lynch has baffled his public, or they him: after the success of his TV anti-soap, Twin Peaks, he fell from public grace in 1992, when he turned it into a feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Unjustly barracked for its cubist remix of the series (“a little bit strangely inbred,” Lynch calls it), the film set his career on a temporary slide.
“I felt this black cloud roll in,” Lynch says, brow furrowing. “It lasted for over two years, and I knew the thing was there, and I watched, and sure enough … I thought I was being true to myself – but the reactions were coloured by this cloud.” Does he mean a cloud in him, or in the public’s response to him? “No … it was a cloud that I felt. I felt that there was a cloud coming over me, and sure enough, things turned when the cloud came. Now I don’t know if the cloud was created by their opinions, or the cloud came and their opinions changed.”
At least Lynch has side interests to keep him buoyant when times are hard or inspiration is short: “idea machines for films” he calls them. He experiments with music in his studio, modifies photos he’s found, and indulges his passion for wood. (“Whenever you can build a shed,” he once declared, “you’ve got it made.”)
Recently, he’s been designing tables for a Swiss company. Don’t put coffee on that table, I joke, it’s a David Lynch. “Yeah,” he says, with a dry, wheezy laugh. “One of them is this steel block table – you shouldn’t put a heavy cup of coffee on it, ’cause it may tip over. It’s about a 60-pound block of steel with an arm and a wooden top, but the leverage is so powerful that even with this base, so heavy … it’s a beautiful table, it’s very pure, but it’s not a successful table because … it tips over.”
Lynch also recently designed a CD-Rom game but it was “blocked from the get-go”, he says, because it would have been completely boring to game buffs. He wanted a “conundrum thing … a beautiful kind of place to put yourself. You try to make a little bit of a mystery and a bit of a story, but you want it to be able to bend back upon itself and get lost – really get lost.” What was it called? “It was called … um …” Lynch flexes his brow and hesitates, and I’d swear he’s making this up on the spur of the moment.
“It was called … Woodcutters From Fiery Ships … Certain events have happened or are sort of happening in a bungalow which is behind another house in Los Angeles. And then suddenly the woodcutters arrive and they take the man who we think has witnessed these events, and their ship is … uh, silver, like a Thirties sort of ship, and the fuel is logs.” Another dry laugh. “And they smoke pipes.”
Lynch had a serious disappointment last year with his planned TV series Mulholland Drive. Apparently alarmed by the pilot, the ABC network decided to axe it. A saga of LA high and low, the series would have involved an ingenue from Iowa, an amnesiac femme fatale and a sinister figure whose grisly appearance at the end of the pilot – red eyes and fungus face – suggests a second coming of Twin Peaks’ demonic Bob.
ABC, however, “hated almost everything about it”, Lynch says. “And who can say why? My theory is, they’re allowed to see dailies – in dailies you have the wheat and you have the chaff. No one really knows what is wheat and chaff but me. And sometimes there’s some bad chaff that they’re seeing and that makes them stay awake at night and worry. They think, we don’t like his attitude and we don’t understand this chaff and it goes like that.”
What was going to happen to all these characters? “You’ll have to wait and see.” But we never will, will we? “No. That’s the sad thing,” Lynch says with a little laugh that’s either bitter or philosophical.
So Lynch’s fans must make do without this labyrinth of open-ended narrative, and console themselves with the gentle, linear vignette of The Straight Story, a Lynch film no one could have predicted. But there’s no obvious logic to his career, Lynch says, no pattern connecting his films.
“Each film has got to be seen on its own – it’s theoretically possible that The Straight Story is my first film. If it relates, you don’t think about that. Although I sometimes try to put in these red pipes.” Red pipes? Those must have escaped me. “Red pipes – from Jacques Tati’s movie Mon Oncle. I just try and put them in my movies every now and then. I just love Jacques Tati.” Now I remember – the woodcutters from fiery ships smoke pipes. But Alvin Straight doesn’t. Neither, as far as we know, does Lynch. Make of that what you will.