Tuesday, September 2, 2008

May We All Ride Lawnmowers: Learning Patience and Hospitality from David Lynch and Alvin Straight

In the summer of 1994, at the ripe old age of 73, Alvin Straight took a trip. Having received word that his older brother, Henry -- to whom he had not spoken for a decade -- had just suffered a stroke, Alvin decided it was time he see his brother.

The problem was not just his age; his bad eyes meant no driver's license, and he didn't trust public transportation. So how to cross 240 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin?

On a 1966 John Deere lawnmower, that's how.

On July 5th, Alvin hitched a 10-foot trailer to his lawnmower, and set out on an odyssey -- five miles an hour, top speed -- to see his ailing brother.

The trip made headlines around the country, but Alvin shunned publicity. He died two years later of heart failure.

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In 1999, auteur David Lynch -- a director not known for making "linear" films (that is, movies with a comprehensible narrative) -- released his cinematic take on Alvin's tale, called The Straight Story. The title reflects both Alvin's last name and the unusually straightforward nature of the story for a Lynch film. After receiving acclaim at Cannes, Disney picked it up for distribution, the movie got a "G" rating, and while it didn't exactly shake the foundations of the box office, it received widespread critical acclaim, and Richard Farnsworth, who played Alvin Straight, was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He is the oldest person to be nominated for Best Actor.

Farnsworth could relate to Alvin during the shoot, as he was suffering from significant pain in his legs; unfortunately, the pain became so severe that a year later, Farnsworth ended his own life by shooting himself in the head.

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The pace of The Straight Story reflects the speed of Alvin's life: impossibly slow. My assumption is that this characteristic, obviously intentional on Lynch's part, might prove trying for viewers used to quick editing and constant action. However, the flow of the film, the narrative, and Alvin's own personality (as powerfully acted by Farnsworth) combine to impress into the viewer the same calming patience of Alvin's long journey.

As viewers, we cannot help but empathize with Alvin's situation; when he falls down in his own house in the opening scene, with nobody around to notice, he must simply wait for someone (a friend, a neighbor, and his daughter) to find him and help him back up.

Of the 14 children his wife gave birth to, seven made it to adulthood, and only one of those remains in town with Alvin. She is mentally handicapped in some way, but functional; Alvin, reflecting on her, says that others call her "slow," but that he knows better. Living with his daughter only further teaches him the virtues of patience and what it means to let someone others deem "slow" take care of you.

Once Alvin sets his mind to his journey, there is no turning back, but on the way to reunite with his brother he is constantly interrupted. A straight line intersected by a spiderweb of stories and people, Alvin never once seems bothered by these interruptions; rather, he welcomes each and every intersection with the hospitality and understanding of a man who knows what the stuff of the good life really is.

His first night camping a pregnant teenage girl, running away from home, joins him by his fire. Though initially hostile, she warms to the old man; eventually he is able to share with her why he can't imagine that her family would rather never see her again than know of her baby. He tells her what family means to him: individual sticks, which can be broken easily enough on their own, gathered and wrapped together in a bundle, now unable to be broken. He wakes up the next morning with a bundle of sticks waiting for him, the girl gone.

He camps with a group of young male cyclists, all intent on knowing what it's like to be so old; he kindly guides them both toward understanding what it is like, and how demeaning their questions are.

He comes across an infuriated woman who has hit a deer for the umpteenth time in the road. She vents her frustration to him, all the while him listening silently. Eventually she drives away.

He almost dies careening down a steep hill, then is hosted and housed for a few days by a small town, while they repair his lawnmower. They offer to drive him the rest of the way, but he knows he must finish the trip alone. In that same town a fellow World War II veteran takes him out to get a drink, and while sharing stories from their time in the war, each breaks down telling the other something he has told no one else.

He meets a priest while camping in a graveyard, and shares with him the reasons (namely, stupidity, stubbornness, and alcohol) he and his brother are estranged; that all he wants to do is look up at the stars with his brother once more, that that will be his reconciliation.

And in the final minutes of the movie, he finds his brother's house, and we see the climax of Alvin Straight's odyssey. We see that there is no brokenness which cannot be mended; that there is always life ready to follow death; that the point is not found in "estrangement/reconciliation" alone, but rather that Alvin could never set out to restore what was broken without being willing to endure the journey; that Alvin's patient endurance is not a product of his determination to see his brother, but rather the essence of the kind of character which would set out to reconcile at all. We see and learn from Alvin the ways in which the unexpected is, and must always be received as, gift: just as his "slow" daughter is not slow at all, Alvin's interruptions along the way are not interruptions, but wonderful opportunities to take the time God has given to stop, listen, and share, to eat, rest, and keep on going.

For as Alvin knows, a lawnmower may be slow, but perhaps that is the point; Mount Zion is just over the next hill, and it's not going anywhere.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I was able to sit down on a "lawnmower" and have a wonderful conversation for over an hour about Africa with a friend. It was fabulous and I almost missed it by being too rushed.

    I think this post could have made it in the Optimist (the good ole movie review) as long as it was credited to Blad West.