But I’m willing to guarantee that this movie will renew your faith in the kindness of strangers and the general goodness of people. It will remind you what a breathtakingly gorgeous country we live in, especially our heartland at harvest time. But don’t be misled. This movie is not Pollyannaish, nor is it as straightforward as its title, The Straight Story, suggests. Like most David Lynch productions (that’s right—David Lynch and Walt Disney!), underneath the placid surface waters a tidal wave brews.
Perfectly complemented by fiddle and guitar solos composed by Angelo Badalamenti (who also scored for Lynch on Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), the story begins with Straight falling and needing help back up. It’s a symbolic opening, because we slowly learn that this old man, despite his seeming innocence and vulnerability (he has bad hips, bad vision, and is in overall poor health), is a fallen man who wants to set things right. The long, arduous trip to Mount Zion, WI becomes not only a trip to receive his brother’s forgiveness but also a means of atonement.
Farnsworth seems to capture every emotion ever experienced by humankind on his weather-worn face. His watery blue eyes, which are often gazing at the stars or into the flames of a campfire, seem to search for answers he knows will never come. We learn through Straight’s conversations with people he meets on his six-week odyssey that he’s been harboring a painful secret from WWII, that he has a problem with liquor, and that he might even be the “somebody else” who was watching his daughter’s four children one day when a fire erupted, severely burning one of the children. The state took away the children from their mother, Rose, played by Sissy Spacek (another great performance), because of her slight mental disability.
We never learn exactly what happened between the two brothers. “It is a story as old as the Bible; Cain and Abel,” Straight tells a priest he meets, referring to how he and his brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), became estranged. Speaking of Harry Dean Stanton (The Green Mile, Big Love),he’s on screen less than five minutes, but what he does in those five minutes, and with only a few lines of dialogue, could have stolen the show if Farnsworth hadn’t been so darn exceptional.
Straight almost always uses a story to reveal things about his past, or to help a stranger work through an apparent source of pain. This reminds me of an interesting bit of advice I read in John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara. He writes that when there has been a deep hurt in one person it is best not to directly address the hurt and make an issue of it. “A strange dynamic comes alive in the soul if you make something into an issue. It becomes a habit and keeps recurring in a pattern. Frequently, it is better simply to acknowledge that there is a wound there, but then stay away from it.” Alvin did this when talking to a pregnant teenage runaway he met on the road. Instead of asking the girl a million questions or preaching to her to go on back home, he used a simple story that he told his children when they were growing up. He would give them a single stick and ask them to break it. And of course they could. Then he would tie a bundle of sticks together and ask them to break that. And of course they couldn’t. “That,” he told them, “is family.”
Stories and myth help us cope with, and make sense of, the inexplicable and inexpressible. John Gardner said of all art: it “begins in a wound and is an attempt to live with the wound or heal it.” Emily Dickinson refers to this indirect revelation of truth as telling it “slant”:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
Despite the wrongs Straight committed in his past, it seemed to me he came out of it not less of a man but more. A better man. Humbler. One of the curious and surprising things I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is that a “moral” person isn’t necessarily one who follows a rigid orthodoxy or who obeys all the rules. The times in my life when I’ve deviated from the straight and narrow, I’ve gained a fuller humanity and more compassion and gentleness of spirit—toward myself, toward others. I love this definition of morality posed by American philosopher Richard Rorty, quoted in Erik Reece’s American Gospel: “Moral progress is a matter of wider and wider sympathy.”
Rick Pitino, the men’s head basketball coach for the University of Louisville, has been in the local and national news of late for an “indiscretion.” It has me thinking a lot about this idea of moral progress, because so many people, when someone else’s dirty laundry is aired, like to sit back and cluck tongues and throw around the word hypocrite. I reread Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Taken” the other day. I used to interpret the road “less traveled by” as the “good” and proper path, the one less traveled because few can follow its strict moral code. But the speaker of the poem tells us that the path he thought was less traveled by turns out to be just about as worn as the other. When Frost writes at the end, “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference,” we are still left to ponder the outcome of that chosen path. Maybe the road less traveled by is not necessarily the morally superior path but the path we must take alone and make our own, traveling at our own pace, just as Straight uses an unconventional mode of transport (at a top speed of five miles per hour) to lead him toward his own spiritual healing.
After watching the film, I learned that Farnsworth, at the time of shooting, was suffering from bone cancer. A year later the excruciating pain was too much, and he took his life. But who among us could pass judgment? Who, really, under the circumstances, could blame him? As one good friend reminded me, each of us must work out our own salvation.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally la
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference