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The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

The Straight Story wants to present its characters as real, but it then exaggerates their reality. They’re better than real. Superior imitations. And it’s the film’s undoing.

Well, and the music. The eschewing of cartoon for caricature and the Angelo Badalamenti score. It is not the music to tell the story of a man born in 1920s Minnesota, who later moves to Iowa at some point and now at seventy-three is driving a riding mower to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. Badalamenti’s main theme is ostentatious; even if you like it, it’s ostentatious. The movie’s all about how this guy, played by Richard Farnsworth, isn’t ostentatious. How could he be? He gives folksy, somewhat progressive wisdom and always pays his way. He never takes handouts, but he’ll compromise as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break his code. He’s a cowboy, on the steel green horse—well, steel green mule of a John Deere riding mower—he rides.

Straight Story isn’t a character study; its protagonist is never subject, never driving force (no pun intended). Director Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney shrug off the idea of Farnsworth’s motivations until the third act when he dumps them in some heartfelt, folksy exposition. Straight Story is based on a true story, yet the film does whatever it can to make its characters seem utterly contained to their scenes. They stop existing when the film, sometimes jarringly, cuts away from them. It’s somewhat appropriate, however, as Sweeney also edited the film. The film has a handful of really rough cuts, not to mention when all of a sudden in the second half it employs frequent fades to black to end scenes. Occasionally the cuts are rough because clearly the actor onscreen didn’t think their scene was over. The movie’s just done showing this good, simple folk being kindly to one another. Point made, time to move on. Though, more often than not—especially in the second half—it’s just cutting to some other good, simple folk being kindly to one another scene.

It’s too bad. There are some occasional really strong moments. There’s a scene where Farnsworth witnesses a car accident and its frantic aftermath. Or when he’s hanging out with fellow old guy Wiley Harker at a bar and they’re having a profound emotional moment talking about World War II. Harker’s monologue is way better than Farnsworth’s and clearly so, which is concerning since Harker’s only in two scenes and Farnsworth is, you know, the movie. But even so, when Lynch and Sweeney bring in a non-diegetic war sounds track, it ruins the actors’ scene. Why would you give the actors this great opportunity then junk it for pedestrian memory sounds. It’s so strange. The Straight Story puts sugar in its own gas tank, time and again.

And then there’s Farnsworth’s daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. She gets a character revelation after her character is basically gone from the movie and it’s just to hammer in how progressive Farnsworth can be compared to, well, the younger generation. Straight Story positions Farnsworth as the world’s greatest grandad, only it’s a secret power and he can only use it on strangers, who hear more about his motivations for the trip than daughter Spacek. Of course, Spacek is—according to Farnsworth—a little slow. Spacek plays the character maybe autistic? Or with a speech impediment. But not slow. Not given the ideas she’s got to talk about in the dialogue she’s got. It’s kind of the most egregious of the film’s problems, just because the movie later uses Spacek just to develop Farnsworth and even then, only in a trite, contrived way. The film never feels less “real” than when Farnsworth is explaining how he’s so real. And manly.

Because he’s a cowboy. He’s a real American hero, which might explain why the movie treats him like an action figure. He moves where the film needs him; never once seems to have agency his own.

Even more distressing is when, in the final scene, a very special guest star outacts the 110 minute sum of Farnsworth’s performance without even speaking.

The film isn’t exactly condescending or patronizing, but it’s got a very definite narrative distance; it displays the events, doesn’t create them; it displays the people, doesn’t give them agency. They don’t develop. At all. And the exposition dumps are always manipulative.

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

Farnsworth is okay. It should be the kind of part you can go on and on about, analyzing the performance and whatnot, but you can’t. Because he’s just okay. Partly because Lynch doesn’t have any idea what kind of performance he’s directing. Spacek’s okay too, even if she’s the film’s narrative device doormat. James Cada’s good in one of the supporting roles, which are usually cast based on the actor’s appearance rather than their… acting ability. Or even casting appropriateness.

Good photography from Freddie Francis. Okay direction from Lynch. There are issues. There are peculiar choices when it comes to the ostensible character study stuff. There are weird, frankly silly zoom-ins.

It’s long, its plotting structure stalls, the music is annoying (even after the repeated use of the theme disappears—possibly when those fades to black come in, I wasn’t paying attention)… Straight Story has its sincerities, but never where it needs them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Neal Edelstein and Sweeney; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny), Wiley Harker (Verlyn), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), and Everett McGill (Tom).


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Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)

In terms of De Palma’s direction, Carrie is a little bit of a mess. It’s a combination of Hitchcock as camp–which really cuts into the effectiveness of the finale–more religious imagery than, say, The Ten Commandments and, finally, some truly brilliant composition from De Palma. He, cinematography Mario Tosi and editor Paul Hirsch create a sometimes transcendent experience.

Sadly, the technical talent–including Pino Donaggio’s lovely score–and good performances don’t overpower the script problems. De Palma falls into the horror standard of using a big surprise ending to avoid having to include, you know, an actual ending. Someone seems to have misplaced Carrie‘s third act.

Some of the trouble probably stems from how much the filmmakers are hiding from the viewer. That aspect plays, unfortunately, into the Hitchcock camp factor I mentioned earlier. De Palma never figures out how seriously he wants to take the film–he’s often either slathering on the religion or making it a tad too goofy. The film’s at its best when he can’t do either, because the scenes need actual content. De Palma’s only goofy when he can fiddle with the pacing.

Sissy Spacek’s excellent in the lead, though she’s not really the protagonist or even the main character. The film forgets about her for long stretches. Nancy Allen’s also excellent as her evil antagonist. William Katt’s quite good too.

Piper Laurie’s okay, nothing more, as the psychotically religious mother.

The strong first half nearly makes up for the misfired finish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King; director of photography, Mario Tosi; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by Paul Monash; released by United Artists.

Starring Sissy Spacek (Carrie White), Betty Buckley (Miss Collins), Piper Laurie (Margaret White), William Katt (Tommy Ross), Nancy Allen (Chris Hargensen), Amy Irving (Sue Snell), John Travolta (Billy Nolan), P.J. Soles (Norma Watson), Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Snell), Sydney Lassick (Mr. Fromm) and Stefan Gierasch (Mr. Morton).


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Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)

I was in high school the first time I saw Badlands. I’d seen a lot of movies–I think by that time, I’d even made a top one hundred list. I know I’d seen True Romance, so I must have been at least fifteen. There’s nothing else like Badlands in cinema, which is a bit of an easy statement, a bit of a cop-out–it’s an attempt to describe something indescribable. I haven’t seen it in years–the last time would have been April or May of 1999, just after the DVD came out. I don’t think I know enough adjectives to write a more traditional response to the film–a person can only read (or type) stunning, amazing and singular so many times. Didn’t I already write singular once before that sentence?

Badlands is so difficult to describe because of Malick’s approach to the story. There’s no attempt to explain Martin Sheen’s personable, affable mass murderer. Malick never attempts to give him any humanity to make spending ninety minutes with him easier. Instead, Sheen charms the viewer too–he’s a likable guy and understanding why he starts killing people and doesn’t stop isn’t part of the viewer’s purview, or the film’s. Malick’s no more interested in explaining Sheen’s actions than he is explaining why he likes Eddie Fisher. Sheen does a lot of things–goes to see Warren Oates (a significant scene, not just for Sheen’s effort, but for Oates’s inexplicable, slow to anger response), fixes his hair before he gets caught, lets some couples live and others not–and Malick understands explaining them, or even drawing attention to them, would kill the film.

I’d forgotten three things about Badlands. First, its supreme quality. Second, the use of lighting (I won’t forget to discuss that aspect). Third, Malick’s dialogue. Sheen and Sissy Spacek rarely talk about the events in the film, something they both seem to recognize near the end. They have conversations about everything else, detached from their actions. Malick’s dialogue never seems evasive; it’s perfect.

Before the technical aspects–Spacek. Spacek narrates the film. What Badlands does, what very few other films have ever done (I’m at a loss for examples, the famous narrated films do not apply), is present a first person narrative in the finest sense. The details Malick includes aren’t necessarily filmic, they’re the details Spacek’s character would include. The short shot–and corresponding narration–of her putting on make-up while on the run… it’s one of the finest moments in film. There’s no other narration like Badlands. It puts Malick above as a screenwriter.

The lighting is wondrous. The way Malick uses shadows to establish scenes and to portray movement and action, that technique is special, but Badlands doesn’t have a single ordinary shot. The dance scene, the way the light hits the characters’ faces, the open plains. There’s nothing else like it. The shot of the mountains, where Malick pauses to give the viewer a chance to imagine it, then the shot surpasses. There’s nothing like it.

Malick’s montages are also breathtaking. Whether they’re set to Spacek’s narration or the perfect music.

It’s so hard to talk about Badlands, because it just begs to be watched over and over. I’d forgotten the last shot, for instance, where the film becomes something else entirely.

Or maybe it doesn’t become something else. Maybe in an effort to fill in the blanks, my bewilderment forces me to expect a deeper layer of meaning. It’s entirely possible Badlands is just Giotto’s circle.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Terrence Malick; directors of photography, Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn; edited by Robert Estrin; music by George Aliceson Tipton; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff) and John Carter (Rich Man).


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