The City of Absurdity The Straight Story
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Lynch tries direction other than dark

by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY, October 1999

LOS ANGELES - David Lynch is surrounded by a world of eclectic artistic pursuits at his secluded home in the Hollywood Hills.

When he's not directing movies, he jams with musician colleagues (he likes to play the guitar upside down), oversees musical scores with longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, experiments with sound effects and fashions his distinctively macabre glue paintings.

His art on canvas, in fact, led him to create art on film.

"I wanted my paintings to move. It was as simple as that," he says. "I heard sounds -mostly sound effects like wind -when I painted, so I wanted movement and sound. I just wanted to do it as a moving painting, with sound. That's how it started."

His "Bob" series of paintings is just what one might expect from the Lynch who directed the off-beat TV series Twin Peaks and the eerie movies Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. They feature a dark canvas filled with images of severed human limbs and disembodied dog heads and have cryptic titles like Bob Burns Tree and Bob Loves Sally Until She's Blue in the Face.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that the 52-year-old director did not picture himself making The Straight Story, which opens today. It's rated G - a first for Lynch - and is being released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Mary Sweeney, Lynch's editor/producer/companion, sought Lynch's advice on the script, which she wrote with her childhood friend John Roach.

"I thought the script was great when Mary would talk about it, but I didn't think it was for me," says Lynch, sitting in his sparsely furnished office, which looks out onto the hills. " I was kind of apprehensive to read it because I didn't know what I was going to say if I didn't like it. But I read the script and loved it. "

Straight is Lynch's eighth film and probably the straightest story he has ever told. It's based on the true story of 73-year-old Alvin Straight (played by Richard Farnsworth), a hobbling man with a host of medical maladies who journeys from his home in Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. The kicker: He makes the trip atop his John Deere lawnmower.

"I call it the 4-mile-an-hour road picture," says Sissy Spacek, who plays Straight's daughter Rose.

The film is about the bonds of family and captures the slow-paced rhythms of the American heartland. There's not a hint of violence, sex or bawdy language.

"We did a David Lynch movie that has the Disney name on it, and we couldn't be prouder," says Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Pictures.

The film will roll out slowly, starting in just a few cities, then expand. There is talk of Oscar nominations, particularly for Farnsworth's performance, but no one expects the $8.5 million film to be a blockbuster.

"I like to surprise the audience," says Schneider. "Will we make $190 million? No. But we didn't invest much money."

The audience will surely be as surprised as critics and even the film's stars have been.

"Just when we think we had him pegged, David surprises us," says Spacek. "Having known him for many years, I think Straight Story is more reminiscent of the David Lynch that I've known than many of his other films. . . . He's a greater character than any character that's ever been in one of his films. . . . He's also the boy next door. There's something so endearing and so funny and so totally unique about him."

Though he has been dubbed "master of the weird," perhaps it is Mel Brooks' description of Lynch as "Jimmy Stewart from Mars" that is most apt. Like Stewart, Lynch is amiable, down-to-earth and thoughtful. Born in Montana (though his research scientist father moved the family to Washington, Idaho, North Carolina and Virginia), Lynch is pleasantly reserved, not unlike many of the characters in The Straight Story.

Never chatty, he seriously considers questions and tends to answer them with responses that are a hybrid of straightforward and vague. (His take on inspiration: "You can't force ideas. It's a lot like fishing. Fisherman don't move around fast. They sit quietly, and they have a bait, and that bait is the desire, and that's all you've got. So, you just go in your mind, and some days you don't catch anything, and then maybe one day you just get that big fish.")

He speaks slowly, sometimes haltingly, but is quick to praise what he admires. He finds a lot of things "beautiful": the standing ovation at the Cannes film festival for The Straight Story; the experience of riding on a lawnmower; Farnsworth's ability to inhabit the title character in The Straight Story ("a part he was born to play"); the relationship between Alvin Straight and his daughter; a personal assistant handing him a cup of coffee.

His thick hair has grayed and his eyes are a piercing blue. On a hot morning in late summer, he wore a crisp, white shirt and exhibited the good posture and polite manner of the Eagle Scout he once was. (Lynch once abbreviated his bio to read simply: "Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana.") Like the politest of scouts, he extends his hand in parting and says, "A hearty handshake for you."

Those who know him well say Lynch is patient and tender-hearted. After all, he directed the Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man, about a deformed man who encounters compassion for the first time.

Sweeney thought Lynch would be perfect for The Straight Story from the beginning. "I thought he would do the most beautiful job of telling the story of anybody I could think of," she says. "It would go back to a place that everybody saw in The Elephant Man, where his soulfulness would come forward again. "

Lynch decided to make the movie, inspired in part by an intuitive sense that the film would be accepted on its own terms.

"It's got great elements. It's got an old guy who is a real individual, who does something for a beautiful reason, against all odds," Lynch says. "He's somebody I think people would like to see on the screen and experience the journey with him."

The filmmaker isn't quite sure what the fuss is about when people ask about the departure he has taken from his more familiar bizarre path.

"You just get lost in the story and the translation of that to film," he says with his trademark simplicity. "It's not like you set out and say, 'I want to make a G-rated film.' This just happened to be a story that could be told in the correct way and get a G rating. It's the nature of the story. "

Those who have worked with Lynch speak glowingly of his easy, patient manner during film shoots.

"You could be totally screwing up on the set, but he'll find some really funny way to get you back on track, so that you don't lose your cool," says Spacek. "The cast and the crew and everybody working with him become so totally devoted to him. To me he's an artist in the true sense of the word. Whether he's making a film at a studio or doing his painting in a garage."

He may have started out in a garage, but these days Lynch has fashioned a more comfortable place for his artistic pursuits. He lives in a pink home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and works in two neighboring houses on a winding road overlooking Los Angeles. The houses designated for work are gray, modern buildings with a recording studio, a screening room, production company offices and a rooftop studio for painting. Lynch bought the Wright house first, then over the years acquired the two neighboring homes.

Now, with no next movie planned, he has returned to his studio to paint.

"Everything he does, all his art, all his work, is about some crazy vision he has," Spacek says. "He's not chasing popularity. He's just doing his own thing. "


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© Mike Hartmann