Ageist language I could not resist flagging. From the NFT viewing notes of Charulata (1964 – dir. Satyajit Ray) I quote : … I saw old women doddering out of the cinema with tears in their eyes …. the ancient women emerging from the cinema leaning on the arms of their grandchildren understood….Review by Chidananda Das Gupta in Indian Film Culture Sept 1964. How great that for once the reactions of old women to a film are recorded. What a shame that the ageist language ‘doddering’ ‘ancient’ spoils the picture of old women sharing with grandchildren the cinematic experience.
But to the main subject of this post: The Straight Story. As films featuring old people increase, academic publications pay more attention to this cultural change. I just wish that academics interested in the representation of old people in films would be more accurate in their accounts of the films they examine. Amir Cohen-Shalev in ‘Visions of Ageing’ (Sussex Academic Press-2009-20012) mentions and dismisses The Straight Story. He does not include this film in his study because he says:
“The vision of aging as non-conformist, when pushed to the extreme reach (sic) a stereotypization of its own. The non-conformist elderly can become submerged in the prototype of the ‘wise old man’. This happens, for example, in David Lynch’s The Straight Story….. Lynch’s elderly protagonist represents larger-than-life spiritual morality and being at peace with the elements … the actual aging experience is absent in The Straight Story …. references to the past are few and far between… the concrete is downplayed and erased in order to make way for the archetypical and mythical structure of the whole film.”
Cohen chose, for his book, films where the old person is non conformist. He explains that he does not include the stereotype ‘wise old man’ like Alvin of The Straight Story. I also did not understand the film at a first viewing and noted that I thought that it was an old man’s serene journey. But when I had to present it to a film group I viewed it again and analysed some of its complex features (see blog June 2012).
I just will take Cohen’s above sentences one by one and examine them. My arguments here are not interpretative but a careful look at what is on-screen.
Alvin represents larger-than-life spiritual morality and being at peace with the elements. No, Alvin does not. He is a deeply troubled, fiercely independent character with a painful guilty past who is acting to find peace. What Cohen misses here is the contrast between nature as filmed by Lynch and the dark forces that haunt Alvin. While the daylight cinematography expresses the serenity of nature, the dialogues reveal a human past laden with pain and guilt. Is looking at one’s past and addressing unresolved issues an expression of spiritual morality? Yes, Alvin does contemplate nature. Does this represent a spiritual morality?
The actual ageing experience is absent. The fall that disables the old man, his failing sight that prevents him from driving and having to use a lawnmower, his decision to refuse interventions to prolong life, his brother having a stroke, the need to clear up past misunderstandings – are these not ageing experiences? Is it not the ageing experience that is the initiating event of the film and its whole purpose?
References to the past are few and far between. It is difficult to understand how the many references to the past have escaped Cohen. The story is about what happened in the past. The fire that killed one of his grandchildren and caused the others to be taken into care, the fact that he drank a lot and had to stop, his war experience of shooting accidentally a friendly soldier, and, the reason for this trip, to renew contact with his estranged brother who has had a stroke.
The concrete is downplayed and erased in order to make way for the archetypical and mythical structure of the whole film. No, Alvin is not seen here as a wise old man. He is a disabled old man who examines his past and needs to make amends. A disabled old man who against all odds needs to be in control and, yes, who as the comments on my earlier blog explore, needs to leave a legacy. Concrete details of the mise-en-scene abound.
I have in my blog mentioned that there was more in the film than my analysis addresses. In the comments section the aspects of the need for old people to maintain control and leaving a legacy are looked at by one tutor and his students. http://eldercom.wordpress.com
There is in this film space to think and interpret. There are many questions left open. It is a complex film that needs detailed study. To my mind it is an example of a character study of an old man that incorporates many aspects of ageing that are neglected in other films.
It deserves a serious academic study and not a superficial comment based probably on one viewing. Why are films about ageing sometimes treated in such a cavalier way? Why do they not get the attention and analysis given to other works of art?