Olden Silence

The Straight Story

published in Real Time No.38, Sydney, 2000

What is it like to be alone, truly alone? You would loose something we take for granted every moment of our social existence: proximity. Things, objects, events, people would be held from afar. All would be over there, beyond reach, away from you. As you get old, an audiovisual loneliness develops in tandem with a psychological and physical fraying of the self. Faces are not as distinct; voices become muted and muffled; everything appears to be occurring 'over there' as the senses become dulled, diffused, dilated. Combine this with the loss of loved ones, friends, even acquaintances, and all immediacy and proximity start to fade.

David Lynch's The Straight Story (2000) braces the psycho-acoustic realm of loneliness as it is enveloped by the onset of old age. Just as you will eventually experience the dimming of light and the narrowing of frequencies in real life, so will you experience all manner and mode of recession, resignation and regression during the sonorous unfolding of The Straight Story.

This is what marks Lynch as a uniquely experiential director: he investigates the audiovisual nature of cinema in order to generate visceral and vicarious experiences which provide the basis for psychological consideration. We know this of him well - albeit filtered unnecessarily through a cultdom of surrealism, absurdism and artifice. Do not presume that Lynch's predilection for producing a proscenia for psychotica marks a fixed disposure to loudness. No matter how 'loud' his cinema may appear at every level of its execution, Lynch is more concerned with the screaming silence and numbing noise which vibrates deep within the individual than any vocalization which is distributed at the sociological plane. And it is Lynch's hypersensitivity to those vibrations - to the monumental psychic cataclysms which follow even the most microscopic events - that grants him direct access to the most particular frissons of the self. Put another way: Lynch carries a genuinely scarred cranium in difference to, say, the tacky toupee which serves as the mantle for Oliver Stone's 'wild youth' cinema. Where Stone plays reissue CDs of The Doors and hears the selfish voice of a generation, Lynch hears air whistling under a door and hears the sound of degeneration within the self.

For a film which depicts old age with great attention to detail, The Straight Story gracefully avoids the pithy conceits of 'generation gaps' and similar journalistic tropes which have embalmed the 90s teen cycle before a single sign of acne is allowed on the screen. More remarkably, The Straight Story is not even 'aimed' at an older audience, begging for their laboured, pathetic identification. For The Straight Story is a document of how cinema can address old age in the act of aging. That is, this film foregrounds age as a process of the present, and in doing so goes against most narrative norms which exploit the advance of age as a dramatic and thematic pause for contemplation, memory and resolution - for revisiting the past. Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) has not only aged in the back story of the film, but he engages in forward action (literally, driving forth on a tractor) in a cathartic attempt to deal with his aging by achieving closure through speaking to his brother (cameoed by Harry Dean Stanton). So let us work through some of the ways in which Lynch executes this act of aging as a series of cinesonic acts.

First sonic feature of The Straight Story: the silencing of speech. The dramatic graft which forges momentum in the film's story is the silence which hangs like a cloud over the Straight brothers. Having not spoken to each other in so many years, their silence resounds like an unfinished sentence, an unresolved melody, an incomplete causality. Alvin travels across three states not merely to reunite with his blood brother, but to hear his own voice in the shared acoustic space of his brother. That is how Alvin will deal with the psycho-acoustic loneliness which has befallen him. It is so fitting that his brother is wordless at this reunion, overcome with emotion as he hears the sound of Alvin's voice. The silence that lolls between them at the film's finish is the end to a disturbing hum which rang ceaselessly across time and space until physical proximity could touch that hum and set it to rest. The beauty of the moment lies not merely in its emotional depth, but in the way that it reflects on the material role of the human voice in such familial conflict, and the way it extends to the social plane a physical aspect of how vibrations can continue unabated until the grounding of physical touch will reduce them to stasis. Only a director with an ear (David Lynch is also the sound designer for The Straight Story) could construct this type of post-literary acousmatic object of narration. In the hands of a less tuned director, this same narrational envelope could be presented through the conventional trappings which both literary types and so-called cineastes would find expressive and poetic. But the power of Lynch lies in his ability to wrench the poetic from its historical stricture within those traditions - which surely in the year 2000 have to be verging on the archaic and should therefore be treated with polite disdain.

Lynch's approach to the dramatic signification of non-speech and unfinished-speech is thematically mapped across the characters of The Straight Story. Rose (Sissy Spacek) talks in a dysfunctional manner due to her placement within this same familial map. Traumatized by the forced separation of her children due to her own psychological instability, her speech patterns carry the scar of this wrenching, leaving her to speak grammatically correct sentences but in a timing which forces the flow of meaning through a series of ruptures and spurts of fragmented phrases and clauses. (It truly is a remarkable vocal performance.) Like Alvin, her voice is her story - not through words as written into her, but as words sounded through her. Note also the way these voices are contrasted against the warm blanketed tones which flow forth from the friendly family with whom Alvin stays while his tractor is being repaired en route. Their rich sonority and the effortless way in which it flows from their mouths sonically portrays a comfortable middle America - retired and retiring - not in a parodic way, but as a means of contrasting their fortunate life against the emotional trauma which Alvin has been holding within him for so many years.

In the documentary Brother's Keeper (1992), one of two brothers accused of mercy-killing a third brother (all past their 60s) takes the stand in a court trial. This withered shell of a man is struck catatonic and collapses into a nervous spasm, shaking his arm uncontrollably. The court adjourns. He takes the stand again, opens his mouth - and reverts to the same state. The court adjourns again. And again. It is hard to think of a more moving scene in a documentary, struck by the complete incapacity of the human voice at the point of its declaration. The ending of The Straight Story reminded me of that scene. It also reminded me of how much I detest those things we call 'scripts'; of how I wish scriptwriters would try shutting up for once. Stop stuffing words down characters' throats and making them mouth your authorial power. Consider the options of having an actor perform the silence which more aptly reflects how often we are lost for words and rendered speechless in our everyday emotional exchanges. John Roach & Mary Sweeney's lean script for The Straight Story is the result not only of someone who writes well, but also someone who listens well. Mary Sweeney's editing also creates the appropriate timing crucial to conveying this distinctive temporality. And David Lynch's direction of Farnsworth and Spacek evidences an ability to hear their wordlessness as much as their speech.

Second sonic feature of The Straight Story: the permeance of quietude. In an era when digital sound has favoured the format's ability to maintain non-distorting louder levels and more impactful transient peaks, it is forgotten how effectively the relatively 'pure' silence generated through the absence of surface noise can be in sound design. Don't misread me here: I'm not advocating 'quiet' in today's 'noisy movies'. Such a reactionary stance leads to gentle chords on grand pianos and soft strums of acoustic guitars, which to my ear are repulsive signs of conservative times. My point is that one can achieve a type of abject silence in digital sound wherein the absence of surface noise creates dramatic and psychological holes in a narrative, intensifying equally modes of identification (sucking you into the absence) and disorientation (unsettling you by removing a 'ground hum' of a picture). The Straight Story is possibly the first film to explore the psycho-acoustic ramifications of this in detail.

There are many moments in the film where one hears absolutely nothing. Conditioned to hearing the crackle of the optical print, silence in the analogue film soundtrack always comforts you, saying 'I really haven't gone away'. Even 'fades to black' rarely occur in silence, as they will carry an audio fade-out, cross-fade or resolving musical cue - all of which will work toward preparing for the fade-up before once is stranded in a cinematic void. The abject silence of The Straight Story echoes that loss of proximity engineered by old age: literally, we are removed from the film - not merely from a certain narrational moment, turn or passage, but from the realm of narration. We are left sitting in the cinema in total isolation, the kind one gets when the cinema's amplifiers suddenly cut out. Yet the film also exploits the digital soundtrack's capacity to move accurately between these aural extremes. The mix of the film quite noticeably does not stay at a median of acceptable audio presence. Normally, a film's dialogue in particular will hover within a comfortable decibel range, utilizing a variety of compression methods to keep the signal level at a norm so as to aid psycho-acoustic aspects of legibility on the part of the cinema listener. The Straight Story has numerous moments where one is urged to listen more carefully - not because of distractions, simultaneous events or sonic density, but simply because one is at a remove from spoken action. The best scene of this is when Alvin is chatting with the family with whom he spends a few days. In one unedited shot, we hear a long, quite insignificant conversation at a very low level, filmed from a long distance so as to create a calming, casual observational feeling. A vicarious deafness is experienced here in that one can manage to understand words - as do old people suffering the onset of deafness - but at a severely reduced auditory level. Again, The Straight Story provides the sonic suit within which we can experience old age.

Third sonic feature of The Straight Story: aural decay. In the history of modern sound design, Lynch is the harbinger of deep booms and dark drones, the kind of which are noticeable in his early films. Progressively, Lynch's sound design has readdressed this approach, developing it initially into the thick textures of sonic nothingness which permeate the psychotic expanses of shadowy nothingness throughout Lost Highway (1997). With The Straight Story, Lynch has focussed on the residue of those events. In scintillating passages of silence, one often hears a breathy textural hum ever so faintly on the soundtrack. It sounds like a long-ringing reverberant patina of parts of Angelo Badalamenti's lyrical score - almost as if a phrase of his music has been digitally processed into a jus or light puree of reverberant diffusion which gently coats the auditorium. One faintly makes out the haunting presence of music, yet recognizable instrumentation and tonality are absent. Orson Welles engineered a similar effect with a Bernard Herrmann cue in Citizen Kane (1941) as Susan Alexander lies in her bed, exhausted from the opera forced down her own throat, the orchestral din ringing softly yet fatally in her head, intermingled with the sound of her own fading breath. The effect in The Straight Story also carries a fatalistic aspect to it - not so morbidly, but due to the rich yet fixed tonality of these harmonic sheets of soft pink noise, these hums have a base key which works contra-harmonically to Badalamenti's whimsical cues. The music rolls on lovingly while Alvin distractedly putt-putts on his tractor, while these tones well up in the proceeding silences as a forecast of the possibility that his brother may have already died.

Many people have not even heard these tones in the film, but they are definitely there. Sonically and symbolically, they recall the sensation of a distant ringing in the ear, leftover from loud events which affected the ear the night before, some years ago, or way back in one's youth. Like an emotional tinitis, this ringing is subtle but persuasive. It is the sound of the past: lingering, lilting, longing. It is the ringing which will not stop until Alvin speaks with his brother. And only then - only at that precise auditory moment when they are near enough to each other to hear the other's voice - will the silence of estrangement be replaced with the silence of calm. Only then will the decay reside.

Text © Philip Brophy 2000. Images © Walt Disney Pictures