If nothing else, the fact that the vast majority of roads are no longer intended primarily for walkers ought to temper our enthusiasm for road as a metaphor for life. In the American imagination, a road trip unwinds in a time apart from ordinary life where clarity is intermittent and undependable, but where life-changing visions are possible. A road movie is all about visions.
This weekend I saw two sort-of road movies by the same director, David Lynch: The Straight Story, which was wonderful, and Lost Highway, which was not. I guess what I most liked about the former was its gentle subversion of the genre, as its cowboy-hat-wearing protagonist travels back roads at the speed of a riding mower, yet remains a figure of immense dignity and charm. Stories unfold more naturally at a walker’s pace, I think, and the movie is full of great stories and characters. By contrast, the break-neck Lost Highway seems to revel in its own incoherence, and the characters are two-dimensional and unlikeable.
Of course, coherence isn’t everything, especially when attempting to depict dreams and hallucinations. With its obsessive sex and violence, perhaps Lost Highway offers a truer glimpse into the American psyche, but The Straight Story isn’t exactly lacking in grit, either: its characters are haunted by aging and infirmity, mental illness and the loss of children, PTSD, broken families, even roadkill — a topic all too seldom considered alongside our romance with the road.
The contrast between the two movies is especially stark in the ways in which they acknowledge, or fail to acknowledge, the world beyond their own, fragmented stories. If authenticity derives ultimately from a sense of rootedness, Alvin Straight’s odyssey has it in spades. Whereas in Lost Highway the natural environment is never anything more than background, The Straight Story intercuts regular, slow aerial pans to convey the vastness of the land. Lightning shows up for dramatic effect in almost every other night-time scene in Lost Highway, but never seems entirely real. But in Straight Story, the two thunderstorms are events, and the title character stops everything and sits down to watch them as intently as if they were movies, burning visions of blinding roots into the memory.