ne of the memorable scenes in David Lynch’s moving film The Straight Story (1999) is when the aging protagonist, Alvin Straight, is invited to spend the night at the camp of a group of young cyclists who are moved to see a senior citizen traveling across the country in such an unusual way—that is, on a tractor. When asked by a well-meaning youth: “What’s the worst thing about being old?” Alvin responds: “Remembering when you were young.”
Like many in their twilight years, Alvin is silently taking stock of his long life. The viewer feels rather than is told outright much of what is passing through the pilgrim’s conscience. The director seems to be particularly sensitive about avoiding sensation, since the story is based on a true event. The Straight Story is also an homage to the genre of the road movie: in the relatively young art of the motion picture, also one that is no longer so young. The scene in question recalls one from Easy Rider of 1969, a film from the early years of the genre, where two cyclists likewise invite a guest to their camp, a small town lawyer, during their journey across America. The parallel scenes in the two movies could hardly be more different. The young people in the sixties’ road movie are disheveled and traveling by motorcycle, they had been involved in drug dealing, and their spontaneous journey ends tragically. The cyclists of Straight Story remind one that a seminal book of the eighties was Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence with its stress on character. They are involved in systematic effort and teamwork—not to mention the fact that they are respectful of their elders.
Lynch’s Straight Story is remarkable in many ways. Among them, I’ll look briefly at what it says about the religious imagination in American culture. Of fundamental worth is its focus on “hoary heads”—the aged. Such a positive depiction of age in Hollywood cinema is all the more extraordinary when we consider how long youth have dominated the screen. Albeit in the last couple of decades the aged have increasingly made their appearance in major roles. Sometimes these are characters who don’t act their age, and thus set up false expectations. Quite often, like the eponymous protagonist played by Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), they have been portrayed as people out of place and who must adjust to a changing world. To some extent this is the case in Straight Story, but the image is more than countered by Alvin’s interactions with people he meets along the road who listen to his advice.
Of course historically speaking the image of the aged has long been tarnished since the time of the Puritans when it was considered that, as a popular saying put it: “A hoary head is a crown of gold.” Although over the centuries many factors cumulatively contributed to this loss of respect, it is worth rehearsing the radical changes in the condition of the elderly, at least in the middle class, that came after the Second World War. American society was considerably healthier, and many more elderly lived to retirement, while social security was extended to nonprofit and governmental employees, as well as to farm workers and the self-employed. Retirement became a mass phenomenon. Paradoxically, one of the problems posed by the increasingly healthy state of the elderly stemmed from the fact that many of them were still fairly active citizens at the time of their enforced retirement. In a society that valued productivity, this resulted in a large portion of them feeling that they were “too old to work and too young to die.” Thus even before the ubiquitous youth culture, many felt they had no particularly useful role in society. Alvin’s response to the cyclist’s question, “Remembering when you were young,” fits in with that attitude.
By its focus on a “hoary head” Straight Story renders American society a great service. A number of critics felt the gentle optimism of the film struck a false note. Nonetheless, research demonstrates the counterintuitive insight—at least in the context of a youth obsessed society—that the aged are happier than the young; a sense of well-being actually increases with age. It becomes evident in the course of the film that Alvin has indeed made peace with himself, in the face of his various failures subtly alluded to and in the face of his own mortality. As psychologist Edward Deiner puts it: “The minds of the young are full of all the things they want to achieve but have not, whereas most of the elderly have either achieved what they wanted or made peace with the fact that they never will.”1
In her Aged by Culture Margaret Morganroth Gullette defines the American Dream as a narrative that becomes internalized by people to help them live ordinary life. And thus “ordinary life storytelling” is one of the best ways to comprehend it.2 Hardly a better instance of contemporary “ordinary life storytelling” pertaining to age can be found in newer films than Lynch’s Straight Story. What was on the protagonist’s conscience that impelled him to drive his tractor such a long distance to his brother? In the cinematic narrative Alvin Straight is a Baptist, which sociologist Robert Bellah reminds us is the denomination whose stress on the conscience in some ways paved the way toward the contemporary radical individualism.
In the film we sense that the destructive nature of radical individualism has left its mark on Alvin: at the onset of the story he stubbornly dismisses the advice of a doctor, and he later confesses to the people he meets on his journey the destructive behavior of his youth that, among others, led to the estrangement between himself and his brother. The real lesson imparted by the film that transcends the homely platitudes Alvin offers along his way is that the time has come to end this path of radical individualism before it is too late. For Alvin, it is enough that he makes the journey to finally reunite with his brother; a small step, but as Gullette wisely reminds us the most lasting changes are built upon small steps.
The profound direction of the small step forward and its lesson for the viewers might be better understood if the nature of the religious imagination in American culture were briefly presented. According to theologian David Tracy, the theistic imagination is on the one hand dialectical, picturing God as distant from creation; on the other hand it is analogical, wherein God is also felt to be close to people.3 Although the relationship of these two tendencies is dynamic and shifting, the Catholic imagination inclines toward accepting the closeness of God to creation. This, among others, explains the importance of the sacraments, which stress the availability of grace to God’s creatures. The religious sensibility that evolves from this perspective is more sacramental and multiplies metaphors demonstrating the proximity of God to humanity, and values human community. In contrast, the first tendency, which is more likely for the Protestant sensibility, tends to view community as an obstacle to a more direct relationship with God. Tracy stresses the complimentarity of the two religious sensibilities and that neither is superior to the other, while Andrew Greeley has studied how they become embodied in society, particularly in the United States.
Robert Bellah, for one, largely accepts the existence of such distinct religious sensibilities, claiming that they influence the “cultural codes” of society. However, Bellah feels American society has been predominantly influenced by Protestant cultural codes, which, as mentioned above, has led to the development of expressive individualism, while this has had a tendency to degenerate into radical individualism and a limited sense of the common good. In popular culture this tendency is expressed through the virtually insatiable appetite of Americans for “fables of liberation.” In light of this problem, in his essay “Religion and the Shape of National Culture” Bellah, a Protestant himself, suggests that the Catholic sacramental sensibility could add a necessary corrective to the flaw in his nation’s code, since sacraments gravitate people toward “an embodied world of relationships and connections ( . . . ) rather than a world in which individuals attempt to escape society.”4 He ends his essay with both a glimmer of hope and a sense of the pressing nature of the task ahead: “Because the Catholic and Protestant imaginations are rooted in a common tradition, they are both available to all American Christians. But our most urgent need is to open up our deep cultural code so the sacramental imagination will have a more pervasive influence over our lives.”5
As I mentioned, the religious imagination is dynamic, and although the Protestant sensibility, as Greeley and Bellah intimate, might to a large extent support individualism over community, that does not mean there exist no tendencies in that tradition that emphasize the importance of community as well. For instance, in megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life there is a stress on an individual engaging in community in order to attain a sense of purpose.6 Similarly, in The Gospel According to Starbucks Leonard Sweet seems to be proposing the need for a sacramental dimension to Protestant spirituality when he insists: “The spiritual life has an earthly dimension—it is life you can taste, and see, and hear. It is reality.”7 He looks for metaphors to support such a sensibility in every day life, like in the experience of a good cup of coffee and the ambience surrounding it. More consciously drawing on the Catholic sacramental imagination, Kathleen Norris, while remaining a Protestant, joined a lay order of the Benedictine monks in order to enrich her sense of place, as she poignantly describes it in her spiritual autobiography of 1993, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. The popularity of her subtle prose witnesses to its having struck a deeper cord within readers. In Bellah’s favor, however, it might be pointed out that all the above date from roughly the same time as his essay or later; by inference they could be seen as supporting critiques of the state of the individualistic strain of Protestant cultural codes.
The case of Kathleen Norris is particularly pertinent to our discussion, especially concerning a film that combines spiritual geography with spiritual journey. Her definition of prayer as “ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder, a wonder that makes us know the smallness of oneself in an enormous and various universe”8 brings to mind Straight Story’s luminosity. The motif of the stars at night that recurs throughout the film symbolizes such a prayerful state.
Although a number of them could be recounted, especially noteworthy is a highly sacramental moment near the conclusion of Lynch’s film, when the Baptist protagonist enters a bar. A former alcoholic, on the wagon for some time, Alvin drinks his first beer in years. The fact that he refuses another one indicates he has gained the spiritual equilibrium necessary to face his brother. Significantly, before this scene he confessed the nature of his journey of atonement to a priest he encountered in the night. By coincidence, or providence, the priest had also recently met his brother in the hospital, intimating a renewed spiritual link between two estranged Baptists. Accepting a symbolic sacrament of reconciliation—the priest is quite tactful with his interlocutor—Alvin goes on his way, a better, more serene Protestant.
The case for a renewed focus on “hoary heads” embedded within Straight Story implies an understanding of the limitations of the American Dream. Paradoxically, limitations are not necessarily a negation of the quest for freedom inherent in the dream, especially if they are used as a stimulus to proceed along the journey more wisely. Pointedly, Harvard pastor Peter Gomes reminds Americans after 9/11 that “the awareness of death is the first key to the discipline that contributes to the good life.”9
However, Lynch’s Straight Story takes us beyond limitations. Implicit in Alvin’s journey is the problem of atonement, and so the road movie becomes a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is not “a long strange trip,” as some of the movies of the genre can be labeled, or a “lost highway,” as one of the filmmaker’s earlier contributions to the genre was titled. To engage in a pilgrimage is to point oneself toward the transcendent: ultimately, it is a journey toward hope.
1. Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 169.
2. Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Aged by Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 158.
3. Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), pp. 5-9.
4. Robert N. Bellah, “Religion and the Shape of National Culture,” America 181, no. 3 (July 31, 1999): 13.
5. Bellah, “Religion and the Shape of National Culture,” p. 14.
6. Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 145-51.
7. Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2007), p. 19.
8. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 351.
9. Peter Gomes, The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p.137.