In: To ponder, With meaning

David Lynch’s The Straight Story

Ernesto Priego has finally seen David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Ernesto, I love this film. It made me cry too. (That’s not saying much in and of itself, however, because I’ll cry at anything. I saw Finding Nemo a couple nights ago, and got pretty choked up at that. I cry at Pacific Bell ads in which old people get to talk to their grandchildren hundreds of miles away. I cry at those Budweiser ads with the guys who yell waaazzzuuuup at each other. Well, not really. But seriously, play some strings, go all soft focus, and have someone learn a valuable lesson about life, love, and forgiveness, and you’ve got me blubbering.)

Usually, I distrust films that make me weep. And it’s true that The Straight Story borders on manipulative at times, with its family-values message and so on. But Lynch’s conservatism has always fascinated me: I can tolerate it partly because I don’t fully understand it. You would think it would be easier to understand in a film like this than in Blue Velvet or Eraserhead, where it’s oddly camouflaged under all that defamiliarization, but it’s not.

Somewhere in here I’m straining toward a thesis about mystification and negative capability.

Keats seemed to mean by negative capability not much more than not worrying whether you fully understand something or if something is contradictory, but I first (mis-?)understood it years ago as meaning having the sophistication to respond to art and/or life in a pseudo-Nietzschean way, to stand outside the moral implications of a given event so as simultaneously to submit to its aesthetic demands and … what, escape, transcend, sublate their consequences? I was in junior college in Modesto at the time, and pretty stoned most of the time, so the definition didn’t go much further than that jejune fantasy of individual exceptionalism. And yet I’ve always clung to part of this understanding of the term, the idea that there is some useful power in being able to split your attention between critique (even or especially negative critique) and enjoyment.

In the case of Lynch, all this is somewhat overwrought, perhaps, because as I said before, I’m not exactly sure what his politics are. I’ve heard he’s a Republican, or maybe just a Reagan admirer. Here "admire" might take on some of the negatively capable nuances I’ve just been mentioning. That is, part of what I’ve been trying to get at is whether you can admire someone or something that in significant part you oppose, and have that admiration coexist coherently with your opposition. The problem, obviously, is that once you articulate an aesthetic of this sort, you’ve paved the way for all kinds of squishy capitulation that you can excuse as conscious. I.e., the classic ironic liberal self-defense.

Thus my constant anxiety: am I a dupe for enjoying popular culture, any popular culture? Obviously it’s not enough to be aware that it’s dumb and "like it anyway." Or, come to think of it, when it’s dumb enough, maybe that is a suitable defense. Take the upcoming Charlie’s Angels sequel for example. What does it matter whether you "like" it or not? Either way, it’s drivel. Artists like Lynch pose the real problem, because they enjoy a certain "serious" status as artists. Then if you in turn take them "seriously," you are open to the charge of buying in to the culture industry’s hype. Paradoxically, it’s politically "safer" to like something really stupid than it is to like something that might turn out to be stupid if you think about it (or listen to someone else who’s thought about it) long enough.

I know there are people out there—people whose opinions I respect—that despise films like The Straight Story with a savage intensity. And I can understand their positions. And I can’t fully articulate mine. So by all rights, shouldn’t I concede to their point of view?

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