Independence Day

04-Jul-09 12:00 PM by
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Today is the Fourth of July, or, as it is known in the USA, Independence Day. It is a commemoration not just of the historical event of our declaration of freedom from Britain, but also of all things that make America great.

But this year, we found ourselves challenged to maintain that patriotic spirit. With a fledging president, an economy in turmoil, and a chaotic environment, this nation has rarely seen such turbulent times. I think it therefore appropriate that we do away with frivolity and observe this occasion with the solemnity it is due:

The Straight Story

09-Feb-09 11:30 AM by
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The Straight StoryIn 1994, Alvin Straight received a phone call that his older brother had had a stroke. Alvin hadn't spoken to Lyle in ten years, and at 73 years old, Alvin figured he might not have another chance — but with bad hips, bad eyesight, no driver's license, and a limited budget, how was he to travel the 250 miles due east from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin? In the only vehicle he had: a 1966 John Deere riding lawnmower, making a six-hour journey into one of six weeks. This true story is the basis for Disney's 1999 film, The Straight Story, directed by David Lynch of Twin Peaks.

When we're first introduced to Alvin, it's easy to stereotype him as a cantankerous and uneducated farmer. The beauty of this film is how deftly it takes us beneath the surface and introduces us to the variety and depth of human nature. Once Alvin undertakes what he recognizes will be an arduous journey, he becomes, if not less stubborn, at least more gracious, opening up to strangers who open themselves up in return. There are no fanciful theatrical tricks or flashbacks that explain how Alvin got to be who and where he is; instead it is through discussions with the people he meets along the way — a runaway, an athlete, a veteran, and a priest — we learn his background and the challenges he and others have faced in their lives. How many of these exchanges and events are from Alvin's actual journey and history, and how many were invented for the sake of cinema, I'm unsure. Regardless, the film is so character-driven that audience members looking for some action or hilarity will be disappointed. But, as the title suggests, this is a fairly straightforward film, and the viewer who redefines his expectation of "something" will be rewarded.

The Straight Story was Richard Farnsworth's swan song, as the 79-year-old actor died a year after portraying the 73-year-old Iowan, who'd himself died three years earlier. His portrayal of Alvin is the subtle focus of the movie; in fact, there are probably only two scenes in the entire film that don't feature Farnsworth to some degree. He shares the camera with some beautiful filmography that captures both the beauty and the loneliness of Iowa and its residents. Some unique transitions blend two scenes together, producing interesting contrasts between the two.

I didn't expect much from this film, and it is a slow one, for sure. But it was ultimately inspiring, as it reminded me of the illogical wanderlust of which many of us have often heard the call. In 1998, my own brother and I travelled across the country in a 35-state, 36-day, 12,728-mile journey. The experience brought together two brothers, a goal shared by The Straight Story. Travelling is as much about people as it is places, which is why last summer I chose to vacation not at a popular tourist destination like San Francisco, but by driving 1,300 miles back and forth between Helena, Montana, and Leavenworth, Washington, along some roads I recognized from ten years earlier. Why Alvin didn't invest in a bus ticket instead of a lawnmower can only be explained by his insistence that "I have to do this on my own." I may've made my trip on my own, but the people at the end reminded me I was always among friends. Like the documentary 10 MPH (except even a Segway goes twice as fast as a John Deere), The Straight Story makes me want to get back on the road and reconnect with America, myself, and my far-flung friends. The wheels are in motion…


05-Dec-07 6:15 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 2 comments.

From Jack Kerouac to Matt Harding, the drive to escape the familiar and explore the world is a constant among generations — and with the growing scourge of corporate America possibly serving as a impetus, Generation X is travelling far more than Baby Boomers ever did. Each era brings a unique way to sate this wanderlust; for the team behind the documentary 10 MPH, that vehicle was the Segway.

A Segway, the upright scooter invented by Dean Kamen and prior to its release referred to as "Ginger" and "IT", carries one passenger at a top speed of ten miles per hour, with an average of ten miles per battery charge. A team of creative entrepreneurs funded the purchase of a pair of Segways and set out to drive one from Seattle to Boston, with Josh Caldwell on Segway and Hunter Weeks, Hunter's twin sister Gannon, and Alon Waisman as support, trailing in a van on the road's shoulder.

The resulting documentary is far better than I expected, as after watching the similar hitting-the-road film Parallel Lines, I worried that I'd be bored by amateur shots of whatever or whoever stepped in front of the camera. Instead, the 200 hours of footage has been pared down to a fun, novel, and fast-moving trip across America. Stunning vistas and an original soundtrack capture the mountains and valleys traversed by what's intended as an urban machine, with entire days or weeks passing in a blink that the team might better capture the journey's highlights.

More often than not, those memorable moments come not from places, but people. The strangers our pilgrims met along the way don't stay strangers for long, their curiosity and generosity affording the documentarians many meals, stories, and beds. A recurring theme is finding one's life passion, with pullquotes identifying those lucky few people's "things". It inspires the viewer to ask, what is my thing?

It's these third parties that best represent America, as the narrator's delivery is dry — though perhaps a more favorable interpretation would be "professional". But more often than not, the camera is better focused outward than inward. I'm sure the crew hoped everything would go flawlessly, which would've made for a better experience for both them and their viewers. But financial issues nearly brought the trial to an early close, and the causal internal conflicts and resulting desperation are a part of this documentary.

Just as the journey started with a personal investment in the Segway that its manufacturer refused to provide this team, the journey ended at great expense — but only because the team insisted on seeing the road to its end. One hundred days and 418 battery charges later, Caldwell, Weekses, and Waisman made their way to Boston and then further north to New Hampshire, home of the Segway.

During the resulting coverage on New England Cable News, Hunter indicated the documentary would be completed in 6-8 months. Two years later, it's available on DVD and online at a price of your choosing. The DVD comes in stereo sound and with an acceptable number of extras: the full eight-minute NECN interview, deleted scenes, "bloopers" (mostly people falling off Segways), and director commentary. It's an interesting mix of people, places, and dreams, edited together from scripted and unscripted scenes. The variety of elements combine into a slightly uneven package, but overall it works well to capture this adventure, entertain its audience, and motivate us to take our own first step.