Walk the Line

Biopic of the famous/infamous Johnny Cash and his relationship with June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon WILL receive nominations for Oscars and Reese WILL win the Oscar for her performance. This was an eminently interesting story about yet another tortured artist. Oh well, we are all somewhat tortured. I must confess the ubiquitous drug addiction that seems to be a part of so many celebrity stories is at once both pitiable and redundant. The subplot of Johnny’s incessant desire to please an unpleasable father who unabashedly and shamefully preferred Johnny’s dead older brother is a very universal pathos that rings with authenticity. Here we have a man who rose to the pinnacle of achievement with his music and his father still felt that it should have been Johnny who died in an accident rather than his brother. Even Johnny himself felt his brother, who was to be a preacher, was more deserving of life than he because of his “goodness.” This is the story of Cash’s redemption and finding his value through the heartfelt love of June Carter, which as I understand it, is precisely what Cash himself had affirmed in real life. Though it is one of those stories that shows a man in love with someone other than his wife, it seems to veer away from the typical Romantic elevation of feelings over duty. Even though the adultery did in fact occur, it shows June Carter very conflicted even to the point of walking away from the man she loves because of the moral inappropriateness. It shows her disdain for drugs and Johnny’s guilt behind his actions. It shows Cash seeking to do right, though faltering in that quest, like all of us. What I did not like about the film was twofold. First, I did not care for the celebration of rebellion that comes through. In one sense, Cash realizes that he must find someone to identify with and criminal prisoners seem to be that person. His Folsom Prison Blues is the theme song of the piece. Okay, that’s fine that he finds some redemption in reaching out to these men. But the way he reaches out in the music of the movie is to identify and celebrate their depravity. The songs he sings, at least what words I could catch, were not redemptive but celebratory of criminal misery. Now, on the one hand, this is not a problem IF you also show the redemptive songs he may have sung, like his Gospel tunes, but in fact, this is not done, his entire Gospel songs repetoire is virtually ignored, which results in more of a rock and roll exultation of rebellion than a redemptive identification. And that brings me to the bigger thing I hated about this story: The lack of Cash’s central defining characteristic, his spiritual quest with Christianity. Christianity was alluded to in several moments of the film, but it was essentially a defining aspect of his identity that was relegated to near irrelevance. There are only a couple moments of his faith in the film and most are negative. At the end, when Cash cleans up his life, we see June take him to church in a moralistic context. We see June reacting to Cash’s immorality but more out of moralism than out of her faith, which we are never really introduced to except through a quick reference to her parents. What we are not shown is how she came out of a very Gospel music background, which would be a defining element of her identity as well. Religion is minor in this story, and replaced with moralism, morality without real religious focus. Now, the other place it shows his “faith” is when he first broke in to recording. He sings a typical Gospel tune, and the recording producer tells him it isn’t unique. It isn’t genuine. Gospel is dead. They want something more authentic, something that comes out of his experience, out of his emotion and misery. The Producer tells him, “It ain’t got nothing to do with God, it’s about believing in yourself.” (humanism) So Johnny Sings Folsom Prison Blues, which interestingly DID NOT come out of his experience, and yet this is somehow considered more genuine. Cash’s music is, according to this movie, genuine when he believes in himself, not God. And when Johnny challenges the producer by saying, “You saying I don’t believe in God,” the answer is that it is not authentically from him which really means that his faith was not authentic. Maybe it wasn’t at that time. Fine. But the sense is that the faith he had was therefore never really authentic. And the rest of the move never really brings in his faith struggle throughout his misery years. So the overall conclusion the movie makes is that it was not really a defining element of his identity or his music. I have no problem with the crazy things he did, with his prodigal nature, but to virtually ignore the faith that was so much a part of everything he was in the midst of that prodigality is simply dishonest and manipulative. My claim is that if you don’t like his faith, fine, then DON’T TELL HIS STORY. Tell some other humanist’s story, or an atheist’s story. But it is lying revisionism to tell a man of faith’s story and virtually ignore his faith or relegate it to near irrelevancy. This ticks me off because it is so often done. Mark my words, the upcoming The New World movie about Pocohontas by Terence Malick, I bet you will also ignore Pocohontas’s Christianity or relegate it to the problem or flaw of the Western Culture that is imperialistic. Why do these people have to rape religious stories? Why can’t they tell their own stories? How would they feel if I wrote a story about Carl Sagan and ignored his science and atheism? Or how about a story about the founder of Greenpeace and I virtually ignored his love for nature and the earth? But of course this is the imperialistic nature of humanism, to retell the stories of Christianty in a naturalistic fashion, so that everything is explainable in terms of cultural or natural causes. Moralism, not Christian faith is the religion acceptable to humanism. I think that stories are so important and valuable that to deny the heart of someone’s identity in a story is narrative rape, especially when it comes to God in their life.