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January 5, 2006

Walk the Line

On Christmas Day, my mom, sister, and I completed our annual pilgrimage to a lcoal metroplex to see Walk the Line (IMDB), the Johnny Cash biopic that has just about run its box office course. Because I'm a fan of Cash's music, I'd resisted seeing the movie, and while Walk the Line worked well enough as safe family entertainment, I left the theater feeling vaguely disappointed.

I knew going into the theater that the film would focus primarily on Cash's career from the 1940s to his 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, which would mean emphasizing his relationship with June Carter and his recovery from amphetamine addiction. There weren't any major surprises here: the film deals extensively with the romance elements, and Reese Witherspoon never quite captured June Carter's playful, sensual side (as the World Socialist Website reviewer points out).

I'd hoped, however, that the film would focus on Cash's rather complicated political background, his interest in prisoner and Native American rights and his opposition to the Vietnam War. For a moment, such a film seemed possible. It opens with Cash's band playing the Folsom prison audience into a frenzy while backstage Cash (adequately played by Joaquin Phoenix), leaning on a table saw, seems to be agonizing over some past moment. Of course, the saw blade is a memory-image recalling the death of Cash's older brother and setting in motion an abuse narrative (Cash's father never forgave Johnny for outliving his older brother, who by coincidence was played by the son of a family friend) that dimiinishes the story considerably.

As the WSWS review points out, another film about Cash could have focused more extensively on his youth in an experimental New Deal community, the fact that he grew up dirt poor among sharecroppers. The film underplays his rejection of the country music establishment and even his interest in prisoner rights (Phoenix's snarling response to a prison warden, seen in pretty much every preview of the film, is pretty much all we get). In short, pretty much everything interesting about Cash was stripped away from the film in favor of a love story that seemed far less interesting than its real-life counterpart.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of the film was that it made me want to go back and dig through my CDs and rediscover the Johnny Cash that I'd admired. I'm perhaps being a bit too hard by calling out the paint-by-numbers biopic narrative (abusive parent, dead brother, outsider recording artist, sound familiar yet?) , and perhaps I should instead be asking why the biopic about the outsider musical genius is suddenly so popular, but I'm not sure I have an interesting answer to that question.

Posted by chuck at January 5, 2006 11:56 PM

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Sorry, off-topic, Chuck, but I wanted to thank you for your comments at my blog. I must say: my own evolution has paralleled yours in that I have begun to appreciate the conversational potential of the blog medium more and more. For the first year or so, I don't even think I had my comments turned on. (yes, pretty stupid). And I've found that I learn as much from people and viewpoints I don't agree with as I do from the ones I do agree with.

Posted by: girish at January 6, 2006 4:50 PM

Thanks, Girish. I actually used comments from the beginning, but primarily for selfish reasons: to make sure that somebody--anybody--was reading. I always learn from people who comment at my blog and I enjoy having the opportunity to work through ideas in a public space such as a blog, even when my idaes are sometimes half-baked.

I know that Filmbrain mentioned enjoying the subjectivity of film bloggers' reviews, and his comparison with the Charlie Rose interview of Lisa Schwartzbaum and other critics is rather suggestive.

Posted by: Chuck at January 6, 2006 5:10 PM

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