Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Because You’re Mine

Alan and I went to see Walk the Line Saturday night. Joaquin Phoenix did a good, brooding acting job as Cash, and Reese Witherspoon was extraordinary as June Carter: strong, perky, principled, and loving, and a damned fine performer. I wouldn’t be surprised (or affronted) if she won the Oscar for Best Actress. I haven’t seen all the nominated films, but I can say with assurance with David Strathairn’s subtle brilliance as Ed Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” deserves an Academy Award.

The symbolism (falling down, slamming doors) was a thought heavy-handed, but the film was well-made and authentic in feeling if not always in look. With some movies that cover my early days, I feel the almost physical shock of recognition of the world I knew then. I never felt that in this film, but I may be getting jaded.

WARNING: spoilers ahead for Ray and Walk the Line Altogether, it was a good film, emotionally moving and powerful, even if it did in some ways resemble a paler version (in several senses) of Ray.

The resemblances were extraordinary—the sharecropper background and blood guilt for a brother’s sudden death, as well as the usual rock-star trilogy of groupies, drug abuse, and redemption—but the differences are also telling. Ray had to deal with race issues and going blind at the age of seven, but he had the very great advantage of a strong and loving mother who taught her son pride and independence. Johnny Cash was not so lucky.

Although Johnny Cash’s mother was a hardworking woman with a sweet singing voice, she does not come across as a strong character. Her drunken, judgmental husband never forgave Johnny for surviving when his older, smarter brother died. Later on, she sat silent while her husband gibed at his successful son. Despite the horrors of racism, Ray Charles was at least loved. Johnny Cash had to put up with a lifetime of rejection and verbal abuse from his father and passivity from his mother.

Johnny Cash comes across as a man of grit, honesty, and persistence, capable of both compassion and great love, but also as a bastard with a mean streak a mile wide. The film left me wondering about the stereotype of the artist as a selfish jerk. How accurate is it, generally? Does it have to be that way? What role does the nastiness and short temper play for the artist? I could see it as a smokescreen generated by a hypersensitive individual to keep people distant or just as a reaction to the intolerable stress of fame. I can also see it as arising from a sense of privilege—acting badly because they deserve better than others, or simply because their fame and money let them get away with it.

Not every great singer comes from hardscrabble poverty—Bob Dylan was the son of a dentist who bought him a pink convertible—but Martin Scorsese’s four-hour documentary about him, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, is high on my Netflix queue. I understand he was—is—a sarcastic jerk who has alienated a great many friends.

I don’t fall for the idea that the Arteeeeeste is a higher life form who can be forgiven anything. But I wonder how much art has been lost because the potential artist is too damned nice to create emotional space for the work. And that's an issue that has personal significance for me, not just cinematic.

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