Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Subtle and Sinister Dynamics of "Walk the Line"

My wife and I received the 2005 movie "Walk the Line" a few days ago and watched a bit of it last night. We had watched it many months ago in our pre-dating days and had really liked it then. The movie includes some pretty incredible acting and is directed with a deft touch. In general, however, the movie's depiction of manhood is altogether deficient, and thus the movie communicates a rather poisonous message.

I of course realize that lots of ink (or blog space, however one quantifies it) has been devoted to this movie and its ideas, but I don't really care. It's worth talking about and thinking about again. Jumping in, then, the movie subtly poisons its viewers against Cash's first wife and causes us to root for Johnny and June Carter to get together. Johnny and June have immediate and intense chemistry. They are a great physical match, their personalities play off one another beautifully, and they--how else can you say it?--smolder with desire when they're together. This connection plays against the backdrop of Cash's unhappy marriage to his wife with whom he has several children and little emotional connection. The movie portrays Cash's wife as a nag and a killjoy who is unable to understand Johnny's love for music and his "need" to make it and express himself. June, conversely, perfectly understands Johnny's musical instincts and his wanderlust. She has these qualities herself. The result of these situations is that Johnny and his wife fail to understand one another, fight all the time, and are portrayed as strangers paired in an unfortunate union destined to crumble from its beginning.

To put it mildly, this is trash. Incredibly, the movie directs us to sympathize with Johnny, who essentially abandons his family to make music. Though not without any sympathy for his wife, and never glamorizing Johnny's wild and disjointed life, it nonetheless portrays Johnny far more positively than her. The idea it sneaks into our consciousness is that one must serve one's artistic or professional instincts over one's family. This is a poisonous and destructive idea. Johnny is a deficient father and husband if there ever was one. I love his music, and I understand his desire to make it, but it was his responsibility to put his family before his career, and he did not do that. I felt terribly for his poor wife, uncared for as she was, tied to a man who refused to provide for his family in a stable and self-denying manner. Cash charted a course for himself that I think many young people romanticize today, in which pursuit of one's artistic self-expression takes precedence over the essential duties of life--church, family, responsible employment. Somewhere along the way, it became more "authentic" to indulge one's interests than to assume responsibility. This is a thoroughly postmodern idea, and it has no place in the life of a Christian.

It is "cool" to "follow one's heart" in our day and age. The problem is that "following one's heart" often leads one away from maturity, responsibility, and, to put it bluntly, godliness. If you're a young person, don't pursue "authenticity." Just be yourself. And don't make the world's mistake of thinking you're only truly "real" if you're pursuing your personal interests. That's a thoroughly modern invention. You're being "real" by pursuing what God would have you to pursue, being the creation and sustenance of a family, the upbuilding of a church, and the defense and propagation of the faith. I realize that this mindset won't produce a lot of Johnny Cashes. Some good music will go unmade; some incredible experiences will not be had; and some personal authenticity will go unindulged. In the end, the trade-off, though it appears tragic, works out quite well in the end. Families are created, children are loved, households are sustained, churches are strengthened, and God is glorified. Now that truly is a life worth living.

That is a line worth walking.


Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Owen, what does your pronoun this refer to when you say, "To put it mildly, this is trash"?

Are you saying that the movie's depiction of Cash's first wife and the events surrounding the breakup of his marriage are trash, or do you mean that the real moral failings of Cash are trash, or what?

I don't know if the movie paints a deficient portrayal of manhood in general, but it certainly doesn't cast Cash in a very good light.

Regardless in my review of Walk the Line I suggested that this movie is a tale of redemption. Yes, I agree with those who were intimately involved in Cash's life who say that the role of faith was somewhat downplayed. Yet at the same time, there's a spiritual dividing line between the early Cash who was a drunkard and a carouser, and sadly the one who was married to his first wife, and the Cash who came to faith in Christ, greatly because of the influence of June Carter and her family.

So I guess it's harder for me to hold the early Cash to a Christian standard when he wasn't really a Christian. That's not to say that as a father and husband he wasn't responsible to his first wife and his children with her, regardless.

But, as to Cash and Carter developing a relationship, it was Carter--who had a long background in gospel music--who should have known better if anyone can be blamed. Nevertheless, God was able to make something good come out of all this, and surely this is reflected in the love and later lives of both Cash and Carter.

People make mistakes, people fail, people sin. But God can still work all things for good, often in spite of ourselves. I think this is evident when looking at the lives of Carter and Cash over the long haul.

12:06 PM  
Blogger GloryandGrace said...

I agree with R. Mansfield's comment. The movie was a pretty accurate biography of Cash's life, and showed that his lifestyle wasn't gratifying. It depicted his downward spiral in a very telling manner. Yes, his lifestyle was romanticized, but did so from his own perspective during that season of his life. You're right that the movie paints a distorted picture of manhood, but as R. Mansfield says, the more overarching theme is that of redemption. The movie depicted the distortion of his life for the purpose of showing how destructive such seasons of his life were.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Riley said...

Owen, I'm going to have to agree with the other two comments. I hear what you are saying about Cash's bad decisions, horrible sinful decisions actually, but he was not a believer and I'm not sure if we should expect anything different. When I was watching the movie, I kept thinking that the early Johnny C. reminded me of myself before I was converted, minus the ability to sing and play the guitar. I too saw redemption as an overall theme which also reminds me of my life. I am not too familiar with the true story of the last years of Cash's life, but if I think that he did become a Christian and if that is the case, I am sure that he repented of his sin and sought forgiveness for the way he treated his family. I thought that it was a good movie because there was a change in his life and if I am not mistaken, it was brought about by the grace of God. Thanks for getting me to think about these issues.

7:25 PM  
Blogger G. F. McDowell said...

Owen, I think you're right on. I don't know when (or truly if) Cash came to repentance and faith in Christ, but even his early scenes had me shouting, "NOOOOOOOOO". My heart pounded as I wished him to stop. The temptation was palpable. Truly, his wife's concerns were valid, and she only became hysterical in the face of Johnny's blatant love affair with June, and the chemistry they showed on stage. By the way, there is a movie called, "The Gospel Road" which pitches itself as protraying Cash's walk of faith, but that is deceptive marketing. It is the filmed-in-Israel Cash interpretation of the Gospels, with June Carter starring as Mary Magdalene, and a freakishly blonde Swede as Jesus, with narration and random singing by Johnny Cash. It wasn't about his conversion at all, and was cheesier than "A Thief in the Night" in terms of 70s kitsch. Avoid at all cost.

8:13 PM  
Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Without question, Cash's conversion was sincere. And he displayed his Christian faith publicly, performing at Billy Graham crusades for years free of charge, recording the entire NKJV NT as an audio Bible, and even writing a book about the Apostle Paul: Man in White.

And his last five or so albums, recorded after his popularity began to wane demonstrate his faith in very explicit terms.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Paul Cable said...

The issue I take with the movie isn't that it isn't true to the actual Cash (his faith or otherwise). No biopic attempting to entertain can accurately represent the complex and often un-cinematic dynamics of a person's life, especially when the subject is the hero of the film's story. I think, though that the film inconsistently portrays his sin, rightly condemning his substance abuse and even his neglect of his family while somehow (uh... sinister-ly)glorifying the highly inappropriate and adulterous, though passionate, relationship with June Carter that greatly contributed to that neglect and substance abuse.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Trevin said...

Hi Owen,

I was pretty ambivalent about Walk the Line. I did like the fact that it didn't gloss over the consequences of Cash's sin. It's not every day that a Hollywood movie shows just how damaging sin can be. Of course, they could've done better showing Cash's conversion and repentance. And you're right, the filmmakers led you to root for June over against Cash's first wife.

I guess there is much to be maligned in this film, even as there are some things to be praised.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Dad said...

Owen, I've been away to attend daughter Julia's college graduation. Still recovering from all the traveling. I'm not going to go back and read all the good blogs I have missed :(

I haven't seen the movie nor do I know much about Cash. However, I do have a couple of comments.

I have seen a few Christian movies/books that glorify men who neglected their wife/family for the kingdom of God. While men and women have, and will continue to, fall to the temptations mentioned regarding Cash, we need to have understanding, because I suspect that few of us believers have always overcome these temptations, and even old people like me sometimes are tempted regarding the chemistry that does happen between people. Yet, at the same time we need to lift the standard high for us who are believers - that we would be holy and faithful, because our God is such.


6:31 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I think I tend to agree that there is something inherently dangerous about Walk The Line.

I don't think Walk The Line is saying that Cash's sins are good, nor that his life on the whole is a model to follow. In fact, I might even agree that it is a story of redemption.

However, I do not think it is redemption from an unholy life and sin so much as it is redemption from PAIN. As portrayed by Hollywood, Cash goes through great struggle to find happiness. In the end, he seems no less self-serving and hedonistic than before; he has merely come to a new understanding of which self-serving desires are the best ones to fulfill. The pain of long experience has taught him that happiness comes through sobriety, popularity, and June Carter rather than alcohol, drugs, and the first Mrs. Cash. He orders his life accordingly.

To me, this story glorifies the intertwining of the maturation process and the pursuit of happiness. In his early life, his lack of the former led to mistakes in his pursuit of the latter. Through painful experience and failures, he learns to realign his values so that his pursuit of happiness and selfish desires is guided by the "wisdom" of maturation.

This is where the dangerous part comes in. Hollywood glorifies these two themes in the life of Johnny Cash, rather than repentence of sin and glorification of God. Thanks to selective story telling (I'm sure we'd have a different take if the whole story was told from his first wife's perspective), we are made to sympathize with his choices as he tries to be happy, and then hurt for him when these choices turn out to be destructive. We are then made to feel emotionally happy when, through his experiences, he finally gains a "happy" and productive life. Do what YOU want, the movie seems to say, but do it in a way that won't cause you pain in the long term.

Thus, drugs and alchohol are bad. However, that nagging wife is never going to change, and you couldn't really be happy without June, now could you? Therefore, the happy life of the ending is drug and alchohol free, but June remains.

Remember, when she won awards for this movie, Reese Witherspoon continually referred to June Carter as her "inspiration." Though she may not be able to articulate it, for my money I'd bet it's because the world tends to deify those who have the patience to wait for the maturation process to come to completion.

So, I think the movie is a significant danger to younger people. They are taught to see beauty in finding what they want and what makes them happy, even if there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. They are taught to respond to their emotions as their guide, and to let pain (not sin) be their teacher. They are taught that when health, wealth, and happiness are preasent, all is well with the world, and when poverty and boredom and pain come, you need to make changes in your life.

Those are not the values I want for my kids, nor for myself. I'll take Chariots of Fire instead, thanks.

9:05 PM  

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