Monday, November 28, 2005

Review: Walk the Line (2005)

A few years ago, when I was weighed down with despair over a romantic situation, a close friend of mine directed me to a quotation from French philosopher George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon: "Never think that God's delays are God's denials. Hold on; hold fast; hold out. Patience is genius."

In my case, patience wasn't enough; sometimes, everything you have isn't enough.

For Johnny Cash and June Carter, however, patience was indeed genius. It was 13 years between when they met and when they got married, but each had to wait out the other: June had to wait for the then-married Johnny to overcome his substance abuse problems (with her help), and Johnny had to wait for June to overcome her reluctance to become involved with a married man fighting so many demons on so many fronts.

Once they got together, though, their devotion to one another was unbreakable. When June succumbed in the spring of 2003 to complications from heart surgery, it was no great surprise that Johnny, in ill health himself for several years, passed the following fall.

Walk the Line, based on two Cash autobiographies, would be a lot less interesting if it were merely the typical rise-and-fall-and-rise-again biography we've seen crafted from the lives of other musicians and actors (as well as dancers, playwrights, directors, etc.), even though it covers that territory as well. We learn about Johnny's childhood trauma (the accidental death of his beloved older brother); his disapproving father, Ray; his restless marriage with first wife Vivian; his stint in the air force; his audition for producer Sam Phillips; his subsequent contract with Sun Records, the musical crucible that also produced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins; his initial hits and taste of fame; and the seemingly inevitable descent into alcohol, drugs and groupies.

It's only when Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) meets Carter (Reese Witherspoon) that it becomes obvious that this isn't a typical showbiz biopic of one man, but the story of a romance with a lot of roadblocks to get around that just happens to be about two famous singers.

It can't be easy to portray two such public personalities--especially Johnny, who had his own TV show and acted in movies as well, and was far better known than June, even though she was a member of the famous Carter Family singing group--but Phoenix and Witherspoon make it look easy, even though it obviously wasn't. Much has been made of the fact that they both use their own singing voices, and it's true that they're each impressive covering classics like "Get Rhythm," "Jackson," and "It Ain't Me, Babe." It probably didn't hurt to have veteran producer T Bone Burnett handling the music for the movie, including a smattering of other artists' songs well placed throughout the narrative, especially Blind Willie Johnson's chilling rendition of "Dark Was the Night - Cold Was the Ground on Which Our Lord Was Laid."

More importantly, though, Phoenix and Witherspoon get their characters' stage personas down so well that the musical numbers look and feel like real concert footage. Phoenix does a great job of capturing Cash's body language, often holding his guitar like a loaded rifle, and Witherspoon is even better, displaying the clear difference between Carter's off-stage personality--serious, studious and well aware of the general public's disapproval of her divorces--and her bubbly, joke-slinging on-stage persona.

They get solid support from everyone else in the movie, including Patrick as the flinty, unimpressed-by-fame Ray and Sandra Ellis Lafferty as June's quiet but strong and loving mother, Maybelle Carter. Ginnifer Goodwin also does fine work as Vivian, though she comes off as a bit of shrew in her scenes with Phoenix. Let's face it, though--if your significant other were perpetually sulking, stoned and openly desiring someone else to the point of hanging up pictures of the object of his desire in your house, you'd be more than a bit salty, too.

But it's Phoenix and Witherspoon who must carry the dramatic load, and they don't just carry it--they run away with it completely. Their performances aren't flashy, but subtly infused with tension--they're almost immediately attracted to one another, but the timing and circumstances just never seem right. Under James Mangold's direction, they both have transcendent, poetic moments, on their own and together: Johnny slowly finding his signature sound while auditioning for Phillips (Dallas Roberts); June being chastised by a woman in a department store for her recent divorce; June handing a recovering Johnny a bowl of fresh-picked raspberries. Phoenix's intense performance is no surprise, since he's well known for immersing himself in his characters, but Witherspoon's turn comes as a wakeup call to anyone who thought all she could do was light, fluffy comedy (including me).

They do what great actors are supposed to--they let us forget that they are giving performances and accept that, at least for those two hours in the dark, they are who they're pretending to be. That makes Walk the Line something more than the typical biopic--even though we know that it makes the compromises, condensations and edits that all such movies make (by both necessity and choice), it comes across as unvarnished, straightforward truth. And you can't ask for much more than that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Dia De Los Muertos

This poem was written some time ago, but on this day when one pays tribute to those who have moved on, it seems appropriate. Enjoy.

My father's skull was
never made of sugar,
never reclined in an alter
surrounded by candles
and candies, fishing poles
and plates of buttermilk
biscuits and pan gravy,
never had much of anything
but holes augered for two
green eyes, one of which
had been disconnected
when, while parked on
a barstool after another
tour of duty as a third-shift
railroad switch man, he got
flung skull-first through
a South Side bar's plate-
glass window and his
railroad nights were
done. He never did slip
on the parka he wore that
night again, as if it had
been to blame and now it's
hanging in my closet loose
and blue and strategically
gashed on the arms that
used to cover the arms that
used to carry worm beds
out to the back porch,
six-packs back from
the corner grocery store,
Grandma's casket to
the herse from the same
funeral home where our
arms carried his casket to
the herse that carried him to
a rectangular hole in the soil
in suburban Chicago where he
wouldn't have to carry any more.