Tuesday, May 30, 2006

MOVIE NIGHT. Finally saw Walk The Line. Back when Joaquin Phoenix was announced as the Johnny Cash avatar, I spent a long night explaining to an uninterested bartender why Phoenix was a poor choice. They should have scoured up a backwoods retard to play JC, I drooled. I admired Phoenix from Quills and Gladiator, but I didn't see anything in him that could sound Cash's simplicity.

I was awful wrong. Phoenix is wonderful. He obviously worked like hell on the voice, and did right by it: he not only got the lower register, but also the aching gulf it came out of. When he did "Folsom Prison Blues" for Sam Phillips (and that was a great little performance, there, by Dallas Roberts -- he made Phillips a pedant, a prophet, and a promoter all at once, which Phillips had to have been), Phoenix seemed to be singing in slow motion, digging open with effort a hole in himself to reveal his deepest sorrow. And, drunk as I was when I expressed it in that bar, the filmmakers seem to have shared my feeling about Cash being a retard. The movie Cash can't hardly help himself: he does everything out of blind need. From the start he comes on to June as if he has no social skills whatever, and even after his desire has been purified by abstinence and discipline, when he proposes -- "Muhrry me, June!" -- it's still a raging hard-on that can't brook convention, common sense, or anything else.

There's a lot more to Johnny Cash than a love story, but the love story is great, and who doesn't like a great love story? Much as I admire Reese Witherspoon, though, I don't see this as any kind of pinnacle for her, Oscar or no. Back in her Freeway-Election period, I would have imagined Witherspoon capable of anything. Then came those stupid Legally Blond movies, and I think she's still sort of stuck on that note. Her June Carter is solid but nothing out of the ordinary. I liked her best when she first softened toward Cash -- it may have just been a gap in the writers' characterization, but when she let him into her hotel room (here the framing of the scene helps a lot), it was a welcome glimpse of mystery -- how is it that someone so forcefully pulled together lets herself slip? By and large, though, Witherspoon's June is too formulaically conflicted, according to how bad or good Johnny's coming off at the time. The newspaper headline JUNE CARTER MARRIES STOCK CAR DRIVER is more interesting than most of her performance. Witherspoon needs a quantum casting leap. But who in Hollywood will give it to her?

As for the resolution, I like it fine. It may be a family-Bible resolution, but it's still a resolution. I especially like Cash's Christian handling of his asshole father -- I was annoyed by it, but on the film's terms it made perfect sense, and those, as Charles Foster Kane once observed, are the only terms anyone understands. I understand the charge that Walk the Line is just a form of "effective ventriloquism," and that Cash's life has more riches to yield, but to me the important thing is that it is effective, and its effectiveness is earned from the start to the finish of the film. Movies can do worse, and usually do.

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