Archive for November 29th, 2006

Cash at Folsom

by Jay Stevens 

I finally got around to watching “Walk the Line,” the Johnny Cash biopic, and I admit I was underwhelmed. Yes, the critics loved the movie, especially Joaquin Phoenix’ portrayal of Cash. I thought the script was terrible – it made Cash look like he picked up the guitar on a whim, when in fact he was obsessed by music and performance his whole life, and changed the facts around to make an unchallenging romance film – and I thought Phoenix was near unbearable to watch and, more crucially, to listen to.

That’s right: he did his own singing. One word: ugh.

One of the key failures of the movie, in my opinion, was that Cash was depicted as near incoherent, but in actuality Cash was quite voluble – when he talked about music. You can hear Cash’s passion in this 1997 interview with Terry Gross, in which he’s clearly animated reminiscing about his musical past even though he’s already afflicted with the disease that would incapacitate him and eventually kill him.

That’s not to say Cash was lacking in character outside of music. I think NPR film critic David Edelstein sums Cash up best in his review of “Walk the Line”:

If you’re going to tell the story of Johnny Cash, you to need to account for one thing above all: that indelible tension between self disgust and a kind of Christian resignation. Consider that “Man in Black” getup, the height of cool, yet the mark of a soul in mourning. Or those vocals, steady like a train, says someone in the movie, yet charged with the fear of what his former son-in-law, Nick Lowe, called “the beast in me,” a song that Cash sang beautifully in the last phase of his career.

Edelstein opines that Phoenix nailed this essential element to Cash, but I disagree. Phoenix portrayed Cash’s self-loathing by moping wordless around the set – that is, in cliché Hollywood form. Honestly, is it any fun to watch someone go silent and morose through a movie, watching them booze and dope up and womanize? We like a dash of charm to go with our anti-charm. And Cash in real life was quite charming. Earnest. Passionate about music, God, and justice. Slightly self-mocking.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, that same year were released two biopics that did a much better job in depicting all the tension, conflict, and humanity of their subjects: “Capote” and “Ray.” The latter especially, because it portrays a similar plot and subject, really shines, capturing a world of music and personal contradictions and giving insight into genius.

I thought the movie’s (mis)use of Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison concert, which would be recorded for the man’s landmark “At Folsom Prison” record, typified the failings of both script and acting in “Walk the Line.”

In the movie, the scene serves as the watershed in Cash’s life. He finally finds purpose in playing to prison inmates, who find connection to the singer through his music. They know Cash understands what they’re going through, and Cash realizes his music is transformative, which gives him the sense of purpose he’ll need to stay off the drug habit he just kicked.

As he makes his way onstage, a rebellious grin works its way across Phoenix’ face and he smashes a glass of water on the set while mouthing off to the prison warden, then launches immediately into “Cocaine Blues,” with it’s murderous line, “I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down.” He’s found his calling as the anti-authoritarian bad-boy who has more in common with the prisoners than with the stuffy warden.

In real life, of course, Cash has already played concerts at prisons for over a decade. He doesn’t smash the glass onstage – he drinks the prison water and sets it down next to him on stage. And he doesn’t mouth off to the warden; he’s there at the warden’s request. And his repertoire included songs of redemption, culminating in “Greystone Chapel,” a song penned by one of Folsom’s inmates that suggests in Christianity lies forgiveness and hope.

And what’s most stunning about the concert is not Cash, but the audience reaction, at lines like the above from “Cocaine Blues,” from “Folsom Prison Blues” (“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”), and especially at “25 Minutes to Go,” which is a morbid countdown of an inmate’s last 25 minutes before he’s hung. You can hear guffawing and cheers at the following lines:

“And the sheriff said, ‘Boy, I’m gonna watch you die,’ with 19 minutes to go/
oh, I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye with 18 minutes to go.”

“I’m waitin’ for the pardon to set me free, with 9 more minutes to do/
“but this ain’t the movies, so forget about me! 8 more minutes to go!”

And the song’s last and unexpected line, “..and now I’m swingin’ and here I go…,” after which the music halts abruptly is met with ironic cheers and amusement.

A reporter at the time, Gene Beley, who was in the audience covering the concert that day, tells the story of “Greystone Chapel,” and recorded the concert from among the inmates. It’s definitely worth a listen, if only to hear Cash’s eagerness to discover “Greystone Chapel” the night before the concert and the clearer calls from the prisoners.

In the end, “Walk the Line’s” depiction of Cash is the overly simplistic 60s-era James Dean rebel Baby Boomers love, when the reality was more complex, more bleak. You can hear the joy in Cash’s voice as he sings “Cocaine Blues” and “Folsom Prison,” regaling listeners with tales of violence and self-destruction. And that’s it, isn’t it? Cash captures the joy of sin and the unbearable soul-crushing sadness that accompanies it. And that’s why the prisoners react: they understand.

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Links…

Laurel recount hands state house to the Republicans and Scott Sales.

Ed Kemmick was at the recount and got goose bumps for democracy.

And Matt comments on the “agenda” of Republican House leaders. Is it “no quarter” or “working together”? Tax relief for the rich? Or screwing Montana’s college students? All of the above?

And what’s with this Republican fascination with stains?

Forget about Missoula, Butte, Gallatin County, blogs, rural voters, or Native Americans: a 19-year-old volunteer won the election for Jon Tester.

President Bush tries to get all palsy-walsy with Max Baucus on trade. Stay tuned!

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes reject the state’s gaming compact. The deadline is tomorrow at midnight.

Moorcat has a crazy Thanksgiving holiday, involving food, true love, and car crashes.

Colby mulls those murderous atheists and finds that Christian history ain’t so hot, either.

Then Colby mulls Joel Hunter’s decision to turn down the job of head of the Christian Coalition because they don’t give a fig about poverty or the environment. Yeah, but Joel baby, abortion and fags sell

Brits: climate change altering oceans.

Centrism? Centrism? There’s no such thing.

Time’s five fatal mistakes of the Bush administration.

Friedman calls for just one more Friedman Unit and a half in Iraq; Pogie dissects the Friedman rhetoric and concludes this man has no idea what he’s talking about.

Brits to withdraw from Iraq?

Marine Corps: Iraqi insurgency can’t be beaten in western Iraq.

Jim Webb almost slugs the President over his son’s deployment in Iraq. Now that would have been cool!

A federal judge struck down the Bush administration’s ability to designate people as “terrorists” without oversight. Hooray for the Constitution!

John in DC mulls over Gingrich’s recent anti-First-Amendment remarks: “Go to Russia or Tehran if you hate freedom this much. I have had it with Republicans who hate America, who hate our freedoms, who hate what this country stands for, and who think that the only way to save our freedoms from the terrorists is for us to destroy those freedoms first.”

Kossak SusanG notes what kind of “speech” Gingrich wants to protect: money. Aren’t conservatives predictable?

Steven Benen unravels the misstatements made from the right about Rep-elect Keith Ellison’s religion and his office.

Kos on “San Francisco values.”

It’s time for Wulfgar!’s annual Montana weblog awards! It’s nomination time: you know what to do folks. Go over there and nominate!

No, you don’t have to be a Montanan to nominate or vote. At least, I don’t think so. Who’s going to check, anyway?

by Jay Stevens 

Christian Cryder dropped by in the comment thread to readbetween’s response to the SHEC giveaway. It was an interesting post, generally agreeing with the gist of readbetween’s accusation that SHEC’s materialist response may not have been very Christ-like. (There’s also a good response from a SHECIE in the comments.)

Incidentally, Cryder is part of the “Missoula Project,” whose stated mission (pdf) is to “plant a church” in Missoula:

Nestled in the heart of the mountains, Missoula, Montana, sits like a crown jewel in the Last Best Place. It is a beautiful city to live in, but it’s a barren wasteland spiritually. Nearly 70% of those who live here are completely unchurched. Many have rejected modern religiosity and are looking elsewhere for answers.Burned-out ex-hippies, liberal intellectuals, rugged individualists, and bulletproof college students – all are on a quest for meaning and fulfillment. These people hunger for something more, but they are not finding it. Very few have any real understanding how Christ and the Gospel can quench their thirst.

Ugh. Frankly, you’re not gonna find too many friends around here with that kind of attitude. A barren wasteland? Not only does Missoula have a vibrant Christian community, it has a vibrant Buddhist community, too. Oh, and even the agnostics and atheists in town generally support peace, the environment, and freedom. We lead the state in community farming projects, the Missoula Food Bank is amazing, etc & company.

Enough of the patronizing, please. We “burned-out ex-hippies, liberal intellectuals, rugged individualists, and bulletproof college students” are very aware of Christianity, thank you very much, and many of us would prefer to do our own thing. In the end, I pretty much agree with John Derbyshire’s summary of the effect of religion on our community (hat tip to Ed K):

I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say “religion” they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I’m sure it can. If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I’m sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference. Evelyn Waugh would have been no more obnoxious as an atheist.

In the end, I wonder how much the “Missoula Project” founders are willing to embrace Missoula. Do they support a woman’s right to choice? Are they willing to embrace the city’s large and eclectic gay population – and not with an aim to change them, but to welcome them as they are into the congregation, marry them, and include their families? Will they make stewardship of the environment one of their top priorities? Are they concerned about poverty and peace? Will they join Missoula’s civic leaders and oppose torture, rendition, and the war in Iraq? (All of these issues are, of course, completely compatible with Christ’s values.)

Or, in the end, will this church try to change the community into its own image?

I’m not too hopeful it’s the former based on that “barren wasteland” crack. Good luck, fellas. With an attitude like that, you’ll need it.




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