March 4, 2006

Because Hollywood is anti-religion, because character conflicts make better film stories, or because the outlaw persona is so cool?

Why did they leave religion out of "Walk the Line"?
"That dimension of Cash's life, which was present all the way through, was absent," said theRev. C. Clifton Black, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who criticized the film for that reason in a review for the magazine The Christian Century. "I was stunned."...

"He was a really committed Christian all his life," said Patrick Carr, who co-wrote Mr. Cash's 1997 autobiography. (The film was partly adapted from that book, but Mr. Carr was not part of the deal.) Mr. Cash even saw his drug addiction as his metaphorical years in the wilderness. "As he was going further into addiction, he knew he was traveling away from God; that's how he thought about it," Mr. Carr said. "He was feeling that he was completely separated from God, and that was the worst thing."

At the nadir of his addiction, Mr. Cash went to Nickajack Cave in Tennessee, crawled in as far as he could and essentially lay down to die. When he did, he had the sensation that "I was going to die at God's time, not mine," he wrote in his autobiography. When he walked out, he told his mother that God had prevented him from killing himself.
The cave scene isn't in the film.
Mr. Black and others have suggested that the role of religion in Mr. Cash's life was minimized because Hollywood generally shies away from such subject matter. But the issue could have just as much to do with the practical limits on making a satisfying film. "I wanted to make a movie about Johnny Cash and June Carter and the birth of rock 'n' roll," said James Mangold, who directed "Walk the Line" and wrote it with Gill Dennis. So, he explained, he tried to use Mr. Cash's love for Ms. Carter as a symbol for various forms of redemption.

"June was a figure of redemption," Mr. Mangold said, "beautiful in the way that God's light is beautiful."

Certainly, the movie presents an image of Johnny Cash that would appeal to a secular, urban audience: that of an outlaw who struggled to control his worst impulses.
Biopics choose the story to tell, and it's never the whole person. It's kind of like the way TV reality shows take the available footage on a contestant, decide which story would be most interesting to tell, and edit accordingly. A struggle that takes place inside a person's head is not very cinematic. You have to show him interacting with another person (unless you're going to depict dreams and hallucinations or just have him talking to himself or behaving expressively). And yet, I know that I avoided this biopic and others because I imagine scenes with the two actors just yelling at each other in a way that isn't going to contain any interesting ideas. You drink to much. I know, but I can't help it.

It's hard to make a movie. You can always say that another movie could have been made -- and critics often do. But with a biopic, people get the feeling that the choice of which story to tell matters in a special way, because this will be the movie about that person. So you can see why religionists feel aggrieved about the omissions in "Walk the Line."

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I didn't see many movies this year, but I did see one that made me think it conspicuously omitted religion. Here's the old post.

24 comments:

John(classic) said...

In modern times we downplay religion. A survey of man's history shows how foolish that is.

Perhaps that will become obvious in the coming half century.

M. Takhallus. said...

Went back and read the old post. I'm not sure the words "40 year old virgin" should be in close proximity to "Religion-sized hole."

Bezuhov said...

When state and society are conflated, and separation of church and state is a core value of that society, well, you connect the dots and spot the problem.

BTW, Professor Black is a remarkable character; Bilbo Baggins become real.

Troy said...

The omission shows the lack of a personal Christian faith (as far as that can ascertained) on the part of the screenwriter. Anyone who has an active (read devout) Christian faith, like Johnny Cash can't have a complete story told about them that excludes that faith. I daresay Johnny Cash would say June was not as important to him as his relationship with Christ.

Assuming that to be true, leaving his faith out is a huge omission and paints not just a negligibly flawed portrait, but a fundamentally flawed one.

June as Beatrice to Cash's Dante is fine, but the movie does not make June a divine being (for obvious reasons).

The screenwriter mainly shows his ignorance. Since I have the narrative/cultural info on Cash and his faith -- it's still a damn fine movie. Sadly, since his faith is not explored, others come away with a vastly incomplete picture -- a good movie, but not as good as it should be (and is to those who understand his redemption in the terms Cash himself understood it.

Any bio should deal at least somewhat (arguably I realize) with the subject's worldview -- especially if it has direct impact on the narrative (like Cash's redemption). If it were a picture about Cash's American Recordings period and an elder "washed up" musician sticking it to the country industry -- an exploration of his faith would not be good stroytelling and would be inappropriate.

Troy said...

And what the hell is a religionist? I'll take Christian please, Baptist, Evangelical, Christ follower -- hell -- "Protestant" is better than religionist. :-)

2 "hells" in a harangue over Christian labels... Hmmm... Damn.

bearbee said...

I don't know enough about Hollywood politics but if religion was inserted might backers be concerned with luke-warm or negative reviews by critics in turn affecting the box office and award selection?

Perhaps the writers are secularists who discount the importance of religion to Cash, who have not the emotional component to relate to the inner religious need, and/or they are writers simply not skillful enough to address the religious aspect in a natural or realistic fashion.

Ann Althouse said...

Troy: "And what the hell is a religionist?" What the hell is a dictionary?

PatCA said...

I hadn't thought of the omission of religion, but I did think the movie sagged--now we know why. June was very religious herself also. Johnny was portrayed more like a Viper Room habitue than a complex man. The movie also misrepresented his first wife as a shrew who didn't support Johnny (and led to his downfall), to support the narrative of "finding the right love saved him."

I guess "religionist" is the equivalent of "Islamist"? And, yes, any mention of traditional religion in a script other than a satire is verboten in Hwood!

This website has good info on Cash's religious beliefs, from his autobiography. http://www.beliefnet.com/story/178/story_17895_1.html

Dave said...

Hollywood is anti-religion and Mel Gibson is an A-lister in Hollywood.

Square that circle please.

It's more appropriate to say Hollywood is interested in what it thinks will sell movie tickets.

Whether movies with religious content are part of that consideration depends on two things: Hollywood's market researches concluding that there is a large segment of the population interested in religiously-themed movies, and, second and most importantly, religious activists putting their money where their mouths are and financing such movies.

Neither of those two things has happened, outside of Gibson's Passion foolery.

If the religious are so concerned about the lack of religion in today's movies, the obvious answer is not to sit and bitch and deign to tell others how to run their business, but rather, to follow Gibson's lead and finance movies whose content interests you.

Joan said...

Dave, I'm not sure what planet you're living on when you say "that hasn't happened..."

I'm sure Barb Nicolosi of Act One would be distressed to hear you say it, as would the folks at Walden Media who have produced family movies such as "Because of Winn Dixie," "Holes," and that little box office smash that came out over Christmas you might recall, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe."

You're missing the point here, though. Ann wasn't saying that the movie needed to have a religious theme, she was commenting on the screenwriter's choice to deliberately omit a huge part of Cash's life in carefully crafting this biopic. Troy's comments are spot on.

Dave said...

Joan, it is you who is missing the point.

All we hear is that "Hollywood is anti-religious" and few religious people/organizations have put their money where their mouth is and financed movies that appeal to their demographic.

Out of the hundreds of movies released every year, you give an example of four or five, and then conclude that I must be living on a different planet than you because the vast minority of movies produced are religious in nature?

How incoherent an argument is that?

John(classic) said...

Even as we speak, at a conference table in Hollywood someone is saying:

"See there will be these pairs of penguins, you know, marching to the sea, protecting the egg and all, but because of Bush allowing global warming, things will get tough, the males will start looking at each oher-- you know long smoldering penguin looks--and...we'll make millions I tell you-- maybe we could work a walrus in, you know,like that lion, King of Antarctica..."

hoosthere said...

Dave,

I'll square that circle. Gibson's "A-Lister" status originated far earlier than his current embrace of his religious roots. It was only after he had become a star through his many movies that he realized that his life without a strong faith was teetering on the meaningless.

THEN, he puts his significant reputation on the line, and made money but he is arguably a bit of a pariah for his efforts.

Not to say he won't still be on the top, because his bet, in fact, paid off. So he makes his own movies now (Apocalypto).

I wonder why aren't more studios willing to make that bet now?

PatCA said...

"Hollywood is anti-religion and Mel Gibson is an A-lister in Hollywood. Square that circle please."

Every studio in town passed on The Passion. Gibson financed it himself and shocked the industry with its success, and he is still not well thought of. And I know from personal experience that Hywood execs do not want to hear about religion. I don't particularly either, unless it's relevant. You are also incorrect when you say execs solely rely on market research. This is only one small part of the complex process of getting a script into production and release.

Read the post. Neither Ann nor I are complaining about the lack of religion in movies but wonder why it was omitted when it was central to Cash's life.

hoosthere said...

Ann,

I believe that what Troy was reacting to was the pejorative nature of much use of the suffix "-ist". You must admit that throughout history, it hasn't had a pleasant association.

Granted, "creation-ist" may be one exception, but it is much more common nowadays with terms such as "Fascist" or more precisely "right-ist" or "left-ist", neither of which is used by its own group adherents. "Religionist" is a charged term which implies a totalitarian mindset that isn't too favorable to people of faith.

Ann Althouse said...

Hoosthere: You should use the dictionary too! It would be a lot easier. It's not a connotation. It's a denotation.

hoosthere said...

But if I denote a certain group with a rarely-used word which carries connotations in and of itself, isn't that what might be considered offensive?

Perhaps I should not engage in a battle of wits with a conlawprof when death is on the line!

bearbee said...

Is Merriam-Webster ok?

Main Entry: re·li·gion·ist
Pronunciation: -'li-j&-nist, -'lij-nist
Function: noun
: a person adhering to a religion; especially : a religious zealot

Ann Althouse said...

Hoosthere: You wouldn't ask the question that way if you had bothered to look up the word! The point is that I intend the negativity!

Wade_Garrett said...

I love Johnny Cash's music, but "Walk the Line" is already too long, if they included 30 extra minutes of Johnny Cash going to church and reading the Bible, the movie would have sucked.

A happy life makes for a boring biography. If Johnny Cash was close to God when he was getting divorced and going through his drug and alcohol addictions, then being close to God didn't help him very much. And his happier, later years when he was probably the closest to God were left out of the movie because it wouldn't have been interesting to watch.

Hollywood isn't as anti-religion as people in the south would like to think that it was. Furthermore, people in the movie business, like people in every other business, including the religion business, are in it to make money. If making movies about religious characters sold tickets, Hollywood would do it. Instead, every time Hollywood has tried to make a movie about religion, it gets attacked by RELIGIOUS groups. Why put your head in the lion's mouth if there are less difficult ways to make money?

Iwanski said...

I'm not religious at all, but Johnny Cash was just about the only person who I could listen to sing or talk about Christ where I could feel something special from it.

His gospel recording are amazing. I haven't seen the movie yet, but if what you are saying is true, that his religion was ignored, I'd say that's a real deficiency in the story.

But not having seen it, I'll reserve judgement. I know sometimes regilious people will see a program or movie with several minutes focused on religion and say it wasn't enough religion or it didn't fit their particular views...

Wade_Garrett said...

Iwanski -- I agree with you! That's a better way of articulating what I was trying to say in the last paragraph of my post.

Ernst Blofeld said...

The Passion made buckets of money. Usually in Hollywood this means a slew of copycat pictures, but I haven't seen many come out.

I don't think Last Temptation or The Da Vinci Code or Saved! are quite what the religious market segment had in mind when they think about religious movies. Oddly enough, I don't think they don't like going to the movies in order to be told that their religious beliefs are wrong.

Troy said...

"Religionist" I can look up the word smart arse! It's an odd word to use -- one which is of course your prerogative touchy -- which is again your prerogative.

I know what "religionist" means -- I didn't appreciate the negative tone (which you said you intended) so I said something. It's called "Comments" after all.

I decry the omission of religion in the Cash movie for the reasons I stated earlier --- that makes me not a Zealot or a zealot. You don't usually tag like that that's all.