' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene: Walk the Line

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Dissecting a Scene: Walk the Line

You might have heard about “A Star is Born.” It’s doing pretty well at the box office. People seem to like it. We will discuss that movie, certainly, but that’s for next week. This is this week. And seeing “A Star is Born” got me to thinking about “Walk the Line.” The former is better than the latter, not least because it does not have to stick to a straight, t-crossing biopic outline, though that is neither nor there. The former’s best scene is probably an onstage duet between its female and male singers and the latter’s best scene is an onstage duet between its male and female singers. Let’s discuss the latter.

Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is married with three kids but blue. June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) is married to a stock car driver but she is blue too. June misses Johnny, but won’t really say it. Johnny misses June, and he will say it. He does say it, tracking her down and asking her to go out on tour with him. She acquiesces. And the next scene opens with June opening for Johnny before announcing the name of the guy everyone has come to see and stepping away from the microphone. Johnny enters from downstage, which is where the camera is positioned.

He adjusts his mic.

He makes his patented plainspoken introduction: “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”

And then he turns to his right, visually beckoning June, though the look is less master of ceremonies than a come on.

So June saunters in, her arms flapping.

She takes the mic right next to Johnny’s. Not behind or off to the side, mind you, but right next to his. This is not his song; this is their song.

And then James Mangold cuts to a wide shot from in front of the stage to show the full band. And I suppose the rules of cinema might dictate an establishing shot, showing us the complete lay of the land. But this is the only shot in the whole scene from within the crowd. And this scene is not about the crowd. It is about them — Johnny and June.

A shot looking up at Johnny from the foot of the stage as he kicks off the first verse.

As he does, Witherspoon, as she does throughout, has June meet Johnny’s eyes with an indelible expression, one that seems to be saying, “Ok, boy, show me watcha you got.” Like every performance of this song on each stop of the tour is another chance for him to show her.

So he does. That’s not just a duet face; that’s a face of challenge-accepting provocation.

And that, of course, comes through in the song’s lyrics, which their performance turns inside out. “I’m not the one you want,” he sings. “I’m not the one you need.” When, in fact, he means precisely the opposite, which he makes clear with that flirtatious smirk.

She knows it too. And that is why Witherspoon has June receive it with a smile-

-that explodes into a laugh. He met her challenge.

And because he did, her chiming in on the second part of the first verse comes across like a harmonizing acknowledgment of the challenge being met.

And Phoenix throws his head back, reveling in the back and forth.

He re-meets her eyes.

And then the camera cuts back to June as she sings along on “Whether you are right or wrong.” And while Cinema Romantico did not have Random Awards back in those days, if it had, the facial expression of the year would have gone to Witherspoon with this double expressive punch on “Wrong.”

And Phoenix receives that expression with one that is basically sex with his eyes, as fierce a juxtaposition as you’re ever gonna get since he’s roaring the chorus. “It ain’t me babe.”

That’s so hot they’ve gotta cool it down, breaking for the musical interlude, stepping back from the microphones.

But then quickly returning.

They tear into the second verse.

Still looking at each other like they were.

But in the space of just a second or two, Phoenix noticeably lets that suggestive smirk dissolve.

It dissolves because the camera switches to his point-of-view, looking out toward the crowd, where his family sits. And notice how Mangold frames this shot — with June fuzzily but conspicuously on the right edge, unintentionally inserting herself into the family dynamic.

Now Johnny looking’s real hard at them, the weight of what he’s singing — “You say you’re looking for someone / who will promise never to part” — reverberating within.

And Johnny’s dad (Robert Patrick), never his son’s biggest fan, sensing that his son is looking toward his wife (Ginnifer Goodwin), looks toward her too, as if adding his own disapproval to his son’s sudden self-doubt will drive the nail in his punk kid’s coffin.

Which is why as that same shot plays out, Johnny’s right shoulder suddenly blurs his pops from the frame, like he’s telling his pops to take a hike and selfishly ignoring his own pangs of what he knows to be true.

Which is why, when the movie cuts back to Johnny, as he sings the line “someone to close his eyes for you”, he does just that, literally. Except, of course, that he is no longer looking at his wife, as these two parts of the frame in lockstep go to show. He is looking at June. He is closing his eyes on his own wife for June. Yikes.

And June and Johnny bellow it again: “It ain’t me babe. No, no, no, it ain’t me babe.”

Which, of course, means, as Johnny’s wife assuredly knows, watching in the shot that ends the scene, with June right there, blurry but lurking, threatening to take her place, really means the opposite. It’s you, babe. Oh, it’s defintely you.

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