The 2005 Hollywood biopic of the life of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, looks at first glance like it does little more than reprise a typical sexist narrative shoehorned into a dialectical dramatic structure. Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) plays the role of the male visionary encumbered by the domestic shortsightedness of his loved one. Following a hasty marriage which leaves him struggling to support his wife and children, against all odds Cash gains a record contract and heads out on tour. Despite now finally gaining financial security through his new rockstar lifestyle the change alienates his wife, and he struggles through the extreme adversity of drug addiction and alcoholism, losing family and friends in the process. The familiar dialectical coup de grace comes when all this negativity is recuperated by way of his relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) who recognises his brilliance and guides him back to sobriety and musical form. When by the end of the film he returns to the life of domestic bliss, for all the apparent similarities with his previous marriage, his return to domesticity in his relationship with Carter is raised to a higher level. Through Carter’s recognition Cash then goes on to record his famous tour of high security prisons. The legend is complete.
Regardless of how closely this narrative conforms to the real factual details of Cash’s life, one can easily get carried along uncritically by the satisfying dialectical structure. Yet what if, like Marx’s great critical operation on Hegel, we were to break down this narrative into it real parts: namely, what is the real abstraction at work that allows us to experience this narrative as so satisfying and unproblematically complete? Because if one introduces the gender divide and examines the narrative along an axis attentive to this divide a slightly less flattering picture comes to light. For the Idea of Cash to emerge in its developed form, the female protagonists in his life have to be reduced to mere supporting roles. His first wife’s role is to provide a constructive barrier of incomprehension to fuel the angst-ridden necessities of his musical innovation. Carter’s role is to recognise Cash, and also to place a barrier between their relationship. Yet in the final accounting, Carter’s role becomes to nurse him back to health and agree to marry him. The concept of Cash comes to fruition over the ruins of his relationships with women and the reduction of them to unconscious actors in the birth of a legend. We might ask how many narratives show the development of successful women through their relationships with men reduced to supporting roles?
Moving from inversion to subversion, one can reverse this narrative in a form of a pseudo negative dialectic. For example, in Lars von Trier’s films the realisation of the male hero concept is rendered cynical and diabolical. Von Trier’s 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, can be seen as a direct reversal of the structure of the likes of Walk the Line. Naïve village girl Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) marries oil rig worker Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård). Bess falls in absolute love with Jan—she is not ‘right in the head’ according to her best friends in the community—and this is expressed through both her uninhibited sexuality and emotional absorbsion in the relationship. When Jan suffers a major drilling accident and is left paralyzed he asks her, against all her wishes, to have sex with other men and tell the stories back to him. This leads to a downward cycle of degradation for Bess, who is inevitably killed fulfilling Jan’s demands. Yet after her death Jan unexpectedly recovers. He organises the capture of her body from the oppressive village community and gives her a sea burial. Bells in the heavens sound in an ironic play on the martyrdom theme. The reversal at work here, then, does not turn the sexist dialectical structure on its head as much as draw attention to the ruins, prejudice and exploitation of women when they are reduced to supporting roles in the psychic realisation of male protagonists.
So why, given all the above, does the relationship between Cash and Carter in Walk the Line nonetheless remain compelling? If anything, the best thing about the depiction of their relationship is the unwillingness of Carter to simply accede to the role of female support figure. Her intransigence in the face of Cash’s relentless advances and desire for her—to not be absorbed into the pre-prescribed role of fading into the ‘fat shadow’ of Cash—that is, where her actions run contrary to the overall narrative structure—is where the film it is at its strongest. Cash’s unrequited desire for Carter during large stretches of the film pushes him right to the edges of self-destruction. And even when she is forced into the conventional nursing position of providing care for him during his drug rehab, she does not agree to marry him afterwards. This is why it feels such a fake when at the close of the film Cash puts her on the spot on stage to ask her to marry him and she agrees. For a structural completeness and archetypal happy ending the film sells out the one dimension of its presentation that bucked its otherwise standard sexist narrative structure.
….But Johnny Cash really did propose to June Carter on stage. And he did keep asking until she said yes. Its not the film at fault; its reality itself.