Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Johnny Cash Movie Marathon 1

I've acquired a collection of Johnny Cash movies now numbering five, plus one TV guest starring role (no, not Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman) and it is time to let them loose on the blogosphere. There's quite a history of country singers turning their hand to acting, probably most notably Kris Kristofferson but all the Highwaymen and many others have dabbled. There is nothing in the Cash oevre to match Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or Heaven's Gate (no really, it's quite good), but there are some high points.

First, The Pride of Jesse Hallum. 1980. Made for TV and "recommended by the National Education Council," although not the "National Traffic Council" probably given the amount of illegal driving our hero does. I saw this many times as a kid (the local video shop must've had it) but all I remember was that Cash was illiterate and learns to read and one scene in which he sounds out letters. "C for Cup." I used to like to imitate the drawl "C fer Currrrrrrrp." Still do. Buy me a few beers sometime and ask nicely.

I'm sure this film is little seen, and it's time to shine a light. Sure, it's a crappy Made For TV light which wobbles alarmingly if you make any sudden movements, but it's Cash and therefore worth 93 mins of your time.

Jese Hallum is a widowed Kentucky coal miner. Here he is, pensive at his wife's grave.

He has a Harry Kewell lookalike son Ted and a daughter with scoliosis. Here she is with a pet chicken, name of Minerva. Not related to the Chicken in Black, we hope. Without surgery she will "grow humped up and breathless."

So Jesse packs the kids into the ute pick-up and heads to Cincinnati where the wee poppet goes to hospital. Jesse pays the hospital the $14,000 in cash (he can't write cheques, you see.) Ted enrols in school but Jesse makes excuses because he can't fill out the enrolment forms. He runs into the prissy school marm Vice Principal with her big words and high faluting city ways. This is star of stage and screen Brenda Vaccaro.

He can't get a job because he can't fill in an application or read the operating instructions.

Is this the Employment Office?

I should also say, Jesse is not just any Kentucky coalminer. He is a Kentucky coalminer from Muhlenberg County which as many people reading this (OK, as everyone reading this except people reading only because they are related to me) will know, this is a reference to the John Prine classic "Paradise."

And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

How many of you are singing along right now? I knew it. Anyway, Cash sings the song in the movie and the melody is all over the place, picked out freakin' endlessly on guitar and banjo. Some might call this creating a unifying musical theme to support the narrative superstructure, others that it is labouring the beejeezbus out of the sucker. I take no sides. That banjo, by the way? ... well, see the final screenshot for who is wielding it. He also sings Billy Joe Shaver's "An Old Chunk of Coal."

Finally, Jesse ends up at the fruit markets lugging round produce for Salvatore Galucci, played with A-Super-Mario-Brother-in-a-pasta-sauce-ad nuance by Eli Wallach. "You-a good-a boy-a Jess-a!"[insert flapping arms here] A sleazy looking Sopranos dude tries to cheat Sal with low quality apples, but Jesse exposes his game. He might not have book learning, but he was Homecoming King at the School of Hard Knocks and Apple Grading. Galucci tells sleazy dude to sling his hook, whereupon sleazy dude roughs up Galucci, whereupon Jesse lays some Kentucky thunder on his ever-lovin' fruit cheatering ass. Sometimes, you've got to fight when you're a man. Oops, sorry. That's the Kenny Rogers Movie Marathon. Next year, maybe. This earns him Sal's devotion and a promotion.

Did I mention the prissy school marm is Sal's daughter? This fact will return to assert itself as important later in the narrative.

So. What else? Oh yeah, it turns out young Ted is barely literate too but he is a track star so skated through his old school. School Marm (her name is Marian)wants to bust him back to junior high but Jesse says he's being picked on for being from Kentucky and demands he stay where he is, and the Principal -- eye on the upcoming track meets - lets him. Jesse 1 Marian 0. Conflict!

More conflict. Jesse runs a red light and is pulled over by a smarmy big city cop who gives him attitude about being a hillbilly, informs him his licence is months out of date and rips it up.

To get an Ohio licence he has to ----- take a written exam! This never happened back in the holler, where his wife did all the paperwork and a relative at the traffic bureau rubber stamped his papers. What Will Jesse Do?

Sal, not being completely stupido, twigs that Jesse can't read about 30 seconds after meeting him. He speechifies about coming to this great country as an illiterate peasant from the distant land of Upper Complete Hamovia and working hard blah blah blah man he is today yadda yadda. Long story short: learn to read or you no work for me. My Mariana, he says, she help you. Jesse nixes this idea but -- the first part in the swallowing of the titular pride of Jesse Hallum -- goes to her and she finds him lessons.

Jesse is impatient though. He can't afford the two years the teacher tells him it will take to learn. He quits. Sal lets his daughter cook him breakfast and then emotionally blackmails her into personally teaching his Jess. Ah, fathers and daughters and that delicious dynamic of guilt. She agrees.

And here is the famous "C for Cup scene."

Progress is made. Jesse is happy. All this, by the way, is being kept a secret from his kids. Jesse naively thinks he has been fooling everybody all this time.

The timeline is a bit fuzzy but after a Rocky-like montage of hard studying scenes Jesse attempts to read The Wizard of Oz to his still hospital bound daughter. She's excited by this because he has never read to her, mom used to do that. Now, I was pretty disappointed with this scene. It should be the big emotional turning point; for the first time he is reading a story to his sick daughter. Halting and stumbling over words, but he's actually reading. To his joyous daughter! For the first time! But the scene is flat and not the big emotional pay off it should be. Even an average midday movie can be elevated by deft handling of such moments but the director really missed an opportunity.

So anyway, Ted gets in more trouble and Jesse finally feels ready to take that driving test. But in the test, he pikes, loses confidence, screws up the test paper and storms out in a blaze of banjos. Damn your pride Jesse Hallum!

Then he gets in a road rage stoush and ends up in the clink. Cue banjos of regret.

Then Ted flunks out and Jesse -- not quite so canny as ol' Sal -- gets an inkling that maybe ... just maybe Ted can't read neither. He tests his theory by making him read Psalm 40 which Jesse has memorised but Ted can hardly decipher. Jesse finally comes clean on his illiteracy to discover his kids already knew. In fact, so did everyone back in Muhlenberg County. Duh.

The film ends with Jesse and son in remedial reading classes at Summer school. Predictably, the class is taught by an milquetoast in a brown suit, ineffectual in front of a class of slackers with boom boxes until Cash takes control, pulls himself to full height and tells the kids they don't want to live like him.

"Me and my boy -- we're going to learn to read!"


Except for the music credits. And on banjo, Mr Earl Scruggs. Cool.

Knowing how Johnny Cash loved reading and surrounded himself with books, I'm sure the story had resonance and he's most effective when regretfully explaining the life of lies and "faking it" he had to lead to make it so far without reading, and cold reality that what worked in his old home town was not going to fly in the big city. It's probably the least interesting of all the Cash films I've seen but it's not without merit. The banjo, for instance.

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