Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

So, back around 2000 or so I decided I liked Johnny Cash; something or other made me listen to Live at Folsom Prison and I was just a fan from then on. I suppose this was around the time he was having his last glow of stardom, with his whole country-fried patriarch of rebel music persona going on. I was on my way to Esbjerg airport in 2003 when I heard Danish radio playing “I Walk the Line” at like eleven in the morning, and I said “huh. Johnny Cash died.”

Walk the Line (2005) isn’t a bad film at all; in fact, I quite like it. But it does something that is not only absolutely infuriating but also typical of movies about art — and, in a broader sense, typical of movies about history. Let’s take a look at a pivotal scene in the film for an example. Young John has managed to get an audition with Sun records supremo Sam Phillips. He and his band bore their way through some gospel numbers until Phillips stops them and demands that they play something they really feel: 

Sam Phillips:You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just… like… how… you… sing it.

Johnny Cash: Well you didn’t let us bring it home.

Sam Phillips:Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ *you* felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.

Johnny Cash: [after a pause] I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?

Sam Phillips: No.

Johnny Cash: I do.

So Cash gets back in the saddle and this time he plays “Folsom Prison Blues” and history is made. 

Now here’s an account of the same meeting from Cash’s autobiography: 

Once we were in the studio, I sang ‘I Was There When It Happened’ and ‘It Don’t Hurt Anymore’ for him. I sang … whatever else I’d taken into my repertoire from among the popular country songs of the day. Sam kept directing me back to my own repertoire: ‘What else have you written?’ Though I didn’t think it was any good, I told him about ‘Hey, Porter,’ and he had me sing it for him. 

That did it. ‘Come back tomorrow … and we’ll put that song down,’ he told me. 

I think that scene would be fucking amazing if they kept in that self-important horseshit speech from Sam Phillips and then at the end he played Hey Porter: 

So, OK, why does this bug me? There are several differences between this scene and the account Cash gives. Let’s list the big ones. 

  • The Tennessee Two weren’t there — Cash auditioned alone and brought his band back the next day. 
  • Cash initially tried to audition as a gospel singer (I didn’t quote that bit) but Phillips turned him down. 
  • Phillips wanted Cash to perform a song he’d written. 
  • Phillips didn’t want country or gospel music; he wanted rock and roll — or at least lively, upbeat country music that could appeal to the rock and roll market. 
  • There’s no record of Phillips giving some speech about the meaning of music, as if that weren’t obvious. 
  • Cash auditioned with a bomp-chicka-bomp train song, but not that bomp-chicka-bomp train song. 

Now, some of the changes made to the story for the film are very understandable — the sequence of events has been simplified, and the song has been replaced with a more recognisable one. Some details are even kept, like the song Cash plays in the audition, which is one of the ones he mentions in the book. 

But the rest are just … in reality, at least according to Cash’s book, Phillips was making a business and/or artistic decision. He wanted more of a certain type of country/rock artist, and he wanted songwriters. In the film, he makes a speech about self-expression, and he ties it right into the only religion Hollywood can ever take seriously: good old believing in yourself

With a few tweaks of dialogue, you could drop that Phillips speech into any movie made about music or art in Hollywood more or less ever. It has nothing to do with the set of circumstances that turned Johnny Cash into a rock star, and it has nothing to do with music more generally. In some ways, I think that’s a very bad thing for people who might want to be musicians to see — we get this idea of Johnny Cash, the lonely, tormented misfit with songs burning inside him, and we don’t see Johnny Cash talking about his music obsessions with Elvis, being immersed in the nascent rock and roll scene, hunting for hard-to-find “race records” or playing crappy gigs in nowhere church halls with his band, making his own posters, on the grind. Being a musician in movies, like being a writer, is an identity, not a process. 

Now maybe that’s fine; obviously, the process isn’t as visually or dramatically interesting. But what really gets on my nerves about this and every other film like it is that it doesn’t give a shit about the source material, or, if you like, the truth (bearing in mind that an old man’s recollections for commercial resale might not be the “truth” either, of course). It takes a thing that happened, and it replaces it with an inspiring feel-good believe-in-yourself speech. It takes reality, or something close to it, and it just … ignores it. No, not even ignores it, rejects it. Oh, this thing that really happened isn’t enough like a movie, so let’s replace it with a movie scene. This thing isn’t like what we already believe, so we’re just going to replace it with what we’ve already got. It isn’t interested in learning anything. 

If you’re just going to replace things with stock Hollywood moments, why go looking for things to begin with? If you’re just going to take real life and make it more like a movie, why the fucking fuck are you making movies based on real life in the first place?

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Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

Ancient history, conspiracy theory and hip-hop

As a teacher, I have this weakness, which is that I seem to be unable to not answer a question, no matter how completely off-topic it is. This can lead to some interesting conversations. Mostly I get around it by talking sixteen to the dozen, which takes care of my British, American and Scandinavian students, who mostly have a fairly strong cultural predisposition not to interrupt. But when you get interrupters — I had some students from a Middle Eastern country this summer, and they didn’t give a shit if I was talking — you can have some good digressions. They wanted to know about everything from the royal baby to the international situation to how long I’d been married to the Illuminati. I thought — hang on, the Illuminati?

Now, I am no expert on the Illuminati. I know them as the sort-of subject of some novels and also as one of those mystico-political outfits you got around the time of the Enlightenment. I’m not going to go looking them up, but that’s the gist of my understanding. But of course, we’re not talking about the historical Illuminati, we’re talking about the conspiracy theory Illuminati. And more to the point, we’re talking about the pop-culture Illuminati.

At the risk of being an old man, when I was a kid talking about the Illuminati was a sign that you were either a sort of countercultural type or a loonie. It wasn’t a sign that you were in the know, because most of us didn’t know shit about anything. But it indicated a certain … mindset, I guess? And of course the people who grew up in that age are now making music and the music is popular, and the kids they love the Illuminati. I was asked if Jay-Z was in the Illuminati, a situation I consider unlikely, but a quick Google search informs me that I appear to be alone in my opinion.

Anyway, that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the much narrower topic of pseudoarchaeology in hip-hop. Yeah!

Now there’s a couple of different strains of pseudoarchaeology in the world of hip-hop. One of the most common has its roots in the various African-American nationalist movements, and is basically about constructing some kind of coherent history for black Americans. This can range from pretty much proper history to conspiracy theory stuff about mad scientists and all sorts. Here’s a middle-of-the-road example, Canibus’s Nature of the Threat:

Now, that’s within an existing pseudoarchaeological tradition, and one that ties into all sorts of social movements that I don’t want to get into here — but it’s not too uncommon for groups who feel marginalised.

But the issue was actually brought to mind by a Jedi Mind Tricks (featuring Killah Priest) track, Saviorself. Worth noting: Jedi Mind Tricks producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind (and isn’t that a great name?) produced one of Canibus’s albums, so there’s a link there — but the Jedi Mind Tricks track has a lot more loopy ancient history stuff in general.

Now, in case you’re reading this at work or something, here’s a section of the lyrics

I built with Alexander the Great

He told the Persians they should stay gone

Then he told me ’bout the oracle of Amon

He gave me no clue where it is

Men fear time, yet time fears the Pyramids

He gave me more jewels

He told me that Amenhotep was immortal

I can’t overstand hieroglyph

So I called Killah Priest and he taught me how to follow it

I walked through the Valley of the Kings

With a white robe, white rose and Muwali rings(?)

And your whole team Judas

My road (possibly robe?) thin, gold skin like Zeus’s

I speak the dialogue of the dead

I practice the same war tactics in King Arthur’s head

So let the swordsmen kill the beast

It’s the Legacy of Blood with Vinnie Paz and Killah Priest

And that’s only a part of it — in as many lines, Paz (Vinnie Paz, the rapper from Jedi Mind Tricks) calls in elements of three different periods of Egyptian history, King Arthur, and even a nod to Rastafarianism (“overstand” is a Rastafarian thing, at least originally).

Now, obviously this doesn’t form any kind of coherent pseudoarchaeology, and it’s a mistake to view it that way. It’s just meant to impress you with how broad Paz’s knowledge is — and not only does he reference the classics, but the whole track is peppered with various esoteric allusions. Overall, you are supposed to conclude that Vinnie Paz is a guy in the know. Now, Paz’s record label, Babygrande, has recently gone on a bit of a spree taking down tracks from its artists on YouTube, so sadly I don’t have any comments to use as examples, but they definitely supported that idea — fans viewed Paz as telling the real truth, telling the things they don’t want you to hear.

Let’s take a look at another example. While the previous example was pretty tame, this one is filled with violent imagery, foul language and just generally the kinds of stuff that you’d back away from someone saying if you met them in person. As an aside, please don’t take my linking these songs as an endorsement of JMT’s oeuvre — David Thorpe once said something to the effect that Jedi Mind Tricks raps about mental problems, ancient history and beating up gay people, and all their fans just try to ignore the third part. It’s actually really sad, because some of their stuff is very good, but what can you do?

This is a Jedi Mind Tricks / Ill Bill track called “Heavy Metal Kings”. Now, again, here’s a section from Paz’s second verse:

You don’t know about the Gospel of Judas

About the information found in the Galapagos ruins

’bout how the warriors would sharpen their blades

How if they wanted to, the government could cure you of AIDS

Now this is an even bigger mishmash then the first one, leaping between “secret history” and modern day conspiracy theory with that thing about the warriors just sort of stuck in for the rhyme. The “Galapagos ruins” bit is particularly hot. If you Google the phrase, what comes up is perplexed hip-hop and conspiracy fans asking what the hell Paz is talking about. It sounds like something he just put in because it sounds all esoteric and secret. It has all kinds of weird implications. And it’s not just the ruins — I mean, if the ruins existed themselves, that would be a big deal, but it’s the information in them that’s the real secret. It’s a double whammy. It’s just such a well-written line; the perfect conspiracy allusion.

And this stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. Old friend Aleks Pluskowski wrote an interesting paper on archaeology and heavy metal, but as far as I know the hip-hop stuff hasn’t been looked at in any real depth, at least not within the field. Obviously it ties in to all sorts of other stuff, but I think it could be well worth a look. By someone other than me, ideally.

In conclusion, I have no point other than that when we bang on pseudoarchaeologies for being inconsistent, we’re kind of making the assumption that they were ever meant to be. Of all the JMT fans agreeing with each other about how Vinnie Paz knows his shit on the internet, probably 1% care about the details. The rest are just using this specific conspiracy text as an expression of the general principle that the accepted version of history is a load of bullshit.

Which, you know …

Ancient history, conspiracy theory and hip-hop