My Darling Vivian


He walked the line for her.

(2020) Music Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

We tend to mythologize our biggest stars. Their lives take on a quality that is spun by the inertia of tabloids and spin control. Often we get very one-sided portrayals of who they were and how they came to be.

Take Johnny Cash, for example. Most of us know him through his timeless music, country songs that have helped define American music over the years. Most of us know his story through the biofilm Walk the Line which justly won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. She played June Carter, who is depicted in the film as being the love of his life, the savior of him as he overcame his addictions. It is an American fairy tale romance.

Johnny was married before he met June, though, to a Sicilian-American woman named Vivian Liberto, whom he met in her hometown of San Antonio when she was 17 and he was 19. He was in the Air Force at the time and was soon after shipped off to Germany. That didn’t dim his ardor (or hers) any as he wrote more than a thousand letters, and sent her an engagement ring through the mail. Shortly after he came home, the two were married.

His career as a door-to-door salesman was unsuccessful and he decided to pursue a career in music. The couple moved to Memphis where they had no money and lived in a rundown apartment. However, he managed to get himself signed to Sun Records at a time where Sun was rewriting American popular music, with a line-up that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash found meteoric success and one of his first hit songs was “I Walk the Line,” written for Vivian.

Cash moved the family to pursue an acting career (as Elvis had before him) and eventually built a hilltop home in rural Casitas Springs north of L.A. The acting career fizzled, but Cash continued to be a hot commodity on the Billboard charts. He toured relentlessly, leaving Vivian in the house to take care of four daughters, all under six years old and one of them an infant.

On the road, Cash became hooked on amphetamines. His absences grew longer and longer and when he returned home, he was a changed man. Even his daughters noticed it. Vivian felt abandoned and the fights with her husband grew more vicious. Eventually, the couple divorced in 1966 and Cash took up with Carter, with whom he had been having an affair.

Vivian actually remarried before Cash did, to an ex-policeman. She wanted a man around because she didn’t feel safe. When Cash had been arrested in El Paso for bringing in pills from Mexico, she had gone there to bail him out. A newspaper picture captured her dark Sicilian complexion and full lips and many mistakenly thought she was an African-American. The backlash, particularly in the South, was enormous as interracial marriages were taboo in those days. She received death threats and in her isolated home stood vigil night after night, fully expecting an army of Klansmen to come to her door and murder her daughters.

But the mythology began to take hold as the years went by. Vivian had always been intensely private and rarely made public appearances while she was married to the country star. She began to be relegated to a role as a footnote in his career, so much so that when he died and a large tribute concert was thrown, she wasn’t mentioned except by former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and even that was edited out of the broadcast. Particularly galling was that Carter often took credit for raising the four daughters, when in fact she only saw them when they were visiting their dad.

Vivian didn’t live to see Walk the Line but her daughters did and were distressed, to put it mildly, to see her depicted as a whining, complaining lunatic who not only didn’t support her husband but drove him to drug use. It is all the more ironic since the title song was written for Vivian and not, as many have supposed, for June.

Most of this is told through the testimony of the four daughters which skews the narrative somewhat, but considering how short a shrift Vivian has gotten from history, is understandable. Even so, Vivian is not portrayed as a saint here – she had a temper and she could be cruel upon occasion. However, the girls certainly admire their mother and their love is plain throughout their interviews. We don’t hear much from outside the family other than through clips of archived interviews. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until near the end of the film.

Other than the interviews with the girls, the story is mostly told through archival footage, still photographs and home movies. Some of the home movies are fascinating as they usually are when it comes to catching people in the act of being themselves. We can see that Vivian had an exotic beauty, a cross between Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, only with olive skin.

But her voice is plain to hear in other ways. Through the letters, many of which she published in an autobiography which didn’t sell very well (nobody likes to have their myths questioned), it is clear that Cash was deeply in love with her. It is also interesting to hear a recorded letter that he sent her, playing a song he wrote for her. She and Cash remained friends, particularly after Carter passed away, and near the end of his life, visited with the girls (Rosanne, who was on tour with her own band, was unable to attend).

This is a very different look at the life of a legend. While her life had its share of pain, there was an awful lot of love. The score of Ian A. Hughes is almost dirge-like and gives the documentary a funereal air it didn’t really need. This is obviously a labor of love (the producer is Vivian’s grandson and the director her grandson’s husband) and it’s a love that should be celebrated.

The film was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March until the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a selection of 35 films (both features and shorts) from the Festival that have been made available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Best of all, you don’t need a Prime account to watch; if you have a free Amazon account, you can see it for free for a limited time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some interesting material – and heartbreaking moments. A different side of the Johnny Cash story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is almost dirge-like
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liberto met Cash at a roller skating rink in San Antonio while Cash was in the Air Force and based at nearby Brooks Air Base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walk the Line
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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South Mountain

Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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Silencer