Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sooner or Later


Tony Kaye, the long lost director of "American History X", steps in to navigate the first video from the latest posthumous Johnny Cash album. It’s a star-studded affair that features scenes of everyone from Justin Timberlake to Patti Smith giving props to the man in black.

VIDEO: "God's Gonna Cut You Down" directed by Tony Kaye

Tony Kaye’s American History X was a controversial film because it dared to divulge the two-sided nature in every human being, even in the most ardent racist criminals. It’s uplifting to see Edward Norton’s character go through such a monumental sea change, yet its somewhat troublesome to imagine that if a white supremacist, in a certain environment, can turn towards peace, then could anyone else, in a given situation, turn towards hate?

The stark video for Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” emphasizes this same dualism in the work of the singer-songwriter. It opens with the proclamation that Cash always wore black because he “identified” with the “poor and the downtrodden.” Cash is famous for his concerts at Folsam prison, where he seemed to be an iconic leader for the forgotten inmates of America. Yet the name of this specific tune lets you in on its thematic secret, it tells the tale of a man inspired by faith to tell the world that “sooner or later” God’s punishment will be felt. Cash often sang of God and redemption while telling tales of murder and adultery. He was a fire and brimstone preacher who also wrote anti-religious anthems, an American icon who was often banned in most Christian homes.

While the selection of the famous faces in this video might seem quite random, or perhaps even a sad attempt at publicity – it is in fact quite illuminative of the theme. Mark Romanek’s “Hurt” video (Romanek also helped with this one) was a historical and personal farewell to Johnny Cash, and thus Kaye could not resort to a similar slideshow of images of the singer or his career. Instead he deliberately chooses and sequences a list of popular artists who are neither model religious citizens nor hardened criminals. It’s no accident that the song begins with a portrait of Iggy Pop, a forefather of “punk rock” and thus a seemingly direct contention to the crosses that hang on the necks of others. Next we get Kanye West, a man who sings “Jesus Walks” and “The New Workout Plan” on the same album.

Every celebrity and musician is deliberately chosen and shot, from the extreme close-ups of the much-maligned Dixie Chicks (who came out against the war in Iraq) to the double take of Sheryl Crow (first a smile, than a super serious stare). We see Bono appear as an angel and then write on a wall of newspapers, “sinners make the best saints.” The idea of musicians, actors, models or any type of celebrity itself has been historically contradictory to religious values. There is no Amy Grant here, these aren’t Christian rock stars, they are popular artists – and yet many of them appear in Jesus poses or are fore-grounded by a cross. Some look up towards the heavens, others sing along, some dance, some cry, and some simply look straight at the camera – and they all wear black.

The idea of being “cut down” by God does not make Christianity sound very fun, but at the same time, the fear of such a punishment could lead one to embrace it. Yet this video is not about arguing the pros and cons of Christianity, instead it’s about questioning our human urge to judge each other and label one group as “bad” and another as “good.” The hypocrisy of our society is revealed through our obsession with celebrity; we can tell our kids that all those who do drugs, use foul language or promote promiscuous sex are “sinners”, and yet we love to listen to Jay-Z and ZZ Top, watch Johnny Depp and Dennis Hopper, stare at Kate Moss or laugh at the jokes of Chris Rock. What inspires us the most is not the perfect model citizen, but rather the idea of “redemption” (scribbled across a couch in the video) – the joy of finding that “good” in all types of people.

We are all both “good” and “bad,” our lives, if filmed, would always appear in black and white. Johnny Cash dedicated much of his songwriting to illuminating and inspiring the forgotten and socially outcast, but it wasn’t just out of pity or empathy. There is a distinct purpose behind focusing on the multiple sides of humanity, and it’s one that aims to prevent discrimination based on vague generalizations such as class difference, racism or sexism. Tony Kaye’s video accomplishes much of what his last feature film did, uncovering the hypocrisy of morality and asking the viewer to question their own opinions of what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

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