Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Rebel Without a Cause

I generally avoid reviewing ultra-famous classic films here on the blog. I figure, if you're interested in movies at all, you've already seen stuff like Citizen Kane and Clockwork Orange, so you don't need me adding to the deafening chorus of Internet critics touting the Western cinematic canon at you.

But Warner Bros. has just released a gorgeous new 2 disc DVD of Rebel Without a Cause (along with East of Eden and Giant), so I felt on this occasion, I'd go ahead and give you my thoughts on one of the Great Ones, a film deservedly ranked with the best of American cinema.

Nicholas Ray's emotional epic is among the greatest coming-of-age movies ever made. I'd say the three best are The 400 Blows, The Graduate and this film. I leave the specific rankings to you. James Dean tends to be remembered for his disaffected, unshowy "cool," but his character Jim Stark is none of these things. Stark really is how every teenager secretly feels - too smart for the room, a righteous individual in a corrupt system, a hero waiting to be recognized.

And the world he sees around him is a constant disappointment. The girls prefer the meathead jocks, his commandeering, frigid mother and toady father ignore him while trying to buy his favor with money, and everywhere he goes, he's confronted with arcane rules and random, punishing authority.

So he acts out. As the film opens, Jim is drunk in public and being placed under arrest. During the course of the movie, he'll be involved in a knife fight, confront a gun-toting hostage-taker and participate in a ritualistic game of chicken with tragic consequences. But again and again, Ray reminds us that Jim's hand is forced. This is an admirable young man who learns that, while you can't run away from trouble, it's a fool's errand to run directly into it out of frustration, boredom or anger.

Jim's journey from impetuous and self-centered adolescent into caring and accepting adult is told in the context of the mid-1950's, obviously working in social issues of concern during the time (from white flight into the suburbs to the increasing gap between rich and poor to the upswing in joyriding and automobile-related fatalities). But it's really a timeless film about teenage angst, one of the earliest mainstream American movies to tackle complex domestic troubles in a frank and realistic manner.

We follow not one but three troubled youths. In addition to Jim and his search for a masculine identity, there is also his most recent crush, bad girl neighbor Judy (Natalie Wood). This is a legendary, classic performance from Natalie Wood, who like Dean would die tragically in a freak transportation-related accident. She would be a bit older, though (and in the midst of a comeback!)

As well, there's Sal Mineo as "Plato," perhaps the only protagonist in a major Hollywood film to stand accused of cold-blooded puppy murder. Seriously. When we first meet all three main characters, they've been detained in the police station at the same time. Jim, as I noted earlier, has been picked up for public drunkenness. Judy has run off from her home late at night, lashing out at her father. And Plato has shot several puppies with his mother's hidden gun.

You see what I'm saying? This movie isn't messing around. Though this does bring me to the one major flaw of Rebel Without a Cause. It's Freudian analysis of all three of these kids is too on the nose. Rather than allow their ennui to stem naturally from their domestic situations and as a natural part of the aging process, each character is given a specific psychological "trigger" for their later behavior.

Stark, as I said, sees his father as being demasculated by his mother. In one particularly obvious scene, Stark walks in to see his Dad on the floor cleaning up while wearing a frilly apron. Remember, this was pre-metrosexual. Grown men did not get down on their hands and knees and clean up floors while wearing anything frilly or lacey. It was simply not done.

And Judy has even more messed up issues with her pop. In one scene, she leans in to kiss him at the dinner table, and he slaps her, hard, saying that she's too old to be kissing. So, clearly, her desire to rebel and sleep with multiple guys stems from her desire for affection from a man, because she has a cold and distant father who's so sexually repressed, he's afraid to express tenderness even towards his family.

(Of course, you could take the other reading, and say that he refuses any physical intimacy with his daughter because secretly he is attracted to her, or has even crossed a boundary with her before, and therefore feels guilt and shame associated with her touch and over-reacts in the exact opposite direction. But I prefer the prior explanation.)

Finally, we find that Plato's dad has abandoned him, and sends checks every month for his care (labeled "For Son").

So, yeah, it's a bit too obvious. A well-made, thematically-similar film with a more contemporary mindset would probably shelve a few of these scenes and allow the drama to develop with a bit more ambiguity, giving the actors more freedom to explore their motivation and placing less importance on exposition and backstory.

But, hey, it was 1955. There weren't a lot of movies dealing with these issues at all, and Rebel Without a Cause is for the most part a very nuanced and mature movie.

But what makes the film such an eternal classic isn't really the content. There are plenty of well-told stories about angsty youngsters trying to find a system to fight. What makes Rebel Without a Cause special is the James Dean performance at its center and the breathtaking, perfect filmmaking.

Just look at that photo above. This is a movie of iconic imagery. Whether it's Dean in his trademark red jacket (that becomes heavily allegorical by the film's conclusion) or the game of "chickie" leading to the edge of a cliff, Ray crams his movie full of memorable moments, and the amazing color palatte (it's in WarnerColor!) is like nothing being made today. The movie pops right off the screen - it's so vibrant and alive.

And the James Dean performance is a marvel. It's interesting that his box set finds release on the same day as a 6 disc collection of Steve McQueen films. They are icons of cool from two connected decades, yet they play extremely different characters.

Here, Dean is a tough guy, but he has to be, it's forced upon him. When he's at the planetarium, he repeatedly tells the jocks that he doesn't want any trouble, but they mess with him anyway, just to prove a point. And you can see this dilemma in his face - he tries to remain calm as long as he can, but soon enough the threats become too much, and he begins to rage.

McQueen never once loses his cool, and a lot of the time, he's the cause and not the solution to the problems. Take The Great Escape. He's not some prisoner trying to waste time, whom the guards simply won't leave alone. He's a great agitator, the guy lobbing the baseball up against the cell wall, the guy constantly testing the barriers to find the best spot to make a run for it.

The modern era has kind of developed in the Dean-ish direction. Today's movie heroes are the sensitive guys who can kick ass, but who also cry when the time is right. Think Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor or any of the guys in Saving Private Ryan. McQueen made a bunch of WWII ever remember a scene of him sitting on a rock and weeping? Nuh-uh.

I for the most part think this is a good thing. Don't get me wrong - I love a good Steve McQueen movie. But movies like Rebel Without a Cause are so insightful, so special, and so rare. This is all of Hollywood's techincal abilities working at full steam to tell a simple story about some wayward kids who try to do the right thing. It takes the foibles of teenagers and turns them into the stuff of epic tragedy. What can I say? There's a reason it's a classic.


Christen the TV Junkie said...

I am just watching the movie now. I am so ashamed to admit that I have never seen it from start to finish. In the beginning, when Jim is in the police station, it almost felt like a bad after school special from days of old, but as it progressed, I found so much depth. The Planetarium scene that lets them know that their lives are basically meaningless, the strange role reversal in Jim's parents, the way Jim and Judy try and become what a parent should be to Plato. There's just so much! The only thing that takes away from the movie for me is the bad over-dramatic music. I'd be interested to see the movie with that taken out. I felt the same way with On the Waterfront as well although I think that movie is even better and stands the test of time far more than this one. As a side note, I also never realized what a carbon copy Brad Pitt is to Dean. I mean, I always knew he looked like him, but Giant being the only Dean movie I have seen from start to finish, I never knew his mannierisms and acting was so exact to James Dean's. Anyway, I ran across your blog when I searched for Fruedian and Rebel Without a Cause and I was not disappointed. Kudos!

Mike said...

Really moved by this movie.

I wish I could see the direction Jim and Judy's lives take at the end of the film as seen by the director. However, as a write this I can't help to realize that Jim and Judy play just a small role in defining the true meaning of the film, that being the battles and tragedies in Plato's life.

Thanks for the article!