23 May, 2011

Summer Movie Series - Rebel Without a Cause

Over the past decade I have cultivated a love of movies about American teenagers and their experiences of going through life.  For some reason, the coming-of-age tale is so interesting to me because of the difference in the journey every film presents.  Writing is often a coming-of-age tale in itself, with a problem that one must confront (how to solve a problem and learn a lesson while making the article interesting to read), which means that some of the best writing ever done has come from looking at adolescence.  J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem…all of these men have written about the trials and tribulations that come with being a teenager, a fish out of water in the world. 

But one can’t get past saying “teenage” and “angst” today without hitting on the world of popular culture.  In the world of contemporary teens, there are plenty of media options for dealing with adolescence.  The world of young adult fantasy literature has given us the works of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers (to varying degrees of success), and television has co-opted the youth market of Gossip Girl, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Glee, and a host of other shows that appear on Teen Nick and the Disney Channel. Even videogames have shown a teenage bent in some successful titles that don’t revolve around space marines hulking around a dystopian wasteland of gray and brown colors (Persona 4 and any number of Japanese games spring to mind immediately, though the U.S. market hasn’t really had any breakthrough teen games).

This isn’t true in the world of film today.  Sure, the Harry Potter series has given youth a film analogue, but how many of us really fit into the towering spires of Hogwarts?  How many of us can say that we have mutant powers and belong to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, much less during the period of the 1960’s?  How many of us live through a high school with Disney production values and singing and dancing classmates around every corner?  Apart from Easy A, I haven’t noted a smart teen movie that treats its audience with respect and intelligence since…well, that’s what I’m here to find out.  I'll start by defining a teen movie.  For me, such a movie deals with real teenagers facing issues salient to their worldview and culture, as well as representative of their lingual and cultural norms.  Most importantly, they must be the protagonists, or main characters, of the film, as well as people who experience the main events of the story in the film.

So I wanted to start from the beginning for this particular series.  Now, I admit that Rebel Without a Cause probably isn’t the first real teen-centered film that was ever created, but it is certainly one of the first to prominently display a teenager as the protagonist of a feature.  But here, the idea of coming-of-age is specifically on the nose with the teenage world, even though it is less focused on the teenage characters (all of whom seem like they are 24 years old and shouldn’t be living at home, much less ending up in juvenile hall) than it is the adults.  Indeed, look at the poster for this film and see if it appeals to any young audience.  It’s focused on the growing problem of juvenile delinquency in American society in the 1950’s, and was one of the first to suggest that the “troubled sector” of society wasn’t responsible for producing each and every juvenile delinquent that ended up on the street.  Put simply, it’s an adult movie which deals with the problems of kids, along with how to deal with such children.  Even the resolution isn’t focused on the actions of teens, but rather how the actions of adults can strengthen the youth of America. Don't believe me?  Watch the trailer below.

It’s also a very focused message movie.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I was never a bad kid, and I had a good family that loved me and took care of me; I also never moved around when I was a child, staying in the calm and quiet of the exurbs of Georgetown, Kentucky, on the cusp of farm country and Woodford County.  Around the evening as I lay my head on my pillow, I could hear the train across the county line blow its horn and imagine riding the rails to destinations unknown.  My teenage years weren’t filled with nights where I drunkenly played with toy monkeys while wearing suits in dark alleys. 

These factors already make it difficult to understand why Rebel Without a Cause caused such a stir in the 1950s, much less why a film like this was necessary in 1955.  However, I can honestly say that this is an exciting film to be watching since it provides some context for the image of teenagers in popular culture before the country became a haven for rock and roll music that would funnel the primal scream of teenage ennui into a cultural force.  Make no mistake, James Dean wearing his iconic red jacket while smoking and driving his car off a cliff isn’t just an amazing screen image, it’s rock and roll.  Even before Elvis and his ilk shook their hips into the collective conscious of the American youth, boys and girls could imagine themselves as the perfectly coiffed rebel that wore his heart on his sleeve and was emblematic of sincerity. 

I’m going to try to avoid many spoilers and details when talking about the plots of these movies, but I also want people to see this so that they can expand the argument through character development.  Anyways, if I could summarize the story it would go like this: Jim Starks (Dean) is a troubled teen that runs into the law in too many places, and his parents move around the country since they are ashamed of him and want to find a fresh start in society.  Along the way, he meets up with similarly disturbed youths Judy (a young, bosom-heaving Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) (I won’t go into this too much here, but the gay subtext of Plato’s character grows stronger with each viewing.  The gaze he levels at Jim after the chicken race’s horrific aftermath is powerful and striking), and the three find solace in each other’s company after tragedy strikes in a drag race standoff between Jim and Judy’s boyfriend Buzz.  All three become a family unit of sorts in a mansion near the Griffith Observatory, where the film’s overwrought climax occurs.

The film deals with the absence of proper authority figures, but is really an attack on American males in the wake of World War II.  With no true external forces attacking them, the youth of America turn inward and find that their patriarchs have let them down.  Jim’s dad is an ineffectual buffoon that can’t act on John Wayne instinct when called upon, Judy’s father is repressed to the point where he can’t accept the affections of his daughter, and Plato’s family is absent, sending money instead of being there to provide love and warmth.  One plotline is left unresolved, and another reaches a horrific apex in public view, leading to a conclusion that is unbelievable in today’s standards but probably made sense to fans of clean narrative in the 50s. 

All of this criticism is a shame because the film is adept at depicting some truths of the experience of teenagers during this time, and a few of these are universal truths.  Yes, director Nicholas Ray’s film panders to its audience quite a bit; when Judy’s father slaps her as she kisses him, she runs out of the room, her mother saying that she’s “at the age where nothing fits!”  Likewise, when Jim asks Buzz why they are engaged in a chicken fight even though neither party really wants to be there, Buzz says “You gotta do something.”  This is indicative of the nature of teenage life, particularly in the 1950s; the post-war malaise and introduction of Cold War paranoia had placed the American family under a microscope with an expectation of perfection and conformity.  This may be the first film to really look at the nature of the nuclear family and see that things were certainly not perfect, but what’s surprising isn’t that the teens are so screwed up, it’s that the adults are cold and callous to them.  The comfortable middle-class existence that awaited these sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation was in fact a discomforting, hermetic existence that swallowed them whole, and the parents don’t know how to deal with them.  Jim’s father (seen wearing an apron in a powerful scene with Dean, who responds to his father as a Judas lamb) asks his son “Don’t I buy you what you want?” at the beginning; his mother chastises him, worrying about how their social circle will see them, and his grandmother is cold and only wants recognition.  Small wonder that Dean’s scream of “You’re tearing me apart!” resonates to this day. 

Even the thematic connections between the kids is indicative of the fact that they are all looking for something real.  Natalie Wood brings a sexual charge to the character of Judy, her need for love and fulfillment palpable on every frame that she fills, while Sal Mineo can’t control his cries for attention as a small misfit that would never fit in.  I can’t help but think of the Beach Boys song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” when I think of his character.  When Judy’s attraction to Jim heightens when Plato explains how he perceives Jim, even though they both only met the previous night.  Sal’s construction of Jim’s character is both ridiculous and close to the heart, and even when he refers to him as “Jamie” it’s somewhat endearing.  All of them are sincere and earnest, which makes them targets in a cynical age.  By wearing their heart on their sleeves, they are all misfits together, Plato more than most. 

Yet while it seems revolutionary for the time period, the film is nonetheless a bit stodgy and out of step.  Jim doesn’t listen to rock and roll music, but a pop standards act; all the students wear suits and ties, or pencil skirts and blouses if they are females; and everybody stands in silence when the flag is raised.  Likewise, the film is shot like a standard Hollywood studio production of the 1950s, without any sorts of innovation that would provide greater personal insight into the psyches of the characters.  Maybe I’m used to the level of rapid editing that emerged as a result of MTV and its video directors, but I still believe that there are reasons for the uncomfortable close-up that came about during the 80s.  Nevertheless, there are scenes where the characters are perfectly framed; when Starks takes his father to task for not being man enough and standing up for himself, the film’s representation of power imbalance is visually shown at a decanted angle as Dean simmers on the steps. 

I think that there is one point that the film gets completely right, and then devolves into a caricature of itself.  There is a scene where all the students see a simulation of cosmic lifecycles in the Griffith Observatory.  When Plato wants to speak with Jim, who had offered him his jacket in juvenile hall the previous night, Jim counters with a false statement of “I don’t want to make friends.”  Then, while everybody is stuck in their mode of mocking the proceedings, the observatory fills with the sight of an exploding star system, destroyed in a burst of gas and fire.  Jim is accepting and reticent, Judy is frightened and engrossed, and Plato is overcome by the symbolic parallels into his own life, hiding under his own chair until Jim tells him it is alright to emerge from the surroundings.  It is an excellent summary of adolescence and character development, each actor responding differently to the same event. 

But then we get to the knife fight that is brought about because Jim made a “moo” comment after seeing the constellation Taurus in the planetarium, and this is where the movie pulls me out of the experience.  With the overwrought music building in the background, a deadly switchblade match emerges because Buzz, goaded on by his gang of toadies, slashes Jim’s tires and calls him “chicken.”  In an effort to maintain what he believes is his honor, Jim engages in a knife fight that is filmed in a combination of angles that recall Spartacus and West Side Story (both of which emerged after this film).  Put simply, there is no disconnect between the film and the experience that each character has; we are expected to believe that Buzz and Jim are gladiators in this arena.  It’s all escalating point, and what’s even worse is that the police and astronomer do nothing while the knife fight between two kids is occurring on publicly visible property.  Also, Jim is stabbed multiple times in visible sight of the policeman, but the cop does nothing to arrest either party.  Thus, it becomes very clear that we are watching a sensationalized movie about teenage delinquency, not a coming-of-age tale of teens in the Fifties. 

But maybe this is what paved the way for future teen movies.  Even though Rebel Without a Cause is a larger examination of adults through the vehicles of teenagers, the scenes where the teens discuss their roles and sincerity are prototypes for the films made in the future.  The language is off, the filmmaking is strictly studio, and everything is sensationalized, but one can see some realism peering through the screen.  And every teenager worth their salt would look at the cigarette-smoking James Dean as he wore that iconic red jacket, wishing that they could be as emblematic and cool as he was.  In a way, that’s really why Rebel Without a Cause flourishes today: the death of its young stars.  Dean was killed in a car crash before the film was released; Wood drowned in a boating accident that has never been fully resolved; and Mineo was murdered near his Hollywood home.  All of this makes the final resolution so bittersweet, all unresolved anger and bitterness.  Being a teenager means being screwed up in very specific ways, hormonal and real, and finding out that the promises of childhood would never be realized for reasons you could never control.  For these stars and the open hearts that accepted them fully, it meant that nothing could ever be the same, especially since the movies that finally opened their hearts were replaced by movies about beach parties and musicals like Bye Bye Birdie.  

Small wonder that the sincerity and honesty in these films would not only be found in California again, but also in the dust bowl of Texas and in the hands of young filmmakers that would buck the system before they became a part of it.  We’ll explore those meanings in the next part of this series.  


Christopher.baldwin919 said...

You know what your problem is Kyle: “You read too many comic books”. I will never forgive you for failing to address the awesomeness of that line, and its overall historical significance to the times the characters were living in. I understand why you were not a fan of the goings-on in scene where the aforementioned line is uttered. The knife fight during the observatory field trip took you out of the coming of age story you were enjoying, and deposited you into a sensationalized action film. But come on. That line is amazing! And James Dean’s delivery of the line to Buzz was killer. I think this is worth mentioning due to the fact that at the time, comics were being blamed for this rise in juvenile delinquency. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, (For those unfamiliar: Wertham was a psychiatrist who posited that comics encouraged violent behavior in young people, and that many popular titles such as Wonder Woman and Batman had an underling homosexual subtext. Seduction of the Innocent was his treatise on the subject. Also, he was a turbo douche) Rebel was released in 1955; I don’t think it’s too much of stretch to imagine how this line found its way into the movie. But what is the true meaning behind Jim’s comment? Is it a subversive attempt by the film makers to poke fun at Wertham views? Obviously, Buzz doesn’t read much, and probably wouldn’t be caught dead reading a comic book. I can speak from experience: my youth was spent in Woodford County (near the Keep of great Moodicarus) reading comics and not getting into knife fights. Or am I just overthinking a funny an effective line? (I’m not. It’s the former. Wanna fight about it?) Nicolas Ray manages to imbue this film with a quite bit of subversive material that floats just beneath the surface of its studio friendly veneer. This material even pokes its head above water sometimes, i.e. the longing stare Plato gives Jim. And that’s why I can forgive some of the film’s more manufactured moments and overall aesthetics as they fit in with the Classical Hollywood Cinema style that dominated the narrative structure of studio films at the time. I wrote an extended piece about this film for a film genre class I had back in 2008, if I can find it I will post it on here. Good work here Kyle, looking forward to the next one already.

Benjamin said...

Is it just my imagination, or do you use two spaces after punctuation?

Tom Mallett said...

im going to get a tattoo of a james dean quote and i like to know if you made the wallpaper image if so what font did you use as thats the kind I'm looking for any replies would be great