Wednesday, May 14, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo
Rebel Without A Cause may not have “invented” the teenager, but it certainly played a large role in redefining what the word meant, and how companies market towards that particular demographic. It also defined one of the most iconic actors in the history of cinema: James Dean, the eternal teenager, the eternal rebel, already dead by the time this, only his second film, was released. But this isn’t just about kids running wild; it’s about gender and sexuality and the disconnect between parents and their children. It’s a film vibrating with meaning, with the need to reach out and grab the audience.
“You’re tearing me apart!” Jim Stark (James Dean) screams, not just at his parents, but at the world in general. He exists in the typical teenage headspace where everything is upside down and inside out and nothing quite seems to fit. His family is dominated by his mother and grandmother (Ann Doran and Virginia Brissac, respectively) while his father (Jim Backus) cowers in the background, leaving Jim without a strong male role model at the time when he’s most in need of one. Instead, the closest thing Jim has to a role model is his rival at school – the fantastically named Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) – resulting in death and chaos.
The rivalry between Jim and Buzz is carefully crafted, playing on the social dynamics prevalent in the cloistered world of high school. Jim, the new kid, wants to be friends with Buzz and his gang, which includes Jim’s neighbour, Judy (Natalie Wood). However, they aren’t impressed by his suit-and-tie look and polite demeanour and write him off. He continues trying to ingratiate himself with them, but all his attempts fail and eventually result eventually in a showdown between Jim and Buzz. Before their fatal chicken run, Buzz confesses to Jim that he’s grown to like him. “Why do we do this?” Jim asks. “You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?” The entire sequence of events between Jim and Buzz takes on a ritualistic form, as if Buzz is the leader of a herd testing the strength of Jim, the interloper, before allowing him to join. The knife fight, the chicken run, these are just rites of passage. And once the chicken run has been completed (resulting in Buzz’s death when his door jams before he can jump out), a fundamental change takes place in Jim. Gone are the staid, suburban clothes. Out comes the red jacket, a sign of danger ahead.
In the fall-out from Buzz’s death, Jim goes on the run with Judy and Plato (Sal Mineo), and the three hide out in an abandoned house. The friendship between Jim and Plato is fraught with tension, with Plato clearly coded as gay not only through his longing looks at his friend but also by the fact that he has a photo of Alan Ladd lovingly pasted in his locker. Plato’s earlier suggestion to Jim that they spend the night together is now stabilized, and the undercurrent between them contained, by the presence of Judy and the way the three fall into the roles of Father (Jim), Mother (Judy) and Son (Plato). In spite of what’s going on outside (the police and Buzz’s gang are looking for them), the scenes in the house are light and playful, perhaps because the three have now formed the sort of familial bonds that are so lacking in their own families. But this serenity isn’t to last and the film will end with Plato dead, killed needlessly after Jim has disarmed him.
The film’s most overt theme has to do with gender identity, with Jim’s struggle framed as a struggle to become a “real” man. His father is henpecked, playing a passive role in the family that Jim can’t reconcile himself to. At the depths of Jim’s despair, he sees his father wearing an apron, cleaning up a mess he’s made. Jim doesn’t know how to deal with this image or with the anger it builds inside of him. He attacks his father, lashing out not because he’s mad at him, but because he wants him to stand up for himself. In his relationship with Plato, Jim becomes not the lover that Plato desires, but the father that Jim wants, someone strong and capable and reassuring.
The film’s other main theme is the generation gap, depicted here with parents and children as, essentially, lifeforms from different planets. Two of the film’s most important scenes (the knife fight and Plato’s death) take place at the observatory, and there’s much discussion in the film of the cosmos, including a prophetic exchange between Plato and Jim:
Plato: Do you think the end of the world will come at night time?
Jim: Uh-uh, at dawn.
For Plato, at least, this proves to be literally true, but for Jim and Judy it’s true in a figurative sense. Both are still alive, but they’ve passed through one stage of life and into another. Their “teenage world” ends with Plato’s death and they’re thrust into the adult world they so abhor.
There are many iconic scenes in this film, but the most lasting impression it leaves is no doubt the image of James Dean himself, an image which has become defined more by this role than his other two big screen roles, though it could be argued that at the time East of Eden had the bigger cultural impact. This is truly his movie, with every moment he spends on screen ringing with the intensity and immediacy of teenage angst. In many ways, the film has become dated, but on the strength of Dean’s performance and the direction of the criminally underrated Nicholas Ray, it remains nonetheless utterly and endlessly watchable.