Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Cinematic Experience - Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause, 1955

Hello Lovelies!

Let me start by admitting that I'm ashamed that I hadn't seen Rebel Without a Cause before now.  I even purchased the double disc years ago, but just never got around to actually sitting down with it.  Now that I've taken the time and experienced just how amazing James Dean was in this picture, I MUST see East of Eden and Giant as soon as possible!  

This iconic film didn't do much for me the first time around, but upon my second viewing, I see what all the fuss is about.  It is truly amazing!  This story is set only within a 24 hour period, but is very powerful in its message and what it represents.  This film captures a time and place - and that, in and of itself could easily reduce this to just another dated picture.  This particular one, however, encompasses so speaks to youth - much as James Dean, himself, did - and beyond that, there are so many parallels between this film and the legacy he left behind.  I do not think I could have appreciated this film to the point that I now do if it hadn't been for my second viewing and the special features on the second disc.  That disc has a tribute to James Dean and a short documentary on the making of and the lasting impact of the film itself.

Watch the trailer here

Rebel Without a Cause was James Dean's second film and was released into theatres less than a month after he died.  The timing  likely elevated the status of this film, but it has most certainly stood the test of time.  So much so, that in 1990, it was preserved for all time in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, leaving no doubt of its cultural and historical value.  This film was directed by Nicholas Ray who wanted to create a picture that acted as social commentary on the idea that teenage rebellion was not a problem occurring only in the ghetto, which is what was reported in the newspapers at the time.  He believed that the delinquency and restlessness was rampant within the middle and upper classes as well and was a function of family, not solely of economics.  It created such a stir that the film was banned in many towns and cities across the country.

The film gets its title from (although it is not truly based upon) a novel by Robert M. Linder, Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath.  This is a day-by-day psychoanalysis of a young prisoner.  You can see a parallel in the idea of youth rebellion and psychosis in the picture.  The film attempts to make sense as to what kids from affluent areas could possibly need to rebel against.  Our three main characters - Jim Stark played by James Dean, Judy played by Natalie Wood, and John 'Plato' Crawford played by Sal Mineo, are all dealing with family issues that land them in Juvenile Hall in the opening scene of the film.  We are introduced to Jim's family and witness the infighting - his mother who bulldozes over Jim's father and his grandmother who, in turn, bulldozes over his mother.  After telling the social worker that someone should poison his grandmother's Epsom salt, he then laments about the relationship between his parents: "She eats him alive and he takes it...if he had the guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy and then she'd stop picking on him. Because they make mush out of him, just mush!"  It's obvious that Jim loves his father, but can't seem to truly respect him.  He's looking desperately to him to be a father and later on in the film, there is an incredibly emotional scene where Jim is fighting with his mother while his father is sitting in the background, idle.  He turns to his father, "You better give me something.  You better give me something fast...Dad, answer her. Tell her. Ten years! Dad, let me hear you answer her...Dad, stand up for me!"

Judy is also looking for a relationship with her father, but while Jim's dad shows his son the love he has for him and tries to be his friend, Judy's father is actively pushing her away.  She tells the social worker that he called her a tramp and tried so hard to rub her lipstick off that she thought he would rub her lips right off of her face.  The subtext of their relationship is overtly sexual.  She is looking for his love and is still interacting with him as a young child would by trying to kiss him on the lips.  He seems to fear his attraction to her, even resorting to slapping her in an attempt to get her away from him.  Then lastly there is Plato.  He is dealing with a father who abandoned him and an absentee mother.  "Oh, I had to go to a headshrinker...then my mother said it cost too much, so she went to Hawaii instead."  He is being raised by his housekeeper, and while she truly cares for him and tries to act motherly toward him, he still feels unloved and abandoned, landing in Juvie after shooting puppies with his mother's gun.

There is an interview with the screenwriter, Stewart Stern, in the special features that explains so much about the psychology within the movie "(the director) had terrible pangs of conscience about himself as a father and I had terrible fury about myself as a son.  And we both knew that was a stream that we both shared in different ways."  Those struggles and feelings of inadequacy laid the groundwork for the rebellion we see within all the characters.  Everyone, even the minor characters, is searching for something - love, acceptance, a place to belong.  When Jim first meets Judy outside of her house, he asks her "You live here, don't you?" to which she replies, "Who lives?"  And after a confrontational first day of school in which Jim finds himself singled out by the main gang (and these gangs were VERY different than the images that they conjure today), and a knife fight breaks out, he keeps repeating "I don't want any trouble."  You come to understand that Jim isn't a juvenile delinquent, or really even a 'rebel' - he's just a kid searching for love and acceptance, but usually finding trouble instead.  "If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace, you know?"  After an unfortunate series of events that night, Jim finds himself hiding with Judy and Plato in an abandoned mansion up in the hills next to the Griffith Observatory.  (PS - the second I saw the mansion, I got VERY excited because this was the same house used in Sunset Boulevard!)

"Peter Pan lives again in 'Rebel'".  The screenwriter explains in an interview that the mansion scene was meant to serve as the story's Neverland - Jim as Peter Pan, Judy as Wendy, and Plato as The Lost Boys.  This was a safe haven - a magical place where they felt safe and free.  The sequences in the mansion are magical.  Once they feel safe, the three of them quickly start acting as a family, fulfilling each other's psychological needs.  Jim assumes the role of the father and the protector and Judy and Plato find themselves loved and cared for.  As Judy tells Jim, "All this time I've been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody and it's so easy."  Things very quickly looked promising for the new family...and it all unraveled just as quickly.  I didn't realize JUST how fragile and unstable Plato was before he snapped - feelings of abandonment trigger a downward spiral that becomes his undoing and it is simply heartbreaking to watch.  In the last moments of the film, you fall completely in love with Jim - Dean is so achingly tender and caring and in watching him break apart, something broke inside me as well.

The final sequence takes place on the steps of the Griffith Observatory, reminiscent of a Greek Tragedy.  Just hours earlier, our characters had all been seated inside in the Planetarium listening to a presentation about the heavens and a talk about man being alone and unimportant in the universe.  As we find our characters back here, it's apparent that these kids also feel that they exist alone.  And that they attempted to remedy that by finding meaning in each other.

This film is brilliant as a character study and as social commentary, and the symbolism and foreshadowing are simply poetry.  Additionally, here are some interesting facts about this movie:
-Due to James Dean's death, there was no red carpet premiere of the film.
-Marlon Brando was a contender for the role of Jim Stark.
-Dennis Hopper originally had a larger role, but came to blows with the director after he found out that both of them were sleeping with Natalie Wood.
-Frank Mazzola, one of members of the gang was actually in one in high school and was consulted to make changes to the dialogue, wardrobe, and cars to make it more believable.
-The director, Nicholas Ray, originally studied to be an architect and was Frank Lloyd Wright's protege.

I came across an interesting post about the filming locations for this film when I needed to confirm that the mansion was the same one used in Sunset Boulevard.  Go on, drop by for a spell - Rebel Film Locations.

FINALLY, I'm making some progress - Rebel Without a Cause is #59 on AFI's original list and #51 on AMC's list.
Film School

Good Night Kittens...may your dreams star James Dean.  

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