Saturday, January 19, 2008

"You know something? You read too many comic books."

Because we are so very hip and cool, Angela and I often spend Saturday evenings sussing out what WETA, one of the local PBS stations is going to play as the classic movie of the evening. Having done a bit of work today, I thought I'd check out what was playing. Maybe it would be something good.

Today: Rebel without a Cause.

Oh, man.

I really love this movie. I have seen Rebel at least a dozen times, probably more. Sure, I own a copy. Many who know me know that I happen to also be somewhat obsessed with James Dean, primarily from this movie. (OK: entirely from this movie, since I only saw Giant about six months ago.) In many ways, it's incredibly hokey, so thoroughly entrenched in 50s teenspeak that it's a relic. I am so terrified that my students will make fun of the movie that I have yet to show it for a full class screening in the seven years I have been teaching movies.

And yet, Rebel is a thrilling portrait of the self-absorbed nature of teenage life, when even the most minor things are so darn IMPORTANT, that the world is just plain over. ("That's the edge. That's the end.") This, despite the fact that everyone -- including, I think, the characters themselves -- realizes that these are simply spoiled kids attempting to react, to respond to suburban ennui. Like so many of the melodramas of the period, Rebel is completely earnest in how it presents everything: the trauma, the drama is so real. In many ways, the film should still resonate; in 1955, during the age of Levittown when the United States is just coming to terms with this decade-and-a-half-old concept of "adolescence," this must have been like a bomb. It is also no wonder that the film critics from the 60s (at Cahiers in France, at Hablemos de cine in Peru, all over) went ga-ga over the film and its thrilling cornucopia of cinematic details: the intensity of that impossibly red jacket; the mixture of disdain and eroticism when Buzz takes Jim's cigarette from his mouth; the wonderful canted camera as Plato goes down for the last time; the truly terrifying light show at the planetarium (evocatively reflecting contemporary fear of "the Bomb") turning into a playful, almost water-like dance on Jim's face toward the end (see top photo); Nick Ray's brilliant use of Cinemascope from the opening credits when Jim is sprawled across the entire screen. (Yes, I walked out of a screening at the Michigan Theater in the mid-90s when it wasn't presented in widescreen format. Thanks, DFS, for turning me into a film snob.)

And oof, James Dean: has there ever been a more visceral character on screen than Jim Stark? This still below highlights a fascinating moment in the film: right after the chickee run where "a boy died" and right before Jim confronts his parents in the most animalistic way, Jim has a quiet moment where he enters though the back door, opens the icebox, takes a long swig of milk, then rubs the cool glass bottle on his forehead. Did I say that this is quiet? Not quite: Dean offers this moment a subtle tautness, reeking of desperation, emblazoning the moment with the contradictions that make up Jim Stark's life. Check out the mise-en-scene: Ray's choice of positioning the milk on the screen works in opposition to The Red Jacket, both played out vertically on screen, but interrupted by that supple, yet nervous face. No wonder boys and girls alike fell in love with him. Dean himself would be stupidly dead before it would be seen (and yes, I realize that's why he fascinates), but the performance bites, even in the scenes where he doesn't caterwaul -- which, of course, he also does.

This is the first in a new, infrequent series of cinematic gushing, inspired by and hopefully resonant with the work of the old-school French film critics who tended to just gush about their favorite movies. Tell me what you think -- and if I should continue, heh heh.


Matt said...

Gush on!

Especially poignant, I think, is your mention of the then-relatively-new concept of "adolescence" (a Latourian spin on the question: were we ever adolescent? OR, were we ever not adolscent?) Those golden 1950s, an era when the edgy poets (Plath in THE BELL JAR, William Carlos Williams, the Beats etc) were "out there" just by mentioning the Rosenbergs, and THE bomb--all this seems to be in the air that Jim Stark breathes. I do love the scene with the milk bottle!

My response: gush on, please, gush on!! That why we watch.

aaron said...

Nicely gushed! I put it on my netflix queue on the stregth of your gushing.

Ursa said...

Yes, more please. (Although I also enjoy your other sorts of blogging.)

Anonymous said...

Blog on Blogman! If I had a blog, it would be about Johnny Depp - he gets me with his character portrayals, esp. of Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing etc. I hope that Hunter can see beyond his grave to watch JD as Captain Jack. What a gas. Patty K