Thursday, October 13, 2011
Rebel Without a Cause
Today I watched Rebel Without a Cause directed by Nicholas Ray in 1955. I actually haven't ever seen the whole movie - I've watched parts of it in film classes, but never the entire thing. It's pretty good, although, as Ebert even points out, it didn't age well. What's cool, though, is as it got older, some of the weird, creepy issues in it are more obvious, which gives the movie some new dimension and meaning. The movie is most known for James Dean's great acting, who had died in a car crash before the movie had even premiered. Definitely a tragedy.
The film isn't too complicated on the surface - "Jim Stark is the new kid in town. He has been in trouble elsewhere; that's why his family has had to move before. Here he hopes to find the love he doesn't get from his middle-class family. Though he finds some of this in his relation with Judy, and a form of it in both Plato's adulation and Ray's real concern for him, Jim must still prove himself to his peers in switchblade knife fights and "chickie" games in which cars race toward a seaside cliff." (IMDB).
There is more going on, here, though. There's weird little hints of disturbing floating around in the movie, and Ebert gleefully points them out in his essay. He goes so far to say it reminds him of a Todd Solondz movie, where disturbed characters are trying to live a normal life (but obviously can't, since they are, well, disturbed). I noticed these weirder undercurrents, and I never really would have expected them to be in this film. There's the fact that Judy's dad is clearly trying to fight his sexual feelings for his own daughter, shown when he berates her for giving him a normal-seeming kiss on the cheek. There is Plato, as well, subtly hitting on both the older man at the planetarium, and stranger yet, on Jim right after Buzz hurtles to his death over the edge of a cliff while playing chicken. There is the knife fight between Buzz and Jim, it's existence explained by the Buzz saying, "You gotta do something." when Jim questions why they are even fighting. Jim's father is a little off as well - Jim comes to him hoping to get advice on how to be a man, but Jim's dad is more concerned with wearing frilly aprons and cleaning up messes (which is, uh, not really what we normally see men doing in the '50s) than helping his son.
I think the Solondz comparison is great - Solondz has characters that might be really off or non-functioning, but they aren't violent or insane (I was thinking about Blue Velvet, I guess - how the idyllic suburbs were shown to be full of seething, disgusting insects and criminals, where this is mostly people who cannot fit in). In a way, the whole movie made me think of that one little scene in Natural Born Killers where we see Mallory's past, told through an exaggerated parody of '50s sitcoms. Having actually been made in the '50s, Rebel Without a Cause is subtle in expressing the problems of the era, and maybe more powerful for it. I think we're actually pretty used to seeing "'50s living" torn apart for being stupid, so seeing something that critiques it in a quiet way is somehow...refreshing.
I guess I wanted to write so much about that because I found it so interesting. I never really thought of this movie having any other messages or subtexts other than "guy tries to fit in, has a troubled past, etc." I guess that what happens when a movie sort of becomes pop culture enough that you can understand references to it ("Oh yeah, with James Dean!") but you really have no idea what the movie really is. This was for sure a case where I had no idea what the movie really was. I think I like it...more, if that makes any sense, because I was so surprised. I expected a vaguely subversive kid doin' bad stuff, but not anything like what I saw - a film full of weird characters who can barely maintain their facades to fit into '50's life.
I really liked watching this, it's a good movie and I loved Dean's acting. Really tragic that he had to go so early. It seems stupid to say that I liked the movie so much for not being what I expected, but it's true. It was a lot better than I always thought it would be, and much more complex and odd. Worth seeing if you never have before (almost everyone I know has never seen this!). Alright, time to pass out. Let me know if you check this out!
Have any thoughts on Rebel Without a Cause? Share them in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Rebel Without a Cause
Buy it on Amazon