Sunday, November 19, 2006

Rebel Without a Cause ****

As the story goes, during the filming of "Rebel Without a Cause," specifically, the knife fight between Jim Stark and Buzz, they were using real knives. On set, Corey Allen, the actor playing Buzz, accidentally cut James Dean with the knife. Director Nicholas Ray yelled "cut" with prompted a furious Dean to scream "Don't ever cut when something real is happening to me!" It wasn't the only stunt-double less scene in the film - Dean also injured himself on camera in the scene where he punches the desk.

It's the realness of "Rebel" that makes it so watchable, so ageless. I'm not sure there is a single generation of teenagers that doesn't identify with the scene where Dean half yells, half moans, "You're tearing me apart!" The entire film is shot at eye level. There are moments of dialog that so perfectly capture what its like to be a teenager that you want this film to be preserved for people to see in thousands of years to come.

The protagonist of this film and its notoriously famous and over-parodied title is Jim Stark, aka James Dean who was killed in a car accident before the release of this film, and before he was nominated for Oscars for his other two films: East of Eden and Giant. Jim is picked up in the opening credits of the film for being drunk. When his parents come to pick him up they are more or less fairly light on him and suggest they just move again. Jim, however, is hoping that for once his parents will punish him - it would show they at least CARED. At the police station he encounters a variety of interesting characters, including Judy (Natalie Wood), Plato (Sal Mineo) (who is in for killing a kitten) and a sympathetic cop named Ray Fremick (Edward Platt). Moving into the new school, Stark begins on a field trip to a planetarium where the lecturer's chief topic is man's insignificance in the universe. Great.

From there he is joined by nervous Plato, who looks up to him for daring to shush the leather dressed Buzz, leader of a gang that includes, among others, Judy and a very young Dennis Hopper, credited as "goon." Outside the planetarium, Jim encounters Buzz slashing his tires...which leads to a knife fight between the two...which leads to a very dangerous game of "chicken..." Can you see where this is going? After a sort of semi-climax, the film suddenly sort of calms down, and we watch the three apathetic teenagers Jim, Judy and Plato happily playing around in the set of "Sunset Boulevard" where Jim and Judy sort of semi-adopt poor Plato, who is in serious need of a mother and father figure. But if Mineo seemed more interested in Dean than just "the father figure type" that's no accident either...Mineo would later become an outspoken homosexual and admit he had a crush on Dean during filming. Indeed, many scenes it looks like his refraining to kiss Dean right on camera.

But if these kids seem apathetic, perhaps its because the people and society who raised them are. It is the casual and disturbing actions of the cops at the end of the film that solidify the political statement, when reality hits them very hard.

Countless arguments have been made back and forth on whether this film argued pro or anti conformist. On the pro side, some point out the scene where Jim is horrified to see his father in an apron, and suggest he wants his parents to "conform" to what the typical image of a parent is. However, I disagree with this. The scene at the end where the father says he will become "who (Jim) wants him to be" shows that he is so apathetic he doesn't even realize the real reason Jim is upset, or the more important issue at hand. Jim is the Rebel With a Cause, who sees the apathy of the adult world and refuses to conform to it, who sees the apathy and confusion of gangs like Buzz's who seem to rebel for no reason at all, and Stark refuses to conform to them either. Along the way he also, as many film-rebels rarely do, sticks up for the underdog Plato and makes a compelling father figure.

The best scene comes when Buzz admits, shortly before the "chicky race," that he likes Stark. Stark asks: then why are we racing? Buzz's reply? Everybody does.

Can anyone not like this film? Better question...: can anyone not identify with some part of this film? I'm not sure the question can be answered but I might be able to answer it myself. And all it took was one screening.

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