Saturday, October 22, 2005

# Posted 2:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG FILM CLASSICS: REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. A few days ago, for the first time, I saw the immortal James Dean play Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (RWaC). RWaC is one of those films that just seems so bizarre to the modern eye that one almost begins to wonder whether the entire thing is a parody.

One might describe RWaC as an accidental cocktail of Beverly Hills 90210, Freudian psychoanalysis, and morbid existentialism with just a dash of Boyz N the Hood. These days, we think of juvenile delinquency as the result of broken homes and economic deprivation. Yet poor Jim Stark has grown up in a two parent, Ozzie & Harriet home where his mother cooks him bacon and eggs for breakfast on school days.

In order to explain the breakdown of this suburban fantasy, the film invokes the good Dr. Freud. Jim, it seems, is prone to violence because he has to compensate somehow for growing up with a domineering mother and emasculated father. Of course, based on what we see in the film, one might describe his father as mildly hen-pecked and his mother a tad overbearing, but in no way would one consider either condition to be pathological.

Even so, poor Jim is so distraught that he has to defend his delicate masculinity by partaking in knife fights and playing chicken with stolen cars. Meanwhile, Jim and love interest Judy (Natalie Wood) speculate about whether life is worth living since it is inherently meaningless.

This point gets driven home by the most surreal moment in the entire film, in which Jim's school goes on a field trip to a planetarium where the students watch a film narrated by a spooky old man who tells the kids that the earth will one day be destroyed by fiery explosions, thus renering pointless the existence of all mankind. Perhaps things had changed by the 1980s, but when I was a kid, most planetarium shows tried to be a little more uplifting.

Oh, and did I mention the homoerotic subtext to the film, primarily involving the relationship between Jim and his sidekick Plato? Jim's dad also gets thrown into the mix during an extended scene that involves him wearing his wife's frilly apron.

All in all, RWaC is so bizarre that I find it impossible to imagine what contemporary audiences thought of the film. Was it daring and subversive? Or was it a mostly unremarkable depiction of suburban life in the 50s? Given James Dean's status as icon, I wouldn't be surprised if there is an extensive literature, both popular and academic, that addresses such questions.

In fact, if you do an Amazon search for "James Dean biography" you get a very, very long list of results. Sadly, OxBlog does not have either the time or energy to undertake a detailed exploration of popular culture in the 1950s. However, if any of you saw RWaC when it first came out, I would be glad to post your reminiscences about what kind of reactions it provoked.

UPDATE: The veritable methuselah known as MD writes that:
Suffice to say I and my classmates in high school thought this was one of the more ridiculous stories ever told regarding us. Of course, the girls went to see Dean, and we guys went to see Natalie. Steve McQueen and the kids in "The Blob" were more believable as teenagers than anyone in RwaC.
(1) opinions -- Add your opinion

i must say that RWaC is one of the greatest films ever made. it is the first film that is portrayed through the eyes of the teenagers. and that's why, in my opinion, the movie has become universal. if you know anything about the time that this movie was made, you'd know that Jack Warner and his team of censors forbid Ray to put in what he wanted to in the movie
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