Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
For anyone of any time period or home country or income bracket or ethnic group or religion, adolescence is a dreadfully difficult time. Attempting valiantly to come to terms with the voice and modes of expression one has, trying both to assert oneself as an individual and also to learn how to form a private world that means to impress no one, we all struggle as teenagers with what amounts to our transition to real people. However much the bulk of most of our lives will fly onward as though nothing ever happened, we’ll always bear the scars of those years. But more of us will forget how it felt than will not; it’s enough almost to make you believe it’s an evolutionary mechanism built into us — that we can only grow up if we lose all traces of empathy about growing up. No one, in the end, who yearns truly to be young again is actually being honest about the outsized pains and dramas of those times.
That, put simply, is why so little of our art has ever properly expressed, without condescension, the dread, fear, apprehension and occasional bliss of the most awkward years of our lives. Many have tried, many have even come close, but the most accurate expressions seem always to be abstract ones in popular music rather than examples of genuine representation in books or films that have no ulterior aim to pander or titilate. This is what makes Nicholas Ray’s achievement in Rebel Without a Cause so immaculate, and so untouchable even nearly sixty years later. The film is probably the only one to date to get adolescence right, to portray confusion rather than antagonism, as individuals struggle to become themselves. Its an achingly beautiful film, overflowing with emotion, and one of the most moving stories Hollywood has put on celluloid. Everything about it is commendable.
Rebel‘s lingering thread down into today is that, while knife fights and leather jackets may date it, its emotional representation of an alienated kid’s first day in a town is almost frighteningly accurate and ageless, a glimpse at an inner reality that hasn’t changed at all through the intervening years. Its superficial, and in many ways equally important, dropped line is the presence of James Dean, whose iconic visage has managed to maintain its mythology and grandness across time enough to rival that of Elvis Presley, and on the strength of just three films (at least one of which, Giant, is now almost universally regarded as a dud). American and world culture can change and mutate all it wants, but the image of Dean’s disaffected glare and his belaguered independence, puffing through a day and a reality that feels so unmistakably beneath his cloud of unoppressed focus, eternally survives. He is dangerous yet not menacing, a figure of universally sexual power — neither gay nor straight, simply unbroken in its mysterious eroticism — and he is a model of something that goes beyond simple “cool.” More like wisdom, like readiness; he appears to us, in unbroken and undead form, as something more than a man. Let’s say a ghost, and at that a ghost who cannot be surprised or persuaded out of his calm, steeled, subtle heroism.
That’s an image and an image only, though — a poster. It may be, however, that this poster itself has maintained its otherworldly power, like the poster of Bogart at the cinema window in Breathless. Seeing the actual film upon which so much of our modern iconography is built changes our entire perception of it, because Dean’s performance is so haunted, tortured, sensitive, beautiful. He is too old, quite visibly (by six years), to be playing a high schooler, and such a qualm has never mattered less. He understands Jim Stark, the boy ping-ponged through the system until his spirit can no longer take it and he doesn’t know what to do; he understands Jim’s cloudiness about forming his notion of a moral universe and combing through the conflicted depths of his own heart. Dean’s heroism is the heroism of uncertainty, confusion, not of fighting or of killing, and in this sense it is an entirely new Hollywood heroism. Even now, it would qualify as unusual, but in the years of John Wayne, to center an A-list film around a masculine figure so thoughtful and emotionally open was radical.
Jim Stark is becoming a man, but he is still a kid. It’s here that the iconic bleeds into the personal. Dean the Image is subsumed in Jim Stark, whose life changes and bubbles into a tragic epiphany in the space of twenty-four hours. Nicholas Ray is well aware of the mechanics that begin immediately with Dean’s moony, drunken streetlight wanderings; his frustrated exchange at a police station with a compassionate youth officer (the woefully underused, at least in dramatic roles, Edward Platt); his visible agony as he listens to his parents’ constant bickering when they arrive. He knows this is not simply about a boy in the drunk tank — it is a budding, thinking human being struggling and fighting to be understood, surrounded almost entirely by loved and unloved ones who don’t and cannot take him seriously. It’s a sure bet that if he goes to the movies, he won’t find a film as loving and deeply felt as this to comfort him, and so Jim Stark the character sacrifices himself for us. It’s disturbing how much it feels like Dean, sealing his own legend mere months later by dying in a car crash, did the same.
Stark’s first day at school is much the same as anyone’s — full of animosity and meaningless territorial behavior that an increasingly world-weary Jim is long past. The class takes a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, which turns out to be site of one of the most beautiful and resourceful uses of a location in Hollywood history. After decades of studio pictures disguising their geographical origins, Rebel wears Los Angeles proudly, and makes it come alive with color and the strange remoteness of California highways and streets, wide open spaces and abandoned houses (in an allusion of sorts to Sunset Blvd.). At the Griffith and after, in beautifully minimal dialogue passages, Jim makes his friends and enemies, the latter a group of thugs whose boredom and cultish impulses — confused, just like Jim — sets them into the cruel motion of slashing tires and initating fights.
But Jim also becomes attached to an apprehensively exuberant young woman known as Judy (Natalie Wood, luminous) who teases from the gangsters’ side of the fence before she becomes enamored of Jim’s oddball kindness. And there is Plato, a troubled youth embodied unforgettably by Sal Mineo, who forms with Judy and Jim a kind of tentative family unit to replace the trio’s broken, absent or uncaring real ones. Plato is also unmistakably — though it’s never explicitly stated — a young gay man who is only just discovering he is gay; Jim and Judy both accept him without hesitation, which in some fashion is the operative and decisive key to the film. When they build a nest in hiding at an empty mansion after a vicious and deadly drag racing accident kills one of their rivals, on the side of a cliff in the fearsome moonlight, the sphere of acceptance and warmth they create reveals just what they never had, and just what most of us fight tooth and nail into our adult lives to acquire. It is of no interest or utility to decry the idea that we ever truly can improve on the shortcomings of our parents, and Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman’s script cannot bear such cynicism; in these moments, instead, Rebel Without a Cause captures one of our truest portraits of unadulterated love — neither platonic nor romantic and certainly not just familial, necessarily, but just love as a mutual act of generosity and the source of our strivings.
And this, too, is an essential factor in what makes Rebel Without a Cause something more than a teen film, a Centron short, a cautionary PSA about youth gangs: it takes its characters emotions’ entirely seriously and does not look down on them (even the hood who is tragically killed, Buzz, is given his moment to express consternation about why he does the things he does, predicting Ben Braddock’s speech in The Graduate a decade later about feeling obligated to be rude), therefore by extension it does not talk down to the teenage audience watching it. Falling in love — instantaneously, with abandon and beautiful gracelessness — is shown as the massive and immovable function it seems to be when you’re sixteen or seventeen, and instead of depicting Jim and Judy with the distanced cutesiness of an adult tsk-tsking about how of course you won’t be together forever, and if you try to be you’ll likely live to regret it, it only senses the beauty of their connection, and the permanance of its emotional if not rational importance in their lives. It is something pure and uncorrupted, uncorruptible even by gunfire and the intrusions of a cruelly businesslike adult world. (And perhaps if falling in love can still feel so important to us when we do grow old, we have succeeded.)
Plato’s love will finally be rewarded with his own death, in what really feels like a bold depiction of the stakes between order and discipline on one side, passion and understanding on the other. The truth and desperation in the tears and laughter that surround all that happens in the last hours of this first and only day lack any shred of copped or borrowed sentimentality; they are earned in every capacity, and depict nothing aside from purest emotion, with Ray and his actors working as much magic to capture such a thing on film as any special effects wizard ever would to craft dinosaurs or the apocalypse.
The apocalypse, incidentally, figures into Ray’s film by an active and direct visualization of the enormity of the emotional rollercoaster it is capturing. At the planetarium where the film will eventually climax, the class observes a distressingly visceral explication of how the universe will finally collapse and end, all spectacular light and sound spelling doom for everything the children here know, a reality they can never possibly understand, a perspective that is wholly alien — but that still frightens them and us somehow (not one person reading this will live to see the destruction of the universe, yet why does the thought still give us such a start?), that still captures with boldness and perverse, dreamlike beauty the sense of the impossible and the immovable of being young: the strange way that every small decision, every slight hiccup and every challenge in our youth feels magnified, and everything becomes a matter of fate and death. Three years after this film was released, Phil and Don Everly would render it as such: “I need you so, that I could die.” They meant it. We said a lot that we meant then. And the swallowing up of the very ground on which we walk at times seemed small by comparison to what was playing havoc with our hearts, whether problems at home or problems with heavy petting. Doom was everywhere, as it is in Jim Stark’s life; the film is correct not to trivialize it. It has allowed it to age so beautifully, to become a piece of art that shines so brightly it can be hard to look at it.
A film this achingly lyrical and genuine that has such courage of acknowledging and taking seriously things that most films of any era would skirt can only be described as an outpouring. Ray’s masterpiece, so indispensably assisted by such a perfect, bold script by Stewart Stern and the most eye-popping, inadvertently tragic casting of the era (Mineo, Wood and of course Dean would all die young), is an outlier in Hollywood filmmaking now as then… but it will never be inaccurate about the pressures, the agonies, the private and shared joys of being young. I’m not a teenager anymore but somehow it has survived the transition beautifully; we keep it with us so that we can remember as well as Ray clearly did. We’re not gonna be lonely anymore — ever, ever.