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Monday, July 14, 2014

AFI Film Review: Rebel Without A Cause

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.

 Grade: C-

The first time I saw James Dean act it was in East of Eden. Kurt Vonnegut once said that everything you needed to know about life was in the The Brothers Karamazov. That’s how I felt about the novel East of Eden. Steinbeck concentrated all of his considerable talent into a rollicking, epic novel. The filmed version of it is a travesty. What does it have to do with Rebel Without a Cause? There is a reason why I haven’t seen some of the films on this list and the reason for not seeing Rebel was James Dean. I’m missing it. I’m missing the component that can make me feel bad for a really good looking guy who is not very bright. I’ve not seen Giant, but in Rebel and East, Dean’s character’s problem seems to be that he can’t articulate himself and that he doesn’t know how to go home.

Part of this is generational: Dean represents a growing unrest in 1950s America, a wheedling that was real and at the center of his person. Unfortunately I can’t relate. Watching Dean movies now in my late twenties was the same experience for me as reading Catcher in The Rye a couple years ago: I’m too late to the party. Dean’s problems seem like so much trivial, teenage angst that all I want to do is to shout at him to stop whining. I’d be a fool to not acknowledge that he’s an immense talent; there are times in Rebel where you are completely sucked into to his persona and charm. I just wish he would have chosen different roles.

I love Nicolas Ray; I wish In a Lonely Place or Bigger Than Life had made it on this list and not Rebel. Rebel has amazing colors and some beautifully shot sequences. The scene on the stairs is particularly interesting as the camera moves along with Dean’s emotion. I was shocked to find out this story was the brainchild of Ray and that it was meant to critique parenting techniques. What exactly was the critique? Ray seems to think that Jim Stark’s father needs to be more of a man which apparently includes putting your wife in her place. Plato has absentee parents and Judy’s parents seem unable to effectively communicate. My guess is that Ray felt parents should be more involved in their child’s life, but it was difficult for me to accept that the parents were that awful. It might be that in the six decades since the movie was released our society has seen many more vivid examples of bad parenting, maybe the film was spot on for the time period.

Rebel seems to be one of those films included on the list for its cultural significance rather than for its qualities as a film. The lore surrounding James Dean’s death and the film’s representation of a generation on the brink of a collective breakdown have preserved it in the collective consciousness of cinema. However, I was unable to get over the teenage angst, cartoonish posturing of the teenage hoodlums, caricatures cast as parents and the resolution of the film in which Jim Stark walks away happily even though three teenagers have died almost entirely because he was unable to deal with his milquetoast father and the fact his parents argue to much.


I’m glad I didn’t see this sooner.

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