Thursday, July 10, 2008

Movies and Life: The Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon

This is my contribution to The Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon that is being hosted at Culture Snob. All of the submissions I've read so far have been wonderful. I run the risk of sounding like an Academy Award presenter when I say this, but this project truly shows it's impossible for films to not impact us day-to-day. This essay recounts my early experiences with Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

"You know something? You read too many comic books."

This line, spoken by Jim Stark (James Dean) to Buzz (Corey Allen) is perfect, especially followed by the derisive laughter of Buzz's gang. While watching Rebel Without a Cause at twelve years old, I knew exactly how Jim felt at that moment. When you're being bullied or picked on, there is nothing you can say to defend yourself. Most of the time, even the wittiest, sharpest comebacks fall on deaf ears. He did not get the satisfaction of talking his way out of the situation. As the film went on, I identified with him, given my own problems with being an easy target.

As it's been said and written many times over, the film does appear dated and occasionally silly at times (especially as a precursor to 1990s television shows starring twenty-somethings as high school students). However, during tough junior high and high school years, I found solace in and a connection to Jim Stark. Sometimes, I found myself secretly wishing that I didn't have loving, supporting parents, just so I could yell out "You're tearing me apart!" ( it's an early scene in the film that still causes me to slightly jump, since it's such a jolt in the dialogue). Life doesn't always imitate the arts to the extent that we would like.

Some backstory: When I was eleven, my eldest brother joined the Army. At that point, I had looked up to him immensely, and quickly moved into his bedroom. The items he left behind captivated me to no end. I have distinct memories of walking into the bedroom and being hit with the atmospheres and emotions of the black and white posters on the walls: Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and a small, crumbled poster on the bedroom door: A wonderful shot of James Dean, unshaven, looking away from the camera as if he couldn't be bothered (there's no doubt it was a posed shot, but remember, I was eleven). The bookshelves were filled with poetry, plays, and a handful of 1950s actor biographies. I was immediately drawn to James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton and a stunning collection of Dean photos taken by Dennis Stock. Not much later, my father took me to Best Buy, where I used some birthday or Christmas money to buy Rebel Without a Cause on a Special Edition VHS.

I was immediately hooked. I had daydreams of getting into knife fights ("Who's fighting? This.... is a crazy game") outside planetariums. I wanted a girl who would spurn me, fall in love with me, and kiss me within the confines of a single day (I had the "spurn" part down quite well). I didn't realize this at the time, but I probably wouldn't have minded a sexually ambiguous male classmate following me around like a puppy (Jim Stark didn't seem to mind). I wanted to get drunk and picked up by the police in the early hours of the morning (even though, at that tender age, I had no clue what being drunk felt like). Since the actions were beyond my reach, I happily settled for the looks.

I looked through old coats in my parent's basement and found a red jacket, purely by chance. It wasn't flattering, but I wore it constantly, unzipped halfway, standing in the junior-high parking lot trying to look as melancholy and brooding as a pudgy, thick glasses-wearing kid could look. When my parents weren't home, I'd take one of my father's cigarettes and just hold it in my mouth to complete the transformation. Most importantly, when I'd get picked on, since I was normally too afraid to seriously stand up for myself, I'd shoot deep glares, squinting like James Dean. No, it didn't work, but it felt great, channeling those cinematic influences. Two years later, my eighth grade class put on a play, part of which was set in the 1950s. The girls wore poodle skirts, most of the guys slicked their hair and wore white t-shirts and jeans, and I wore the red jacket, hoping at least one person in the audience would get the Rebel Without a Cause reference. Looking back, I was obviously very nerdy, but it didn't feel that way at all. I was Jim Stark.

As I got a bit older, those movie posters came down and were replaced by posters of Michael Jordan and Sammy Sosa. It wasn't until my senior year in high school that films became a serious part of my life. I signed up for a cinema studies elective, taught by the same English teacher who inspired me to major in English in college. Thanks to that class, I never looked at films the same way again, having been taught how to study and screen effectively. However, my fascination with Rebel Without a Cause was really the start. I didn't know it at the time, but I was mentally dissecting every scene, color, and angle.

Sadly, it seems that today those iconic (a word that is used too often, often inappropriately) images of James Dean's rebellious poses have turned into marketing, still being plastered on t-shirts, coffee mugs, collector's dolls, and wall clocks. I wasn't aware of it at that age. My love of that film went beyond escapism; it was my attempt to inhabit that world and those meanings.


jpb said...

Great reflections, Jamie. I only saw Rebel Without A Cause as an adult, but I found and wore a black trenchcoat almost immediately after seeing Heathers; it must have been part of the same sort of impulse.

My own write-up on Rebel, by the way, is here:
here, although I strangely manage to write up the whole thing without a single shot of Dean / Jim.

James Yates said...

That's impressive. To me, that's a sign of the film's values as a whole, when you can accurately analyze a film without a shot of the main character and not really leave anything out.

I hesitatingly recommend the book "Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause" by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel. It's basically a gossipy look behind the scenes of the filming (with sexual tensions that rival the actual film), but it occasionally gets into some excellent analysis, like your thoughts on the scenes with Judy and her father. It's worth checking out of the library if you have an afternoon to kill.

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