Tuesday, September 25, 2018

2018 Blind Spot Series: Rebel Without a Cause

It's Blind Spot time once again. It's time to talk about a significant film that has somehow escaped my eyes all these years. Before I get into it, let me give a shout out to the host for the Blind Spot Challenge - Sofia at Returning Videotapes. Please check out her site and all those of all the other bloggers who take part. Now, let's get to this month's movie.

Why did I pick it? We all have those coming-of-age movies that we love. I have a ton of them. And as a male, the ones I gravitated towards were about young men. Even if the details of their lives were drastically different than mine, as they invariably were, I experienced a kinship with other boys at similar stages of their existence. Of course, the ones I hold dearest are the ones that came out during my formative years. I'm way beyond that time period, these days, but I still have a fondness for such movies. When I became an amateur cinephile and started tracking down highly regarded films I hadn't seen, Rebel Without a Cause was squarely in my sights. I read and heard about James Dean's legendary coolness, his tragic early death, and this movie. It always shows up on lists of the greatest coming-of-age movies. Yet, for some reason, Rebel kept getting pushed behind some other classic I hadn't seen. One day, I walked into one of those discount stores that has a spinning rack with hundreds of DVDs on it. I skim through it every now and again. It's always ninety percent workout videos, crappy TV shows, compilations of crappier movies, and films of which there were obviously way too many copies printed. The other ten percent are decent movies. Every now and again, you even find a good one. This one was waiting for me. It was right there on the front of the rack. I couldn't help but pick it up. As usual, I rushed home with the intent on watching it in a few days, but found a spot for it in my collection where it sat for several years. I finally got tired of telling myself I need to watch it every time I looked at it on the shelves with its less dusty neighbors. Here we are.

The movie starts with our very drunk hero, Jim (Dean), being detained in the police station. We quickly figure out he's underage and that he's a pretty troubled kid because of the argument that ensues when his dad comes to pick him up. His issue is that he thinks his dad is too soft and won't stand up to his mom. We also meet Judy (Natalie Wood), another troubled youth. She has some major daddy issues. Namely, her old man calls her a tramp like that's her name. She's in for violating curfew. Yeah, the 50s. Finally, we meet Plato (Sal Mineo). He also has daddy issues since he grew up without one. It doesn't help that his mom is usually not home. He got himself hauled in because he killed a litter of puppies. Jim sleeps off his intoxication and gets up the next morning for his first day of school at Dawson High. As if you had any doubt, Judy and Plato are among his new classmates. Judy hangs with the cool kids. No one hangs with Plato. In fact, everyone bullies him. Jim comes to his rescue and Plato quickly becomes enamored with Jim. After the run-in with the guys that like to beat up on Plato they challenge Jim to come out later that night and play a game of chicken with their cars and a cliff. Unsurprisingly, someone ends up dead and the story progresses from there.

Maybe I was paying too close attention to the title. More accurately, maybe I was viewing it through more modern sensibilities. Point is, I had a lot of problems with this movie. The first thing that bothered me was the murky representation of time. This first day of school comprises much of the first half of the movie and it seems like it's about 36 hours long. And that's only until school lets out. It's like another 36 hours after that. The highlight for me was the fact that students were expected to drive themselves to the class field trip. Imagine that in 2018. That's neither here nor there. It just amused me.

Once we get passed the whole time issue, I'm faced with my biggest hurdle - the protagonist. He's not the rebel the title makes him out to be, far from it, in fact. In most instances, he's just a kid trying to do the right thing. After the knucklehead he was playing chicken with dies, Jim is only one out of a dozen or so kids who actually wants to tell what happened. The rest of those jackasses are all set to pretend it never happened. And I've already mentioned how he gets into this mess, in the first place. He is merely helping out a kid who is getting bullied. Unfortunately, the way he goes about things makes me want to punch him in the face. Repeatedly. He constantly whines and yelps about everything. And I do mean EVERYTHING. There is nothing cool about this person, intentions aside. I can't even say "intentions aside" with a straight face because he pulls a total dick move at the end. But he cries about it, so I guess it's okay. Sigh.

Jim is also the least interesting person with the least daunting issues of the three kids we met at the police station. His big hangup is he wants his dad to grow a backbone. That's spoiled brat stuff compared to what Judy and Plato are dealing with. Judy's relationship with her father is clearly going to have greater consequences on her life. Her self-worth is deteriorating in front of us. She's actively seeking out the wrong kind of attention and appears on the way to making her father's words a self-fulfilling prophecy. A film more directly about her should, could, and hopefully, would be better than the one we got, by leaps and bounds. So, too, would a movie about Plato. His problems are leading him down a potentially even more destructive path than Judy. Remember, he's already killed a litter of puppies. He was abandoned by his father and is mostly left to his own devices by his mother which isn't much different. Add to that the fact that he's meant to be gay, he clearly has a crush on Jim, living in a time far more intolerant than the present, even with you know who in the White House. Since this was made in the 1950s, we don't get either one of those movies, but the one about the straight, white guy blowing things way out of proportion. Judy gets to have her problems instantly expunged because she met the right guy while Plato's sexuality condition is a tragic flaw.

Let me check the back of the DVD again.


It still says 1955.


Don't get me wrong. I am not one of those people who automatically dismisses old movies. There are plenty of movies from precisely this era that I love. Rebel Without a Cause is misfocused and so hopelessly, philosophically locked into its time it has no chance to escape. The purported coolness of its star comes across like a super-annoying Marlon Brando impersonation. After all, Brando's iconic turn in A Streetcar Named Desire came out only four years prior. It didn't help that I have recently watched both The Room and The Disaster Artist and burst into uncontrollable laughter the moment James Dean said "You're tearing me apart!" Honestly, I don't think Tommy Wiseau did it any worse. Blasphemy, I know. Anyhoo, had I seen this when I was a teenager, I might feel differently. Watching today, far removed from the days when I might've thought sneaking out to race my car towards a cliff was cool, I just wanna shake Jim and tell him, "Look around! Your life ain't that bad! Man up!"

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  1. Yeah, I can understand why people wouldn't like it and I have no problem with that. I saw it as a melodrama while I will agree with you that Jim isn't really a rebel. What is he rebelling against? The real rebel was Plato because we all know that he's gay (people from the 50s would've been appalled). I still haven't seen The Room as I'm still not sure if I want to as I'm more interested in The Disaster Artist. BTW, did you notice Dennis Hopper as one of the bullies in that film?

    1. What IS he rebelling against? That was my big question, too. Arrrggghhh!

      No, I didn't notice Dennis Hopper. I fail.

  2. "and burst into uncontrollable laughter the moment James Dean said "You're tearing me apart!" Honestly, I don't think Tommy Wiseau did it any worse" - YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

    I hated this movie. Four years into the Blind Spot Series, and while I've had a few films I haven't liked, this remains the only one I straight up loathed. It's overrated and I shared all the same issues you did. I don't understand why people rave about James Dean. And after seeing more Brando performances, he was just trying to copy him.

    I'm so thankful I'm not the only one lol.

    1. You are definitely not alone. After finally seeing Dean in action...I just don't get the appeal.

  3. I get it completely.

    I don't dislike Rebel without a Cause, but I understand your position on it completely, because it's exactly how I feel about A Catcher in the Rye. I think this is one of those movies you need to see at the right point in your life. The Breakfast Club is another one like this--if you see it at the right age, it's formative. If you see it at the wrong age, you want to slap everyone involved until your hands are bloody.

    1. Exactly. I read A Catcher in the Rye in high school and loved it. I keep telling myself I'm going to read it again to see how I feel about it now. Kinda scared to. Have a feeling the magic will fade away.

  4. I don't hate the film but I was never blown away by it and I do agree that Jim's problems are negligible next to Judy and especially Plato's-who is well on his way to being a danger to himself and others. And the best performances come from Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo essaying those two roles.

    The movie is so venerated and yet it's far from the best film anyone involved made. It's too bad this is director Ray's best known film since he made at least a half dozen-In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar, On Dangerous Ground, Bigger Than Life and Bitter Victory-that are superior. I guess the best that can be said for it is that her performance broke Natalie Wood out of the teen pack and helped her make the leap from child actress to adult performer that is so hard bridge for most.

    As far as James Dean his style was similar to Marlon Brando. I think he seems to be aping him now because Brando had so much more time to make an impact but at the time he was considered a sizzling new talent. It's so hard to judge on just three films, there was definitely potential there. That said I don't harbor any great love for Dean's work here much preferring what he accomplished in East of Eden the previous year.

    1. Totally agree, Wood and Mineo are very good.

      I've not seen any of the director's other films, either. I'm willing to try. They can't be any worse.

      You're probably right about why he seems to be impersonating Brando, but it is what it is. I know Dean was considered the new hotness when burst onto the scene, but judging by this performance only, I can't see why. That said, I do want to see East of Eden just to see if he has something more than what he gave me here.

    2. Start with In a Lonely Place (its VERY dark) with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Or The Lusty Men, which I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, with Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy all giving award level performances. In my opinion they're Nicholas Ray's best films.

      An interesting side note to In a Lonely Place. Ray and Gloria Grahame were married during the filming but estranged and she would only take his direction when delivered by an intermediary to whom she would respond and he would report back to the director with any messages she might have. They divorced not long after and following another failed marriage on her part she married Tony Ray, his son from his first marriage, effectively making Ray her father-in-law as well as her ex-husband and the son they had together her brother-in-law!!!

    3. In a Lonely Place is on the radar. And Gloria Grahame sounds certifiably insane.

  5. Yeah, there's a LOT about this movie that seems ridiculous to modern eyes. I always saw Jim as rebelling against his parents and their whitebread conformity. Then again, I've always seen Jim as a little bit gay himself, which adds a whole other layer to his character. But Judy and Plato are FAR more interesting characters, and much easier to care and root for than Jim.

    What I love about this film - and most of Nick Ray's films - is how over the top it is. This is all-caps MELODRAMA, which is a perfect fit for a film about teenagers, who feel every little goddamn thing so intensely. Ray was never one to do things quietly (even In A Lonely Place, which is very much in a minor key, goes all-in on the darkness at the center of its characters), and this is one of his loudest movies. I usually find it entertaining, but sometimes find it annoying, so I get what you say about it, and enjoyed this review very much!

  6. I get that the movie is trying to push him as rebelling against his parents, but it doesn't hold water when put into the larger context of the hyper-patriarchal 1950s. He wants his dad to stand up, be a man, and not take any guff from his woman. Add to that the whole deal about him being the one who wants to go to the police about the other situation and it sounds suspiciously like him wanting more conformity, not less. But yeah, I also saw him as, at least, gay-curious, or maybe even full-on repressed homosexual. Unfortunately, the film only poses the possibility but doesn't at all try going down that road.

    Yes, all-caps MELODRAMA is right. Despite my misgivings about this particular film, I do want to see more of Nick Ray's work.