Monday, June 30, 2008

(The) Revisiting “Rebel” by Kevin

In 10 years you’ll never know this even happened!

This line is uttered once by each of the uncomprehending parents of Jim Stark (James Dean), the protagonist of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic “Rebel Without a Cause”. Jim’s well-meaning yet weak father (Jim Backus) tells him this before the legendary chicky run scene, a ritual where two teens each race a stolen car off the edge of cliff. The rule is that the driver who jumps out first is a chicken. Jim’s own participation in the chicky run owes itself to his need to prove his mettle to the cool kids in school, and to court his pretty, but also troubled, neighbor Judy (Natalie Wood) who runs with this crowd. When the chicky run results in the death of the other driver, Jim’s instinct to report the accident to the police is circumvented by his domineering mother (Ann Doran) who wants to save face and avoid scandal. It is here that the above line is repeated, this time by her. What Jim’s parents do not understand is that you are only as good as the decisions you make; the choices you make now will ultimately shape the person you will become later on. This is what the film is about.

I first watched this some time during my junior year of college (exactly 10 years ago), so coincidentally enough, it has taken ten years for this film to finally resonate with me. While I remember enjoying the movie back then, I wasn’t impressed enough to make a copy of it for myself. Maybe I couldn’t get past some of its melodramatics and the occasionally mannered acting of James Dean.

“you’re…Tearing.. ME APART!!!” Need I say more?

Maybe I was annoyed by the fact that the character, Plato (Sal Mineo), whose adoration for Jim Stark is so sensitively portrayed throughout the movie, descends into madness by the end of the movie…an outcome typical for gay characters in movies of this time. Or maybe I was prevented from liking the movie because all the crazy events implausibly take place over the course of a single day.

All this being said, I have come to the conclusion that I was fated to see “Rebel Without a Cause” again.

I date it back to the end of March when I visited Hollywood for the first time. My friend Blythe quizzed me about the Griffith Observatory, asking me if I knew which famous movie was shot there. I had no idea. I am not sure whether or not he told me the answer by the time we finally visited the Observatory on our last day, but when I finally saw the Observatory with my own eyes, the memories of “Rebel’s” knife fight scene came flooding back. It‘s more than possible that this trip led me to eventually buy myself the James Dean DVD box set, and to dress up as James Dean in his most iconic film role for my movie character-themed 30th Birthday Party a couple months later.

My instant recollection of “Rebel Without a Cause” while at the Griffith Observatory is a testament to how well Nicholas Ray used locations in this film We don’t often think about it, but the setting of a movie really dictates how we receive and absorb it. The locations in “Rebel” really support it thematically. This movie depicts teenagers literally living on the edge, so the fact that the Griffith Observatory is situated high in the Hollywood Hills is perfectly suitable to this aspect of the film, not to mention the later chicky run scene at Millertown Bluff. The other great location in this movie is the abandoned mansion in which Jim, Judy and Plato take refuge. I was struck by the scenes taking place at the swimming pool in particular. The love and camaraderie between the three characters at this point in the films contrasts with the stark emptiness of the swimming pool at night in an eerie kind of way.

Another hallmark of “Rebel Without a Cause” is its composition of images in widescreen CinemaScope format. The showiest and most breath-taking shot is one of Jim’s mother as she descends the staircase and approaches him. Jim’s reclining upside down on the living room couch, and the shot, taken from his point-of-view, mirrors this! Another great shot occurs in the middle of the confrontation scene between Jim and his parents. Jim’s mother is at the top of the staircase yelling at Jim and the father in a threatening manner. The father is at the bottom of the staircase, pleading and placating. Jim is in the middle and then the camera does something really bold. It tilts! This tilting gives the viewer a feeling of a being on a seesaw and, as a result, supports this intense battle of wills in a subtle and visual way. Virtuoso shots like these were so compromised in the days of pan-and-scan VHS format. It confirms my belief that DVD is the best thing that has happened to movies, particularly the classics.

“Rebel Without a Cause” stills remains fresh after over 50 years. Despite some moments where it feels dated (one teen uses the word “poopheads” during the Griffith Observatory knife fight) there are many elements that are pretty ballsy! Many scenes and inferences in this film raised some red flags with the censors at the time, and it’s easy to see why. I’m referring to the fact that the cars they race at the Millertown Bluff are stolen cars. The cars aren’t shown to be stolen. It is just implied. I think the shock value of this is the way in which the delinquency of these otherwise wholesome-looking, upper middle-class teens is underplayed and incidental to the plot.

I could go on and on about all the technical aspects and great production values, but at the end of the day I like a movie that affects me on an emotional level. I still feel that “Rebel Without a Cause” is full of melodramatics, but it’s extremely eloquent in the way it depicts Jim’s desire to live up to his best self and intentions, to be able to live authentically even when he‘s surrounded by inauthentic people who role-play and cave in to the expectations of others. The film drives home the difficulty of making personal decisions that could affect how one lives one’s life. Jim’s parents are illustrations of the distorted and jaded person Jim could potentially become if he allows himself to make decisions based on cowardice and selfishness, as they have. Universal themes like these make it so clear why this movie still holds up today.

For these reasons, I feel very glad to have revisited “Rebel". Or maybe I was revisited by it.


  1. I'm enjoying Rebel now for basically the first time. I was put off from renting it before this for the melodramatic reasons you mentioned, but they can easily be put aside. There is much to enjoy despite the overdraught acting.

    My question is this: What in the film makes you think Plato is gay? I know from research that many people do believe this. I also assumed this once I saw the photo of Alan Ladd in his school locker. But, there is a reasonable explanation for the photo if you remember Ladd’s famous role as Shane. In that movie, Ladd is idolized by a young boy. Ladd at the end leaves the boy who keeps calling for Shane to come back.

    Plato obviously has abandonment issues. Especially because his father who he images as a hero, rejects him.

    I think there is no real gay content to his character.

    You could say that there is more psycho character content than gay. It is an established fact that killing animals is a first step in many nutters background. Plato kills a litter of puppies. He's been to headshrinkers. Maybe he is abandoned because he is nuts, not the other way around.

    Sal Mineo the actor, I think was gay, but I don't know how that would make a difference to a character he is playing.

    What do you think?

  2. I sent your comment to Kevin to see if he will respond.

    I personally don't think his sexuality is developed a lot in the story. To me he seems to be in a child-like state and gravitates towards the James Dean character like a father figure.

    But then again... there is that famous line!


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