Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rebel Without A Cause

#360 in the 1000 greatest films of all time.

Now that I've started to establish some regular readership on my blog, I'm going to recklessly risk losing it all by coming clean with you: there are a few very embarrassing gaps in my film education. Some "essentials" that every responsible film-buff should experience before diving into less charted territory.

In this particular case, I worked my way backwards. Director Nicolas Ray is most famous for "Rebel Without A Cause," yet I first watched and reviewed his lesser known and hard-to-find "Johnny Guitar." Then I suffered through his debut, the archetypal "Love on the Run," after reading about its pioneering cinematography. (Some critics have played up the fact that it was the first film to shoot ground scenes from above on a helicopter. There were seriously about five seconds of helicopter footage in the entire film. I could barely stomach the trite romance that filled up the other 1 hour and 57 minutes.)

My childlike impetuosity is only partly to blame for my incomplete education. The AFI Top 100, Leonard Maltin, and other corporate tools have instilled in me a deep and abiding distrust of any widely touted (and popularly known) film.

"Rebel Without A Cause," however, deserves every last bit of credit it's received. 1950's America may have been a vacuous bore, but this is one of the real gems of cinema. The film opens with a long, unbroken closeup of a drunk James Dean lying on the street, amusing himself with a toy. This static shot lasts for the entirety of the opening credits; in fact, I imagine that the only way the studio would spare such an un-hollywood dead moment from the cutting room floor is if Ray placed the opening credits over it.

The historically caprice themes turn the 1950s "Leave it to Beaver" family image on its head. James Dean's character Jim, a hip trouble-magnet, continually berates and even assaults his father for not being a man and wishes that he would punch his mother, just once. Jim's girlfriend Judy (played by the beautiful Natalie Wood) has a strong, sexually confused attachment to her own father and a jealous hatred of her mother; in Judy's opening monologue at the police station she tearfully describes a dramatic confrontation with her father that could have been lifted from a Lifetime incest special. And in one of the inexplicably creepy moments in the film, Jim and Judy play house to an emotionally disturbed classmate. Judy even hums a lullabye to put him to sleep.

The film has a decidedly blasphemous subtext. The junior and senior classes of Jim's new high school take a field trip to a planetarium, where the ancient operator spins an existential yarn about the insignificant birth and death of the planet earth in a cold and indifferent universe. The film's tragic ending only reinforces the generally godless tone of the whole enterprise.

James Dean also deserved his reputation. We'll never know if Dean had the range of a Johnny Depp or the staying power of a Nicholson, but this film alone is enough to prove that he had a singularly magnetic presence in the history of cinema.

Certainly I had problems with the film. The score was maddeningly overwrought, and too many scenes felt like the editors were playing hot potato with the camera angles. But a film's not a masterpiece because it lives up to everyone's personal tastes; it's a masterpiece because it transcends them. An audacious script, Ray's clever direction, and above all Dean's hypnotic performance delivered onto us a minor miracle.

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