Saturday, 27 February 2010

I'll Try And Be As Strong As You Want Me To Be.

Is there any late actor as repeatedly imitated as James Dean? In terms of attempted artistry in photo spreads of the newest up-and-comer playing something approaching bad-boy status, or who's just so damn pretty and talented, that look is always going to come out somewhere along the way. 

The only Dean film I've seen is Rebel Without A Cause - though he only made three major films, so that's a whole third of his primary output. I do also plan on correcting that to encompass Giant and East Of Eden as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I first saw Rebel Without A Cause at an underground cinematheque of sorts in inner-Sydney back in... what, 2005? Projected onto the wall of a room underneath a cafe in Surry Hills from an old 16mm print I think from the National Film And Sound Archive. I'd obviously been aware of James Dean for years before, had been in love with him from naught but his photos and tragic story (nothing like a tragic story to get me crushing - Mr Dean, River Phoenix, the list could go on but it's just going to get to much for our little hearts to bear.)

RWAC (as it shall now be known to save on typing) is the story of Jim Stark (Dean), a perpetual new kid on the block whose family decides to move every time he gets in trouble - which seems to be often. Finding himself in his new town, he only has to turn up to school to get into trouble - he steps on the school seal, which everyone else walks around on the way up to the front door. Stark has already met a couple of the kids from school by the time his first big fight happens later that day, at a field trip to the planetarium. Judy (Natalie Wood) lives down the road from him, going out with tough guy Buzz (Corey Allen), but you can tell from the get-go that Stark enthralls her. John, known as Plato (Sal Mineo) is a complete outcast, an apparent homosexual, lusting (completely understandably) for our protagonist. The fight between Stark and Buzz at the planetarium sees a challenge to a game of chicken that night, whereby Stark and Buzz get in stolen cars, race them towards a cliff's edge, and whoever jumps out first is the chicken. Except Buzz never manages to get out.

As the film continues, with the famous scene between Stark and his parents, Stark's discontent and angst-before-angst-was-in becomes more and more apparent, and Stark, Plato and Judy all become closer and closer, finally spending time in an old abandoned mansion where they are set upon by Buzz's old crew (including Dennis Hopper in an early and very minor role.) The film comes full circle, finishing at the Planetarium, with police involvement.

Dean is electric, though Wood and Mineo got the Oscar nominations. The script is fantastic, spawning so many quotable lines that have entered the lexicon to the extent where I'm certain it is quoted without most people having any idea where these words come from. Director Nicholas Ray keeps the film taut and trim, allowing the easy beauty and dynamism of the young cast to flow through every scene, and Dean's ability to bring humanity to a role that so easily could have been completely loathsome, or at least purposelessly antagonistic, keeps you feeling for all three when, by rights, you should be on the side of the law. But at the end of the day, Stark just wants to try and find his place in the world, find how he fits in, but he doesn't want to hurt anyone. And once he finds love, all he wants is contentment that seems to completely elude him.

A true classic of cinema, let alone American cinema. And testament to the reason James Dean has remained so prominent in the eyes of the world over half a century after his death. 5 easy stars, and sometimes I wish I could add an arbitrary sixth.

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