“You can wake up now, the universe has ended.” – Jim Stark to Plato in Griffith Observatory
James Dean’s “The Rebel Without a Cause.” It’s his image as much as it is a film for many people. But if we actually take the time to examine him, Dean subverts expectations. There’s this aura built around him as that iconic rebel–cigarette in hand–a glint in his eyes. However, the beauty of his performance as Jim Stark is how broken and even gentle it is. Certainly, we remember the moments where he screams at parents, bashes in desks and kicks paintings, but really most of his screen time is made of quiet nuances. He has no friends. He’s lonely and reserved. He just wants respect.
He wants someone to listen to him–someone to stand up for what’s right. And he feels like a pendulum swinging madly between his bickering parents, constantly making him go this way and that, moving from town to town, time and time again. It sickens him and he reacts in the only way he knows.
Rebel is just as much a subversive film, being so daring as to suggest that juvenile delinquency is a sort of created social construct. Kids do bad things, sure, teens are no good, but if you dig around a bit and look in the closets, the skeletons reveal themselves in due time. We now conveniently call them “family of origin issues,” but that puts everything in a nice box when the reality is actually very messy.
That’s why the crucial scene in Rebel is when our three solitary teens go to Plato’s (Sal Mineo) abandoned mansion getaway in the dead of night. Alone it would be a house of horrors, but in community, they make it a pleasant affair–even playing a game of “house” complete with stuffy honeymooners, who don’t want kids unless they never have to see or talk to them again and a realtor who is is willing to give them the place for $3 million a month (Thankfully the newlyweds have a budget!). In essence, amidst their jests, they’ve become one happy family, finding a bit of solace from the asphyxiation of the world around them. The world accentuated by not only their parents but their peers too. However, it cannot last.
It’s these moments that feel so light and carefree and that’s the key. Blink and you’ll miss them. Look away and the bubble is popped. Focus on the drama and you’ll get it all wrong. Because the moments of drama are exactly the moments that you expect to get some deeper understanding of their psyches. You look at Jim in the now iconic scene on the staircase, quarreling with his parents or Plato running off like a frightened rabbit packing a gun. We can shake our heads and ask “why?” but if we only sit back and listen, it becomes all too obvious.
If Mr. and Mrs. Stark just listened, if Judy’s parent’s paid heed to her, if Plato actually had parents present in his life, maybe they could see what was “tearing them apart.” The suffocating hopelessness of the world that seems magnified tenfold in your adolescent years, as things are changing so rapidly. You’re getting pressured beyond belief and to top it off, it seems like no one understands you–not in the least.
Thanks be to Nicholas Ray for bringing such an intimate study of youth to light, because it’s certainly melodrama, elevated by the unpredictable magic that is James Dean. That’s often the spotlight of this film and quite understandably so, given the lore around his legendary career and tragic death.
But cull its depths and there’s even more if we look at how everything is initially foreshadowed at the Observatory, where the man in a droll tone nonchalantly summarizes the insignificant end of earth–only an infinitesimal speck in the patchwork of the universe (“In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence”).
Buzz tells Jim before their “Chickie Run” that he actually kind of likes the guy now, but still, “You gotta do something. Don’t you?” It’s the despondency of their existence. Buzz soon dies and people hardly bat an eye.
Never before had I considered how this entire story unfolds in the course of one tragic day. It’s not realism by any means, but instead, it’s bursting with the passion and pain as reflected by Ray’s camera and impeccable use of color. It’s as if the teenage experience is being wholly magnified and consolidated into a single moment. That’s what Rebel Without a Cause embodies.