Monday, February 22, 2016
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
(October 1955, U.S.)
For my generation, the decade of the 1950s is generally considered one of purity, cleanliness and wholesome moral values (whatever the fuck those are supposed to be!). When I was a kid, the closest thing to rebel or "badass" I ever experienced from the 1950s was Henry Winkler as the "Fonz" on ABC-TV's HAPPY DAYS and John Travolta as Danny Zuko in the movie GREASE (1978). I suppose these interpretations were fairly accurate, but like any other period of time in pop culture history, the less-than-wholesome elements of people's lifestyles and behaviors were kept quietly hidden underground. Still, even in the 1950s, people knew things weren't perfect. They just didn't talk about it. In REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, director Nicholas Ray attempts to talk about it. The film is groundbreaking for its time in its attempt to portray the moral decay of the American youth, the critical behavior of the parents they must deal with and it also explores the differences and conflicts between those two generations. From the moment the film opens, we're immediately exposed to underage drunkenness as "new kid on the block" Jim Stark (played by the late-great James Dean) is being hauled into juvenile hall at the local police station. At the station he meets "Plato" (played by Sal Mineo) and Judy (played by Natalie Wood), who have each been brought into the station for their own individual family troubles. The three each separately reveal their innermost frustrations to the police officers trying to reach them. You see, in the 1950s, cops appear to care deeply about what happens to the youth of America! Still, by the end of this opening sequence, we're still left with the impression that we have a long way to go with these angry kids, and with that, we get a deeper look into each of them.
Jim feels experiences confusion, betrayal and hypocrisy by his constantly bickering parents, but even more so by his father's (played by Jim Back) passive and defenseless attitude and his failure to stand up to Jim's nagging and domineering mother. The moment Jim has the chance to speak at the police station in front of his parents, he screams, "You're tearing me apart!" Oddly (or perhaps predictably), his parents have the audacity to regard their son as if they don't know what he's talking about! Jim is an honest man with an idealistic regard toward his own young life and what is considered right and wrong in a decent society. While trying to prove himself worthy and not "chicken" to the local gang of popular kids (including Judy), he willingly participates in a drag race in which his opponent is killed when his car goes over a cliff. While all the other kids flee the scene and are determined to say nothing about the incident, Jim feels compelled to stand up and face the truth and consequences of what he was directly involved in. This is honorable, to be sure, but how can a young man as this take on such a burden when his own parents, supposed figures of morality and honesty to be looked up to, are outright hypocrites and would go so far as to immediately move away in order to avoid trouble and implications. Indeed, how can one be an honest man when surrounded by so much dishonesty and deceit? In an unforgettable scene, Jim grabs his own father in a violent rage and throws him to the floor when it becomes painfully apparent that his father won't stand up for his son when trying to do the right thing...
Interestingly, though, the problems of Judy and Plato seem almost common or even "textbook" as compared to the complexities of Jim's. They simply, in their own way, want to be loved. Judy by her father, who seems to believe that genuine love and affection are meant to stop once his child reaches a certain age. Judy loves her father, but can't seem to reach him any more. Naturally, she lashes out in her own rebellious manner. Plato, on the other hand, has no one in his life except the maid. His father left him and his mother is constantly travelling, seemingly not giving a damn about what becomes of her son. Plato longs for love and companionship, but fear ultimately takes over and he inevitably reacts violently with a gun when the trouble of opposing teenage delinquency finds him. Jim and Judy, even as they fall in love, befriend Plato when no one else will. But for a lost boy like Plato, friendship can only go so far, before tragedy will strike and someone will end up dead at the hands of the police (some things never change throughout the decades!). If one good thing comes out of tragedy at the end of the film, it's that Jim and his parents have a better understanding of each other. Distraught over the death of his friend, Jim's father stands beside him and proclaims that his son can depend on him to face anything that comes their way. I can't help but get a little choked up when Jim's father tells him, "Stand up, son. I'll stand up with you."
James Dead was a Hollywood legend who only made three films before he was killed in an auto crash. Much like EAST OF EDEN (also 1955) before it, his character is one who longs for love and understanding and there is an irresistible sensitivity to his persona that can't be ignored. And yet, when trouble finds him, it important to note that Jim Stark is no coward, either. He'll stand up for himself in whatever "badass" form one can derive from a period when youth was considered simple and "wholesome". Jim Backus, I have to say, as good as he is in this film, is someone I have a little trouble taking seriously behind his most infamously-silly characters as Thurston Howell III from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and the voice of the cartoon character MR. MAGOO. This is likely a trivial matter, given the importance and controversy of the subject, but still...I notice such trivia.
When one considers an entire decade and if there could be a single film that clearly defines the youth culture of the time, it's impossible to ignore the fact that REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE is very likely that film for the 1950s. Like any other generation, teens were troubled and they had parents that had to deal with them (and vice-versa). I can only imagine that this film spoke to them on a personal level and brought their joys, their fears, their frustrations and their relationships and conflicts with authority to the life of the big screen, much in the way that EASY RIDER would speak to the youth of the 1960s, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER to the youth of the 1970s, THE BREAKFAST CLUB to the youth of the 1980s and SINGLES to the youth of the 1990s. I haven't yet chosen a worthy film that spoke to the youth of the 2000s. Any suggestions?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jim Stark: "You are not going to use me as an excuse again!"
Carol Stark: "I don't!"
Jim: "Everytime you can't face yourself, you blame it on me!"
Carol: "That is not true!"
Jim: "You say it's because of me, you say it's because of the neighborhood! You use every other phony excuse! Mom, I just...once I want to do something right! And I don't want you to run away from me again! Dad."
Frank Stark: "This is all going too fast for me, son."
Jim: "You better give me something. You better give me something fast!"