Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rebel Without a Cause

Before I get started on this week's film, I'd like to mention that there is a great web site that answers questions about movies and TV shows. Its called ScreenPrism.com. The link is on the right side of this page. I recently became a contributor to this site.

 SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Don Maclean writes in the song “American Pie” that Bob Dylan, the “Jester,” wore a coat “he borrowed from James Dean.” In director Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause James Dean’s Jim Stark wears literal and symbolic clothing. The jacket we see him wear for most of the film is red. It can signify the passion of rebellious youth. The opening sequence shows a drunken Jim on the ground with a red toy monkey. In this one image Ray shows a person caught between childhood (the toy) and adulthood (the drunkenness). And this film, like To Kill a Mockingbird, addresses the inevitability of losing one’s innocence and having to be born again into the pain inflicted by the grown-up world.


We move to the police station where the three main characters are brought together in the same place: Jim is arrested for his public drunkenness; Judy (Natalie Wood), wearing a red coat, was picked up for being a minor walking around at night alone; and John “Plato” Crawford was arrested for shooting puppies. These rebellious youths meet in a place that stands for the enforcement of the rules with which they are at odds. Jim mimics the police siren, and a cop says “that’s enough static out of you.” The word “static” means noise, but it is also used to suggest opposition or criticism, which is one of the role’s of youth.


Jim is no longer a child and must now face the disappointing reality of his home life. We learn that he is the new kid in town, which adds to his rootlessness, and, thus, to his insecurity. His parents always move whenever there has been trouble in the family. Jim accuses them of always blaming him for the relocations, but there are problems between the mother and father. Jim’s dad, Frank (Jim Backus – yes Mr. Magoo and the rich guy on “Gilligan’s Island) is a wimp, (his wearing the frilly apron around the house is an embarrassing reminder to Jim of Frank’s emasculation) never standing up to his domineering wife (Ann Doran), or showing any decisiveness in general. The family’s moving around suggests the inability to feel “at home” can continue into adulthood.


Judy longs for the affection of her father (William Hopper) that she received when she was a child. She is disappointed that her father isn’t the one picking her up at the police station. There is an incestuous subtext at work here. She is a curvaceous young lady now, so when she gives her father a quick kiss on the lips at home, he pushes her away in disgust. It almost appears that he protests too much, subconsciously guilty of his own urges. He considers her a tramp because she stays out at night with her rowdy crowd of friends. Her mother says when you are starting to grow up, “nothing fits.” She is in-between worlds. So, Judy, too, feels homeless.

Probably the most interesting character of all is Sal Mineo’s Plato. He wears clothes a mother might pick out for a young boy going to a family event. His tie and jacket, and the pale imitation of a motorcycle scooter he rides, look out of place at the high school. His parents are absent. They have split up, and she is never at home. His father is rich and provides him with material things. He sends support checks with no personalized letters to him. The only person caring for him is the African American nanny, which he is too old to have. He wants for nothing – except love. So, emotionally, he, too, is without a home. At the school, Plato opens his locker, and on the door is a photo of the actor Alan Ladd, a handsome man. He then sees Jim in the mirror on the door. Is Plato gay, and is attracted to Jim, who is associated in this scene with a handsome actor? But, later, Jim is considered as a surrogate father by Plato. The latter says to him, “”If you coulda been my dad. We could have breakfast in the morning.” There is a blending of the sexual and the paternal here, as there is with Judy. It is meaningful that all he has of his dad is a photograph, where? - in his bedroom. Why did Plato kill those puppies? They are not full grown dogs, but babies. Perhaps in his life there is a disconnection between an ideal childhood and the one he experienced. It may be he was abused by his father, and he considers the killing of the puppies an act of mercy to spare them the pain of growing up. It is significant that his nickname references the philosopher who believed that this world was made up of imperfect copies of almost forgotten transcendent ideas.




Since he does not fit in at home, Jim doesn’t want to feel like an outcast among his peers. But the first thing he does is walk on the school’s insignia placed in the cement as he heads for class, supposedly a sign of disrespect. He tries to make fun of the planetarium presentation about the end of the world to be accepted by the gang of kids. But, he is taunted by Judy’s boyfriend, Buzz, who calls him “chicken” when he refuses to fight after Buzz slashes the tires of Jim’s car. The accusation of being a coward is the one thing Jim can’t stand, because it reminds him of his spineless father. He accepts the challenge of the “chicken run” where two beat-up cars are driven toward the edge of a cliff. The driver who jumps out first is the “chicken.” Buzz dies because of a piece of clothing. The strap on his black leather jacket, a symbol of rebellious youth, gets caught on the door handle and he plunges to his death. Did his nonconformity to the approaching responsibility of adulthood kill him?


Jim goes home after the tragedy looking for direction as to how to act. Again, he, too, is caught between the world of the child (he drinks milk at home like a baby) and being forced into being an adult. He asks his father “What do you do when you have to be a man.” He is looking for a clear moral compass to follow, but his dad basically tells him it isn’t that simple, and just wants him to cover his own ass in connection with the accident. His parents tell him that in ten years none of what has happened will be remembered, as if to say the leaving behind of youthful idealism will fade away as one ages.

Jim goes to the police station to talk to Sergeant Ray (Edward Platt) who was sympathetic when Jim was arrested, but Ray is not there. The other members of the gang think that Jim informed on them, so they go after him. Jim, Judy, and Plato go to a dilapidated mansion to hide. All three are in a sense refugees from their homes. They play at being a family, with Jim the father, Judy the mother, and Plato as the child. But Jim satirizes this action, affecting an adult tone of voice, talking about renting or buying, with Judy chiming in about their budget, and Plato saying it will only cost “three million dollars a month.” With these words they acknowledge the absurdity of the grown-up world. Jim says mockingly of having children, “we don’t encourage them.” It reminds the audience about the pessimism of existence at the planetarium, and echoes the killing of the puppies, implying youth has a horrible time ahead of it. Their pretending is cut short by the gang members finding them. Plato has his gun and shoots one of the youths. Jim is able to disarm the weapon, but Plato wants the gun back. He is killed by the police as Jim leads him out of the mansion, since the cops don’t know there are no bullets in the pistol.


Let’s get back to the color red and that toy monkey. The titles at the beginning of the film are in red, and as was said, so were the monkey and Jim’s jacket, as well as Judy’s red coat. One of Plato’s socks is red, a mismatch which conjures up the image of a child but also hints at tragedy. Red is also the color of blood. Could the color also signify violence? When Judy looks into her compact mirror, Jim asks her, “Want to see a monkey?” The monkey can also be seen as a “monkey on your back,” which is an ominous reference. And, Jim may be the “monkey wrench” that damages the machinery of society. Plato says to Jim that when it comes to Buzz and his friends, that he shouldn’t “monkey with them,” another omen of the chaos to come.

So, Jim can, in one sense, be seen, inadvertently, as an “angel of death.” At the police station he hums Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which is associated with going to the afterworld. He lives on “Angelo” street. He enters the planetarium just as the show explores the eventual cosmic end of the world. The scientist there talks about how “the earth will not be missed,” and “the heavens are cold,” after our planet’s demise. The youth in attendance are startled by the flash of light that will indicate the end of existence. Why should they not feel that life is doomed? When Judy is asked toward the beginning of the film who is Jim Stark, she says, “He’s the new disease.” Jim is a participant at the scene of Buzz’s death, and the other gang members want to blame him for the tragedy. The cliff where the “chicken-run” takes place is called “the end.” After Buzz goes over the edge, it appears as if Judy is contemplating jumping after him. But, a look from Jim stops her, as if he must be consulted in matters about death. At one point Jim’s reaper-like persona says, “I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.” Plato dies because he still has the gun which Jim allowed him to keep. At the end, he puts his red jacket on Plato (once earlier he offered him the jacket in the police station – another omen), and zips it up like a body bag. It is fitting that Plato’s tragedy occurs at the observatory, the place where the young people hear about the end of the world. Plato earlier asks Jim if the earth will end at night. Jim says it will end at dawn – a foreboding statement since that is when Plato’s life does end.

We have to consider that not only is Jim, as are Judy and Plato, justified in their aversion to adulthood, but also that their rebelliousness is a threat to the society around them if it is so self-involved. It is why we are all programmed into social roles as we lose the passion of youth and exchange it for the compromises inherent with aging. At the end of the film, Jim’s parents exchange understanding smiles once their son, with his supposed future bride, is returned to them, which given the circumstances, appear creepy and discordant. The father puts his coat around Jim, indicating Jim and Judy will join the ranks of the adult members of society as future replacements. Thus, the cycle goes on. The last image is that of the director, Nicholas Ray, as the curator of the observatory (a fitting place for a director), appearing as an indifferent god walking through the mechanism of his creation.

Next week’s movie is Long Day’s Journey into Night.

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