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Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

by on 2011/09/26

“You’re tearing me apart!”

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Rebel Without A Cause is widely considered a cinematic classic. It appears on numerous lists of the best movies about school. It currently rates 79% on the Internet Movie Database, 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 100% with the Top Critics. According to Wikipedia, it “was a groundbreaking attempt to portray the moral decay of American youth, critique parental style, and explore the differences and conflicts between generations.”

Say what? Are we all talking about the same overrated B-picture?

Here’s what I saw. It’s the first day of school, in Los Angeles, California. New student Jim Stark (James Dean) acts eccentrically, attracts unwanted attention, continues to be provocative, and winds up clashing with a local gang. Rather than manifesting the hormonal behaviour typical of most teens, he acts as if stricken by emotional issues. He attracts, and is attracted to, other unstable characters, including Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo).

Let’s examine the tale’s underpinnings, spindly, melodramatic, and inspired by a past pop psych fad. What exactly drives its characters, especially the teens? Irrational behaviour born of trivial details. The primary source of conflict here is First World, upper-middle class, white-bread angst.

Yes, there is a knife fight. Yes, there is a drag race. Yes, there is a manhunt. Improbably it’s still mostly boring. What motivates these events? False conflict. What informs the characters? Neurosis, pretty much, and little else.

The most significant catalyst was Jim’s sudden-insight crusade, the act of being honest, a defensible way to rebel. His refusal to be a hypocrite, even in his own defense, puts him at odds against nearly everyone else . . . except for the flaky girl and the tragically mixed-up boy.

However, while I’d applaud the use of truth as a mission, a weapon, or a goal, it’s difficult to get too set against Jim’s foes. Instructors are ineffectual, essentially non-present, but his parents and the local police are hardly any threat. Everybody cares for him, worries about, and searches him out. No matter how they disagree, the family meets, shares, and discusses their concerns, including their own insecurities.

It’s hard to sympathize with someone who enjoys this kind of support. Just because he doesn’t appreciate what he has, doesn’t mean he has nothing to appreciate, nor the capacity to do so. To be blunt, he is spoiled, he seeks out trouble, and he has no reason to fight. It may have seemed topical in 1955, but it doesn’t drive narrative well.

Similarly, why feel bad for Judy, who is plagued by being contrary? She lavishes inappropriate affection on her father, and when he rebuffs her, she continues to test his boundaries. She later leaps along from beau to beau, declaring her affections, perhaps deluded, and certainly confused. Jim settling for her would surely undermine his case.

As for Plato, he trades on charm, on youth, and vulnerability. As the story unspools, his lunacy reigns, and our sympathy is sorely tested. Even if one found a way to care for this outsider caricature, his ultimate fate teaches us befriending someone unusual is futile. In Rebel’s world, there’s a reason such kids don’t have friends, and there’s really no practical sense in helping them out.

The entire production is built on such stuff, so it wasn’t very surprising when it didn’t hold up. Oh, I could rant at considerable length about the casting of Dean as an awkward teen outcast — I mean, come on, seriously? — Wood’s histrionic performance, or a painfully unfunny sequence, touring an old abandoned house. But what would be the point? The viewers who love it will love it regardless. Others will agree with their peers. The few left over will probably turn it off.

Myself, a minority of that minority, struggled to see it all through. Initially, I had high hopes, the loftiest expectations. I fought incredulous disappointment to understand its appeal. To what do we owe this delusion of the masses?

Inasmuch as our sympathies raise the good to greater heights, Rebel Without A Cause is now a shrine to — and benefactor of — its stars, a triumvirate dying before their time. The tragedies of James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood, now elevate this piece, I have little doubt.

These considerations notwithstanding, this effort remains overwrought and trying, overlong and boring. Any sense of effectiveness comes from tragic accident, not for any command of the filmic arts. Although it isn’t an abject failure, neither is it a gem.

To quote my co-reviewer, mid-screening, “They’re all nuts. That’s the point of the movie.” Unfortunately, that’s not enough to convince me to side with the rest of the world. It’s the cause of my own rebellion, perhaps, but at least it won’t take up as much of your time.

* * *

Rated PG13

111 minutes

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