Classics Corner: “Rebel Without a Cause”

30 11 2010

There’s an immediate resonance for any teenager who watches “Rebel Without a Cause” as youth rebellion feels eerily reminiscent to anyone experiencing it no matter how dated the story.  Sure, certain rituals have become obsolete and various practices have become laughably obscure.  The entire nature of being a teenager has changed dramatically even over the past decade, not to mention 55 years.  But the very fact that this movie can communicate its message in spite of the generational disparity really does stand substantiate the case that “Rebel Without a Cause” is a classic.

The movie looks at the nonconformity emerging among the youth in the 1950s, a topic of much controversy at the time.  For those whose history is a little rusty, this was the time of great American post-war optimism.  This was the era of the American Dream, and no matter what “Death of a Salesman” tells us, they bought into it.  When we look back at this decade, most of us think of the “Happy Days” paradigm.

So when a movie dared to explore the culture of youth rebellion, naturally it got people talking.  No one wanted their child to be “that kid,” the one stirring up the trouble, and the mindset of the time was that these types of influences were only prevalent among a lower class of people.  But the three troubled souls of “Rebel Without a Cause” all come from affluent, well-to-do families, making the social statement that much more powerful back in the 1950s.

James Dean plays the titular rebel, Jim Stark, in the second of the three major screen roles he completed before his death at age 24 in a car accident.  I had always associated Dean with the 1950s as a sort of mystical counterculture figure running against the cookie-cutter American image, and he certainly still has a large cult following from teens today.  It’s a lot easier to be rebellious in this modern time with so many forums open for dissent, but back in Dean’s time, there wasn’t much of a place for it, and this has made him all the more powerful a symbol.

I watched the movie to make Dean more than an image in my mind; I wanted to see what skills he possessed that have allowed him to become one of cinema’s most enduring figures.  He delivers, packing a performance full of internal conflict that ultimately manifests itself in shocking ways.  It’s particularly interesting to watch him struggle with the adult authorities who simply don’t understand him.

I found some striking parallels in the story to “Spring Awakening,” the play banned in Germany for nearly a century due to the inappropriateness of youth going unhinged.  In the musical adaptation, all adults are played by one male and one female, and this could certainly work for “Rebel Without a Cause” (not necessarily the musical) because all of the movie’s adults are aloof and lacking in any sort of understanding of the new generation of youth.  All form a brick wall of intolerance, and darned if Dean’s Stark can’t pound that wall down with his fists.

Stark also makes ties with two other teens living on the outskirts of decorum: a friendship with Plato (Sal Mineo), a virtually orphaned loner who is probably a closeted homosexual, and hints at romance with Judy (Natalie Wood), a girl struggling to make her transition to womanhood in the eyes of her family.  On one fateful night, together they form a kinship outside of the narrow-mindedness of their adult and teenage oppressors.  Since it is a melodrama, there may not be as much character development as there could be, yet their journeys are each so distinct and telling of the new directions of society that you can’t help but be glued to every exciting minute of it.

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