Saturday, August 29, 2009

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (Nicholas Ray, 1955, USA) Three teenagers are specks of dust in the cosmic storm of adolescence; insignificant and forlorn in the vast empty spaces that linger between them and their parents. Director Nicholas Ray’s film is about juvenile delinquency from the viewpoint of the teenagers; these high school kids are drunken, knife-fighting hoodlums from superficially healthy homes, contradicting the popular belief that crime is a symptom of financial poverty. James Dean’s performance as Jim Stark is like an emotional depth charge, a violent explosion just under the placid surface as the destructive tsunami tears him apart. The story takes place within 24 hours, and begins with Stark tucking in a toy monkey, as he lays drunk on the pavement. At the police station, our three protagonists come together: Stark, Judy, and Plato. In one grand empathetic gesture, Jim offers his coat to Plato, a deeply trouble boy whose parents have abandoned him. Ray utilizes the Cinemascope effectively by framing them together before they meet, visually suggesting that these three will be the narrative nexus. We quickly see the dynamic at work in their young lives: parents who offer no direction for these lost kids…and then blame them for their faults. Jim’s father is a eunuch, browbeaten and dominated by his wife; Judy’s love for her father is never reciprocated, and Plato is a desperately lonely boy who needs patriarchal guidance. The narrative races along like two speeding cars on a bluff, and the death of Buzz is the catalyst for disaster: to prove himself a man, Jim asks his nemesis why must they risk their lives. The answer is honest: “We gotta do something, don’t we? Jim is caught between his parents, trapped upon a staircase where his mother stands at the top, and he begs his emasculated father for advice: should he go to the police? But he is again left alone with bitter arguing and rushes from the house, gathering Judy and followed by Plato to an empty mansion. Here, they began to play house, to form the family that they never had, attempting to understand their confused lives by playing parts…and Plato adores them both. Nicholas Ray is concerned with the plight of his characters and offers insight into their predicament, a prescient explanation about the disintegration of parental responsibility. Children mimic their parents, a classic paradigm arguing nature versus nurture, but here these teenagers must make adult decisions on their own. Jim’s final ascent into manhood is symbolic of his red jacket, which becomes his friend’s funeral shroud, while his own father gently takes off his tweed jacket to warm his son. But for Plato, no philosophy can save him: this is how his world ends, with a bang…not a whimper. (A)

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