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Rebel Without A Cause

Tue 19 Jul 2005 In: Movies

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE Dir: Nicholas Ray USA, 1955 35mm, 111 mins Rebel Without A Cause is a powerful classic, from the days when the watchful eyes of the Catholic censors forced film-makers to speak in code. Some might say the medium was all the richer for it. Gay audiences, even modern ones, know all about speaking – and living – in code, and Rebel is absolutely chock full of it. In fact, Rebel is a film where almost everything significant and truthful is going on below the surface, in what we see rather than what is spoken. The story of teenage unrest is strung together with a series of wonderfully staged set-pieces – the knife-fight at the lookout, the fatal cliff-top chicken run, and the final dramatic confrontation at the planetarium. Gay but closeted James Dean plays Jim Stark, the new kid in town who can't fit in. It isn't for lack of trying, but no-one in the mid-fifties liked the new kid at school either. The clothes and the manner may be different, but the cliquey cool set are as vacuous and spineless as ever. The film gets the last laugh, though, shrouding a speech about how insignificant they all are in the scheme of things in a scientific lecture given on the school field trip to the planetarium, which of course, the cool set laugh their way through. But for gay audiences, it's the relationship between eternal outsider Dean as Jim Stark and Sal Mineo as Plato that rings truest. Plato is every closeted gay teen personified, our darkest fears and hopes when coming out. His affection for Jim is blindingly obvious, but should we be naive enough to take their "father figure" relationship at face value, director Nicholas Ray makes sure we see the picture of 50's pin-up Alan Ladd in Plato's locker at school. Rebel seems in love with masculinity, to point of misogyny. All the female characters are either relentless hen-peckers, or worshippers at the throne of manliness – Natalie Wood's Judy even extends this to a disturbingly sexualised relationship with her father. Her affections transfer to whichever male figure shows an interest in her, so when her boyfriend Buzz meets a fiery fate, it seems perfectly natural that her love interest shifts to Jim. However, for all its hymns to manhood, Rebel also shows the ugly consequences of what happens when boys try too hard to be men. And while Dean and Wood seem to escape into heterosexual safety at the end of the film, much to Dean's parents delight, there is no respite for Mineo's Plato, who as his guardian says, "ain't got nobody in the world". But for a while, at least, he has Jim. The triumvirate of Jim, Plato and Judy are such archetypes they ensure Rebel goes much deeper than the silly teen melodramas that would follow it in ensuing decades. With these characters, we are looking at the future of a confused generation that would have to find its way forward outside the stifling confines of 1950's "perfection". Never is this more apparent than in the creepy scenes of the three at the abandoned mansion, subversively framed together like an absurd parody of the nuclear family, when the text would have us believe they are playing out some sort of ideal. These scenes are even more chilling with hindsight, knowing as we do that all three actors were to suffer violent deaths; Dean in a car crash, Wood in a drowning that is still shrouded in mystery, and Mineo – who was gay – in a hate crime killing. Watching this on its release and picking up on all the subtext while most cinemagoers remained oblivious must have been an electrifying experience (see Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet for a more comprehensive analysis). It would be great to hop in a time machine and do it, because watching Rebel in a cinema these days means suffering through the reactions of the tittering rubberneckers that seem attracted to screenings of classic films like moths to a flame. To all these people – and you know who you are – stay home next time. Go rent an Ashton Kutcher flick, or something else where the entire plot of the film is spoon-fed to you. A film festival is the last place you'd expect giggling nitwits who think it's incredibly funny that people in 1955 don't dress or act like people in 2005. Their giggling is so loud and pronounced that they miss half the plot – this is apparent from the inane conversations you hear in the lobby afterwards. If we wanted audience participation, we'd go see Rocky Horror, kids, OK? So stay the fuck home. Opportunities to see a classic like Rebel on the big screen don't come along too often, so I say grab ‘em with both hands. But if the snickering brigade get on your tits too much, just throw jaffas at them and head to your local video store, where the immortal James Dean will live on forever. Chris Banks - 19th July 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Tuesday, 19th July 2005 - 12:00pm

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