Saturday, 29 September 2012

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

"Anyone could become obsessed with the past with a background like that!"


Inevitably perhaps, I believe I should argue my support of Vertigo. But I sensibly waited to write about the film after I had rewatched the film at a screening at the BFI on Southbank. Many months of screening Hitchcock's back-catalogue has also coincided well with Sight and Sound's screening's of the Top 10 Film of All-Time which are all screened throughout September. My attendance recently at the 'Call it a Classic?' discussion resulted in many conversation's about what defines a film classic, without a specific focus upon Vertigo as the winner (More about why Citizen Kane wasn't the winner). Why is Vertigo the best film of all-time? In fact, is it even the best Hitchcock? I believe it is.

The Male Gaze

As aficionado's are aware, Vertigo is seen as an exceptionally personal Hitchcock film. Jimmy Stewart usually plays a character similar to Hitch himself - while Cary Grant roles in his films are usually characters who Hitch could fantastize about being.

In Vertigo, it is a Jimmy Stewart film and he plays 'Scottie'; a police detective who, in the opening sequence, realises he has a fear of heights. He is retired in the following scene and is hired by an old college friend to follow and 'detect' where his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), is going. As viewers, we are forced to watch what he watches; to see what he see's. Many minutes are spent observing Madeline as she drives down the long San Franciso roads; she sits and observes a painting at the California Palace of the Legion of Honour and she 'wanders' towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
'Scottie', we realise, is falling for her. As a narrative, this is an investigation - we question: What is she doing? Where is she going? Is she meeting anyone - and who? This entire plot hinges on the possibility that Madeline has been possessed by Carlotta Valdes. Is it possible that someone from the past has taken hold of her and controls her? Amongst the three acts, this supernatural plot is a macguffin – and merely a way for Hitchcock to draw you into the story, and into the fascination Scottie has with her.

It is the end of this act which commands your attention. Scottie and Madeline begin an affair and they are drawn to the Mission San Juan Bautista whereby in a moment of passion and panic, Madeline runs from Scottie and up the stairs before falling to her death on the roof of the church – Scottie, as in the opening sequence, is frozen as she runs up the stairs and can only witness her death. And feel responsible for it.

The film shifts tone now as, rather than merely focussing on a man in mourning, we see the man become obsessed. And obsessed with a woman, he has seen commit suicide. This is not your usual drama of a married woman engaging in an affair – this film pierces the heart of man, and destroys any notion of love and purity. We are desperate men who seek women in an obsessive attempt to fulfil our own selfish desires.

What is unique about this film, in comparison with other films by ‘The Master of Suspense’ – indeed in comparison with all other films – is the pessimistic subtext regarding love and lust. It is nice to imagine that love can be at first sight; that love is purely your heart ruling over the mind. Vertigo seems to imply that it is more an obsession verging on madness. The final act shows us how Scottie begins to see ‘Madeline’ in every woman – and then forces Judy to literally become Madeline.

There is no apology made and the shop assistants and hair stylists are all bemused and confused with Scottie’s increasing frustration at the minor differences that are not altered – the grey dress is incorrect, the bleached hair is not styled in the exact same way. He manages to turn Judy into Madeline – and Judy begs and pleads Scottie to stop. But she loves him. And she wants to make him happy. And she wants to be with him.
Do we fall for one type of woman – and spend the rest of our lives searching for someone to become her? Do we create our own perfect ideal – a fantasy of what we expect from a partner? Our obsession with the first love is what pushes them away – our desperation to keep hold of the fantasy ideal. Then, when we find love, we seek to change them – to ‘improve’ who they are and become the fantasy ideal. Are you disorganised? Well you should be more organised. Do you dress in the wrong way? Well, I’ll show you what I want you to wear. It is combination of man’s obsession with seeking out the fantasy ‘ideal’ – and the woman seeking to make her man happy. (Obviously, you could interchange the gender, but for the sake of argument I will use the gender of the characters in Vertigo).

The finale seems to argue that our obsession with this ideal consequently angers us; the woman attempting to change for the sake of man then creates a conflict as she is now false and not honest about who she actually is.

In contrast to Madeline, we are introduced to Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) – a previous love of Scottie. They were due to be married but Midge called it off. She represents a woman less subservient to the man – she is not obsessed with exclusively making men/Scottie happy. Midge supports and helps Scottie (Introducing him to the San Francisco book seller; attempting to defeat his acrophobia by using a step-ladder). Scottie is not attracted to this – he is attracted to the unobtainable desire; the married woman. Midge wants him to accept her for who she is – not a false ideal. In an attempt to show her love to Scottie, she paints her own head on a picture of Carlotta Valdes. Comedic to some extent, it also shows how she is showing him how she feels by mocking his obsession for the unobtainable woman – indeed, she remains attracted to him despite his own shortcomings and obsessions. Scottie is angry with her mockery and this is the last conversation the two appear to have on screen.
The opening sequence, visually, is separate to the rest of the film and it is no surprise that this sequence directly influences the opening for The Matrix. In both films, cops run across roof tops preceding the themes of obsession which dominate the films themselves. Neo is obsessed with finding out what more there is to life – as Scottie is obsessed with Madeline.

The film is equally profound as it is personal. Hitchcock himself had an obsession with the blonde-woman: Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren. All women who inspired Hitch – to the point of resentment. Indeed, the films released this year – Hitchcock and The Girl – both deal with Hitchcock’s love life. Sienna Miller portrays Tippi Hedren in The Girl and it seems that Hitchcocks obsession with the blonde woman became a serious problem in his later films. Hedren herself states how his obsession was more than mere infatuation:
“I unfortunately witnessed a side of him that was very dark and one I did not want to be involved with.”
Vertigo is the most personal film Hitchcock made. The final scene shows Jimmy Stewart dragging and pulling at a screaming Kim Novak up flights of stairs. He is forcing her to acknowledge her lies and deceit as she led him on claiming that she could be the woman he loves. You have to wonder: is this the frustration of an old man and his obsession with younger women? Or is this the reality of every man and their deep desires of lust?


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

"Just because I'm telling you this story... doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it"
Oliver Stone claims that, when writing Scarface, he was addicted to cocaine and used the writing to help him kick the habit. In addition, producer Jane Hamsher, explains how she and Stone took mushrooms when making Natural Born Killers - and was nearly arrested in the process. In 2005, Stone was arrested for possessing an "undisclosed" drug. Suffice to say, Oliver Stone's latest film is about drug-dealers and the industry itself - but unfortunately, its more interesting reading about Stone's own exploits than watching the flawed Savages.
Narrated by "O" (aka, 'Ophelia' played by Blake Lively), she recounts a tale whereby a group of mexican drug-lords, including Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and led by Elena (Salma Hayek), kidnap her in order to successfully destroy "good" drug-dealers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). In terms of establishing the 'good' and 'bad' characters - the good characters are clearly Ben and Chon whose vices seem to be that they are either too soft-hearted (Ben) or exceptionally - in a military sense of the word - aggressive (Chon). Indeed, 'O' tells us that Chon, when making love, is trying to literally "fu*k" the war out of his system - culminating in a "wargasm". Ben, on the other hand, is a drug-dealer in California for one half of the year and educating African children the other half of the year. How these two even became friends is beyond me - but we need to accept their friendship and also need to accept their three-way relationship with 'O' as she loves both men, and both men are happy to share her. Stone portrays this by showing respective sex-scenes within the first 15 minutes of the film. And another three-way sex-scene on the night before 'O' is kidnapped.
Too Self-Aware?
Crucially, 'O' tells us at the start of the film that just because she is narrating "doesn't mean I'm alive" by the end of the film. She clarifies these things from time-to-time as if we don't know the nature of a narrative. We've all seen American Beauty and Taxi Driver - and know the innovative use of a narrative in The Lovely Bones and Atonement. But she clarifies and breaks down the fourth-wall anyway.
Oliver Stone's clear political-stance toward the neccessary legalisation of drugs is shoe-horned into the story. In clunky-monologues, 'O' compares drug-dealing to corporations such as Microsoft and Apple. I can see how capitalism - and the 'business' of drugs - is a major issue, but I think the anti-drugs political argument is a little bit more complex. It seems that Stone argues that drugs should be legalised for the sake of peoples health and safety with regards to the violent methods criminal-gangs use to take ownership of drug-dealing groups . No characters are seen to use drugs in a harmful manner - they might as well be love-hearts and chocolate's. Within the world of Savages, people can use, take and deal drugs to the mass populace with ease and with little-to-no consequence, whilst relationships between three characters never result in jealousy, envy or frustration in any way. The only 'bad' thing that happens is due to the lack-of-sanity in Elena's henchman Lado - and the dominance in the market Elena seeks.
The Plus Points
Despite these recurring issues that fatally-wound the film as a whole, there are specific sequences that could have - and should have - been integral to the plot. In one sequence, Ben and Chon strike against Elena's men and steal their money. Ben - the soft-hearted, African-child teacher - freezes when confronted; Chon swings round, shoots the 'villain' in the head only for the blood to explode onto Ben's face. The acknowledgement of Ben's fear in this alien-scenario is thoroughly engaging, and depicts Aaron Johnson at his best. We see hints of Ben's fear as he sinks deeper into the underbelly of the profession. But it still rings untrue - how can an exceptionally successful drug-dealer be so out-of-his-depth? He knows what Chon is skilled at - morally, he must've thought about the nature of those actions. The Day of the Dead masks hark back to the iconic sequences in Heat, The Dark Knight and most recently, in The Town - and add a real sense of culture and skill to Chon's plan of action - but we've seen it before.
Oliver Stone - We Expect Better!
Oliver Stone is an exceptional filmmaker and, back in the 1980's and 1990's, he was one of the best. From writing Scarface, through to his direction of Platoon, Wall Street and JFK, it is hard to imagine that this is the same person. John Travolta manages to become a joke - a funny, well-acted joke, but a joke nevertheless. Whilst token-nods to Oliver-Stone-isms, simply seem forced; the drugs come from Afghanistan and are collected by the military; the capitalism of the drug-industry; the intercut-scenes and jarring editing-techniques. These are all things which we have seen before, to a greater effect, in Stone's other films. In Savages, they are cheap and unneccessary.
That is what truly summarises the film; Cheap and unneccesary. Despite an aspiration to be taken seriously, it's so hollow. We credit Shane Salerno with writing the script and, for me, it is unforgivable to include lines packed with so much emotion ("You don't change the world, the world changes you"), only for the line to be ignored seconds later. 'O's narration is jarring, uninteresting and completely lacks passion. Savages has this type of false emotion running throughout the entire film. Though we are expected to care, we don't relate to the characters in any way. Especially when the film ends - in my screening, there was an audible groan when the narrative takes an innovative turn. That's not what should happen if the audience is on your side; and with Savages, the audience is sat, arms crossed, frustrated at what has happened to the great Oliver Stone.
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Sunday, 16 September 2012

"Call it a Classic?" at the BFI

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 3rd September 2012, but just in case you missed it...

In terms of lists and the definition of a 'classic', this really is the year to discuss the issue. Indeed, the combination of Sight & Sound's 'Greatest Films of All-Time' poll and the 20th Anniversary of the BFI Film Classics series seemed time-enough to discuss the issue itself.
The BFI managed to gather multiple sources that best represented the issue including Edward Buscombe, an author himself (Writer of BFI Film Classic The Searchers)and former Head of Pubishing at the BFI; Laura Mulvey, a well-established author since the 1970's who has writtern the BFI Film Classic on Citizen Kane; Ben Walters author (alongside JM Tyree) of The Big Lebowski BFI Film Classic and James Bell, Features Editor at Sight & Sound and therefore heavily involved in the collection and publishing of the 2012 poll.
Francine Stock, presenter of BBC podcast 'The Film Programme' led the discussion by intially prompting a definition of the term 'Classic'. It seemed that the older members of the panel, Buscombe and Mulvey, were in agreement that longevity is key. The idea that a film, despite all the odds, manages to break free from the constraints of the context it was released within and remains a consistent favourite. Vertigo everlasting themes of obsession. Citizen Kane and its everlasting tale of captialism and isolation.
Ben Walters seemed to offer a slightly modern opinion on the issue, almost revealing (what I believe to be the case) that lists are null and void in the modern era. It's nice to have lists and discuss the outcomes of course - but crucially, but we all know it means very little. Whilst Buscombe and Mulvey chose to show a clip from The Searchers and Citizen Kane respectively, Walters chose The Big Lebowksi. I don't recall seeing the film anywhere on the lists - but the clip he chose was more relevant as 'The Dude' inspects the trophies and panels the 'big' Lebowski displays. Clearly a highlight towards the vanity that the lists, in and of themselves, offer. Indeed, when I read through the lists, I am looking at who chose what: Peter Bradshaw and Nick James chose In The Mood For Love? Mark Kermode chose Pan's Labyrinth? Maybe it is because of who writes the list which makes it so important.
Personally, I was interested in the views they held about the bias within the list. Sight & Sound managed to improve the range and number of voters. In 2002, Sight & Sound used 145 'Top 10' lists to create the previous list - this year, the number grew to 846 critics and academics from across the world. I believed that this would surely rock the foundations of the outcome - the more obscure films which were originally hidden from the vast majority would be squeezed out for the sake of modern and contemporary cinema, representing the new critics and academics that would surely shake the industry. It didn't dramatically change things and, in fact, if anything 'prove' how immovable films like Renoir's La Regle De Jeu, Ozu's Tokyo Story and Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.
I asked if there is a bias amongst critics - as if you have to separate the esteemed 'Classics' from the personal favourites - the 'guilty pleasures'. In answer to to my question, James Bell revealed that, when submitting his list, he 'threw in' a personal favourite - which I questioned further: doesn't that make the list redundant as critics will simply place on films that 'must' be there? Walters revealed that all his films were his personal favourites. Buscombe, inevitably perhaps, simply stated that maybe the films on the list are personal favourites.
An interesting point was made whereby it appears that the vast majority of films on the Top 100 are released in the 1950's and 1960's. Maybe there is a dominance of the older critics and academics noting their favourites - whilst the younger reviewers have become accustomed to always putting Citizen Kane in their 'top films' out of imitation and habit. James Bell explained that Sight & Sound seeked 1500 critics and reviewers from across the world - and only achieved the 846 polled. Maybe the other critics would've changed the outcome?
A great evening and a discussion worth having. What is clear is that these lists are important, and the term 'classic' is important. It creates discussion and analysis. It forces us to acknowledge the past and respect the filmmakers that established a new view and outlook for film as an art form. And I am glad that Alfred Hitchcock tops George Lucas, and that Orson Welles tops Spielberg - it simply wouldn't have the 'class' - or credability - the other way round.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

"Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it. Nobody except us"


As the BFI celebrate Alfred Hitchcock with many months of screenings including all his esteemed 'classics', I felt it was only right to revisit one of my personal favourites: Rope. Prior to 2008 I had seen very few films of his films and Rope was one of the earlier films I saw of his that left me feeling frustrated at the state of cinema today: Why aren't more films made in this manner? Why aren't characters as interesting? Why aren't stories and narrative techniques as innovative?

Through the purchase of widely available boxsets, I managed to watch many more of his finest films: Vertigo, Pyscho, Dial M For Murder, North by Northwest. Time and time again, the same feeling.

If you are at this point in my analysis, then clearly you must value the genius of Hitchcock and those who are frightened to venture back prior to 1977 should take a good look at themselves because, I tell thee, the reign of Hitchcock will never return and we should be glad that these are availabel to watch. No one has made films of a better, consistent, standard.

Two Guys Kill a Guy
Akin to Russian Ark, Rope attempts to show an entire feature-length film in one take. There are two definitive cuts (minor cuts on the grand scale of things) and eight semi-seamless cuts as the camera ducks behind an actors back, then the shadow changes ever-so sligthly, and the camera continues to move. Not perfect but this was 1948 and film reels could only show a certain amount of information. Roughly 10 minutes apparently.

The plot revolves around two students: Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Grainger). They decide to 'kill off' a fellow student David Kentley. Shockingly, we see this as the film begins - the opening shot showing Kentley's open mouth as the last gasp of air leaves his lungs. As soon as they have killed him they plan to hold a party with his family and loved ones assuming nobody could ever suspect them as the killers. When David's time of death is worked out, everyone will say "oh yeah, we were at Brandon and Phillips [30-minute] party so clearly they aren't the killers". This is delivered in impeccable English - the upper class never had it so good.

Unfortunately Brandon has a little darkness in him. His cat-like eyes and tone of voice are unsettling. He discusses with David Kentley's father how 'Murder is okay'. This playful approach is what Hitch enjoyed creating - murder and black-comedy, hand-in-hand.

Writer, Arthur Laurents, felt that David's death should not have been shown adding an extra layer of tension as the audience would question whether they killed him or not. I have a funny feeling that on the first watch without the audience seeing his death, it just seemed too clear. Brandon is clearly psychotic, whilst Phillip is clearly cracking under pressure. The tension is if these too well-educated young men will 'get away' with the crime. A feature of many Hitchcock films - will the Strangers on a Train plan work? Will the Dial M For Murder plan succeed? Hitchcock always explores the fascinating possibilitiy of the 'perfect' murder.

The Theatre and it's Influence

One thing that I find fascinating about British films of the 40's is how they are clearly influence by the theatre - and Rope is no exception. Hitchcock wanted us to watch it as we would watch a play, whereby it is uninterrupted and, akin to The Mousetrap, has an unexpected finale. Dial M for Murder, based on a play too, used 3D to create a more 'theatrical' experience. In Dial M For Murder  the 3D was used so that you would often look up to the characters, as if they stand on a stage. I think the only film I can recall, based on a play and recently released, is Polanski's Carnage - a film I greatly enjoyed as it really harked back to the theatrical experience, basing the whole film within an apartment. With regards to 3D, its comforting to know the Dial M For Murder has gained it's re-release in 3D already, with screenings in the BFI.

Guest of the Party

Jimmy Stewart portrays 'Rupert Cadell'. He is a lecturer who Brandon and Phillip adore. He has discussed with them the Nietzsche 'Superman' attitude and the 'Survival of the intelligent' (that the intelligent should prosper, weeding out the 'less-useful' humans of the world). To Rupert, it is merely conversation. Unknown to Cadell, like Nazi's, Brandon and Phillip twists it out of context completely and decide to try and kill off, who they believe, is one of the 'weaker' members of society.

Until Rupert arrives, the film is mildly entertaining, but you are full engaged to the film once he walks on set. His entire persona, attitude and conduct surpasses every other character. Not only is it Jimmy Stewart prescence, but the character is aspirational - he is intelligent, funny and clearly enjoyable company. He treats everyone equally - including the maid, whom Phillip seems to dismiss very quickly - which is strange considering how Brandon believes that Cadell may even support their plan.

Homosexual Undertones

The most socio-political factor to finish surround the relationship between Brandon and Phillip. Like Rebel Without A Cause, this film is 'clearly' about the homosexual relationship between the two lead characters. Even though it is briefly mentioned that Brandon dated Janet (before Kenneth, before David...), it is clear this simply keeps the censors off their back. Janet could be a friend, or she could be Kenneth and David's ex-girlfriend. Her past with Brandon does not alter the plot in the slightest. Writer Arthure Laurents seems to indicate that not only are Phillip and Brandon in a relationship, but Jimmy Stewart's 'Rupert Cadell' is gay too and was probably in a relationship with one of the murderers. This homosexual context is also another connection to the historic Loeb-Leopold case, whereby the two men were in a relationship themselves, before murdering a 14 year old boy. Other similarities between Rope and this case include how the two were wealthy Chicago law students. The two were motivated by a "desire to commit the perfect crime".

The techinical skill behind managing the camera is fascinating to see whilst Stewart's performance is throughly engaging. John Dalls arrogance and Farley Graingers 'I-can't-hold-a-glass-without-breaking-it' attitude may be a little cliche, but the uniqueness of the film still stands and if you are new to 'Classic Cinema', I can only beg you to watch this film. Once you watch one Hitchcock, you'll be desperate for more...

Originally written on 16th May 2009, but significant changes have been made for this article

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Double-Weekly Review

A weekly round-up of what I have been watching, listening to and discussing. Rather than just posts about film, this is a bit more all-encompassing as I think my interest in cinema and art crosses over and between a variety of sources...
Back to school this week and excited about the year ahead - it truly will be a good one. So good, I chose not to post last week and we have a double-whammy this week instead.
Highlight of the Week
Sarah has been obsessed with the Paralympics. Suffice to say it has completely stalled my watching of The Simpsons. But it has started me watching The Last Leg, a truly ground-breaking paralympic comedy-coverage programme shown after the Paralympics has finished. The presenters: Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and another-guy-who-isn't-even-credited-on-the-Channel-Four-website (???) simply break down every non-diasabled persons fear. You watch and initially think, ouch - a Paralympic show called 'The Last Leg', that's a bit much. Think about it further and you realise that this is the point of the show. Truly brilliant coverage with presenters I hope we see more of following this epic few months of sport. And I downloaded the Public Enemy song - have that BBC.
Battle Royale - I haven't seen this in years and it surpasses The Hunger Games in so many ways. The biggest difference is how Battle Royale plays with the teenage-cliches and uses this to justify murderous or suicidal acts. Brilliant film.
Slacker - Richard Linklater's feature debut. A film which, as it was made 3-years prior to Pulp Fiction, has chopped Tarantino a little down to size. Tarantino must've seen Slacker as it toured the country at the same time as Reservoir Dogs... I'll bet he thought "How about my story trails off with different characters...". Linklater, you have gone up in my estimations.
Rebel Without A Cause - For the Classic Columb. Brilliant film.
Sex, Lies and Videotape - Soderbergh's breakout film. I'd love to write more about it as it is clear that this is very much about directly engaging the audience. The discussions force you to consider the same thoughts and ideas about honesty and truth.
Say Anything... - Cameron Crowe's directorial debut. Hey, it's good. But it's not that good. Out of Soderbergh, Linkater and Crowe's first films, I think Crowe's is the weakest. That's not to say it's bad, it's just to say that the otehr two are better.
The Outsiders - A brilliant Coppola film with an outstanding cast (Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez...). Terrific.
The Imposter - I thought this could've been one of the best film of the year. It still could be pretty high on the list, because it stays in your mind. But I wasn't blown away and I think the ending just doesn't have much of a pay-off.
The Lost Weekend - The Classic Columb from the week prior. Billy Wilder, again, manages to show a very immoral guy in a very sympathetic light.
The 40-Year Old Virgin - Brilliant Judd Apatow. I'm trying to watch more of this current-comedian filmmaker, and this film is much better than the title suggests. No relentless mockery of the lead character, simply a touching portrayal of a guy who has never opened up to anyone - and suddenly opening up to guys who have their own issues, but can crucially help him.
Das Schlob/The Castle - A Haneke film which I failed to truly grasp. Made for TV and starring Ulrich Mühe (of The Lives of Others), it plodded along and ended abruptly. Obviously, all of this was purposeful, but it doesn't make for good entertainment.
Hot Chip - Bought the latest album and it is incredible. Ensures that I run at a decent speed on the treadmill too.
Now Playing... - Now covering the James Bond series, it truly is a great listen. Some very minor issues often become major problems (E.g. Unneccessary scenes in Goldfinger) but this is balanced by brilliant contextual discussion (E.g. The role Connery plays in Marnie and Goldfinger, and his 'conversion' of women). 
TV/Theatre/Art Galleries/Books/Misc:
Community: Desperate to watch more than one a week. Why can't itunes just release everything. Now.
'Call It A Classic?' at BFI: Covered for Flickering Myth. I may release it on this site in the coming months. But it was a great night which nay-sayers of the Top 10 poll should've attended.
Tate Britain: Another London: Black-and-white photography of London from the early 20th century and through to the 70's. I love the depiction of different ethnicities joining London - and the horrendous racism that they had to endure at the time. One piece named 'Keep Britain White' by Neil Kenlock was particularly striking.
Groundhog Day by Ryan Gilbey: A BFI Modern Classic on Harold Ramis' film. A minute-by-minute analysis of the film which truly argues how important the film is. Everything from the almost-art-house ambiguity of the chronology (how long is Phil in Punxsutawney for?) to the playfulness and accessibility of the film (starting the film off like any other) is all addressed.
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Thursday, 6 September 2012

Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

"You're tearing me apart!"
Every family has 'issues'. I don't think anyone could argue that their family is perfect and, even if they did, a perfect family is so rare it is strange in and of itself. James Dean plays Jim, an older-teenager who is being 'torn apart' by the failings of his parents. The death of James Dean places this film within a trio of established 50's films which he starred in, including East of Eden and Giant. His role within East of Eden is similar to the role of Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause as Dean plays a misunderstood outcast in both. But the actors alongside Dean in this film, supported by Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, is what puts this film on a pedestal.
Sins of the Father
The frustration of a teenager is difficult to capture. Indeed, how do you capture the conflicting attitudes of parents? How do you portray the change in relationships as you change from a child to become an adult? All these factors come to play here, but this is a tragic tale of the outsider - and the way others can treat the people, the teenagers, they don't understand. Values change and parents are generations detached from their children. Jim Stark (James Dean) is constantly moved between towns as his domineering mother (Ann Doran) and reluctant father (Jim Backus) try and find a place where Jim will make friends. This is revealed a short-way into the film after a sequence that finds Jim drunk on the streets and picked up by the police.
His frustration is clear and we can see his parents failing to understand the issues their child is tackling. Within the same police station, Judy (Natalie Wood) has ran away from home, albeit briefly, after an argument with her father. Plato (Sal Mineo) has killed small puppies - and won't explain why. The three are linked in their 'outsider' role in society
Fitting In
The first act is primarily Jim attempting to fit in. He attends 'Dawson High School' and is soon bullied by a group led by knife-weilder, Buzz (Corey Allen). The sequence culminates in the death of Buzz as he fails at a game of 'Chicken'. This horrendous moment is shortly followed by the connection between Plato, Judy and Jim becoming firmly established - they had only met in passing at the police station; this event brings all three together.
The death of Buzz signifies a change between all three characters as Jim and Judy begin a relationship, whilst Plato looks on in vain. Many sequences place Plato and Jim exceptionally close to each other and sequences play almost as it would in a romance.
Roger Ebert states in his own analysis:
"After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully"
Plato is portrayed as a boy without a family (or a family who disown their 'unconventional' son?) and a brought up by an African-American maid (Marietta Canty) further highlights his outsider status - and how the maid, perhaps, relates to an injustice in his treatment. Indeed, it is this maid who is the final clear, profile shot before the camera pans back.
There is clearly a mixed, unclear message as Plato is obviously not revealed or considered to be gay - but it is the acceptance and love shown from Jim and Judy that reveal his acceptance in his friendship group, despite his clear affection for Jim.
The Real Rebel
Many men have claimed that they had intimate relations with James Dean, and it is rumoured that Nicholas Ray was bisexual despite multiple marriages - so this subtext is striking at a very personal issue that perhaps Dean and Ray related to. Simply by making this film they were making a point - and now it will be forever heard in the hallowed halls of classic 50's cinema.
A great film that represents the middle-class teenagers in a way that, prior to this film, had rarely been seen. The mothers and fathers whose treatment of their children was ignored for the sake of their own pride. Jim constantly questions his fathers masculinity, whilst Judy's father is finding it difficult to contain his attraction to his own daughter - these are strange situations that we are led to believe are regular and normal.
These teenagers in the mid-fifties clearly were facing a change - the sixties had not begun, yet these teenagers would be the adults who would change the face of history forever.
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