Monday, November 28, 2011

James Dean vs Charles Darwin: Rebel Without a Cause

When we think of the 1950s, the film we think of is Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause. From start to finish, the entire film convincingly portrays for us our own world, and it does that with a standard device in great films: the psychoanalytic double. Jim Stark (James Dean) has two parts of him in the film which illustrate for the audience how severe his inner conflict is and how, by the end of the film, both these characters are resolved so we know how great his victory is. I have a tendency to make long posts, and this will be no exception even though I will only be discussing the highlights of the film, not a scene by scene analysis. But the film makes it clear that this victory isn't possible without another victory: the Resurrection of Christ.
From dialogue that takes place in the opening scene at the police station, we know it's Easter (in 1955, Easter fell on April 10th of that year) and it's Plato's birthday (Sal Mineo). Easter, of course, is the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, his victory over death, and ultimately, I would like to posit, it's Jim Stark's victory over temptations to death that he overcomes because of his grounding in Christianity. Obviously, Jim Stark isn't advancing Christianity in the film, but Rebel Without a Cause could not exist without it.
That's a fairly bold statement, but two of the most important events in the film take place at the planetarium, where the senior field trip goes for the lecture on the birth and death of the universe, so in a sense, we can look at the planetarium as symbolizing the opposite of Christianity. The first event taking place is Jim's run-in with Buzz (Corey Allan) and his gang, the knife fight leading to the chickie race later in the film; the second event is the death of Plato, shot to death, accidentally, by the cops outside. It's at the planetarium, in other words, that we see Jim's deepest conflicts: Plato is one psychoanalytic double and Buzz the other, the two illustrating Jim's insecurities and vulnerabilities in Plato and his strength and leadership in Buzz, but also his immaturity and willingness to fight when he doesn't have to.
Easter night, with the toy monkey amidst trash. Originally, the film was set to be filmed in black and white, hence all the b & w images; when producers realized the esteem and reputation James Dean was gaining from his great success in East of Eden, for which he received his Academy Award nomination, they decided to switch Rebel Without a Cause to color. According to sources, Dean improvised this opening scene with the toy monkey. Behind Jim's left elbow are crushed Easter lilies and the trashed newspaper at his right. Through the opening credits, he takes the trash and "makes a pillow" for the monkey and covers him up, then acts like he's ready to go to sleep. The laying the monkey "down to rest" is the death of the monkey, the death of Darwinism, and the newspaper symbolizes the media and scholarly publications, no better than trash, under which the monkey will be buried. As Christ is Resurrected, Darwinism dies, but the Easter lilies are still crushed, so this is not a total victory for Christianity, until the end of the film. The flowers are Judy, and we know this because, on the blue compact which Jim takes from the police station and gives back to her later, there are flowers on it.
It's the opening credits that tell us everything we need to know about the film: Stark, drunk and lying on the sidewalk on Easter, plays with a toy monkey and a piece of trash. Like the great Sunset Boulevard released 5 years earlier than Rebel Without a Cause, a monkey in the early stages of both films references the prevalent theory of Darwinism and evolution from apes. That both films incorporate this idea suggests, clearly, that they both blame the societal ills they explore on what evolution has done to society and people, specifically, that people are human beings, not apes, or objects, but the children of God, and we are supposed to be treated that way and we are to treat others that way. If we are animals, then we can't expect to be treated differently than animals, and we have no reason nor obligation to treat others any better than animals.
Jim Backus, best known for voicing Mr. Magoo and playing Thurston Howell III for 99 episodes of Gilligan's Island,  has an important role in the film, just as Judy's father does and Plato's absent father: as Christ called out to his father in the darkness of his Crucifixion, so the teenagers call out to their fathers; since none of the three fathers answer, replying to their children, it questions, who is their father? Is it the Founding Fathers of the country, God the Father or Darwin the father of evolution? No one in the film seems to be willing to really prove their love, except Jim.
There is a more telling reference to the consequences of evolution in Rebel Without a Cause: in the police station, Judy (Natalie Wood) leaves behind a compact mirror and Jim picks it up; he gives it back to her after the chickie race when Buzz has died and Jim says, "Want to see a monkey?" The mirror, of course, is the symbol of self-reflection and, since Buzz--her boyfriend up to that point--has died, Jim invites her to look within herself and ask, "When you look in the mirror, do you want to see a monkey or do you want to see something else?" and, by the events of the rest of the film, both Jim and Judy want to see something other than a monkey when they look in the mirror.
When the audience meets all three of the leading teenagers in the film, it's at the police station, Easter night; they have been abandoned by their families.  Judy insists that her father come and pick her up at the station, and is upset her mother comes instead; why? She wants her father to hear her crying for his help because, if she's just an animal, he won't come and help her, but if she is a human, his own flesh and blood, he will see her trouble and with love for her, come to her aid: this is a test for him, and he fails. As this goes on, in the background, Jim, drunk, starts wailing like a police siren, and we should take this literally: a siren, like at the end of the film when Plato goes crazy, is a call for help and the sound of an emergency; all three of the teenagers are in a "state of emergency," but just as the officer tells Jim, "That's enough static out of you," so Judy's father and Plato's mother think they are just causing static as well, unable to recognize the genuine crying out of their children for their parents' help and love.
Yet this is a trick question: monkey's can't reflect, meditate, so if she does reflect on what has happened that night, that proves she's not a monkey; Jim's parents, on the other hand, choosing not to reflect on the things that happen points to them being monkeys and using that as an excuse for never facing up to anything; by not accepting their free will and the responsibility that comes with it, they abandon the most human characteristics they have. Likewise, this is a "catch 22" because if they do reflect they must realize that they have to use their free will to exercise responsibility because you can't be a free person without free will, and they don't want that much responsibility.
Note that Jim sits in a shoe shine chair, for polishing up shoes. Symbolically, the feet represent the will, because it's our will that "takes us or carries us" through life; that Jim is, literally, in a position to have his "will shined up," means that this is a moment of potential conversion for him. Note that Judy wears a red coat; symbolically, this means she's "clothed in love," and we should take her statements and even her hysteria, as to be cloaked in love, for her father and for herself, she knows that she needs her father even as her father denies that she needs him. Note, please, that its the pane of glass/pain of reflection separating Plato (as Jim's double) and Judy but its also this very condition that will pull them together later. Just as Plato's mother is absent and his father his absent, even while Jim's parents come to the station, they are "absent" from what is really taking place, in their lives and their son's.
As Jim sits in the police station, the officer he talks to asks Jim, "Things pretty rough at home?" and he replies, "It's a zoo, . . . she eats him alive and he takes it." The reference to the zoo clearly tells us that it's the animal appetites and passions of the family which dominates them, not love for each other, and this is the fault of the monkey at the beginning, rather, what he symbolizes. Who should we be "eating alive?" Christ himself, the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, but when we fail to eat Christ, and obtain the life in us he promised for those who eat his flesh, we eat others (just like vampires).
This is one of many fantastic shots in the film. Still at the shoe-shining chair, Jim stands, and his "standing up to" his parents translates to him literally looking down on them from his moral heights. Why? Look at his mom, wrapped in her fur and her Eater corsage pinned on: she's so wrapped up in her appetites (approval, power over her husband, material comfort, a life without any problems or crosses to bear) that she can't be strong because her appetites are weakening her (arms are always symbolic of a person's strength, so that the fur is wrapped around her arms effectively "binds her arms" and hence, her strength). Note, also, please, that the wooden beams on the ceiling form a cross with the light in the center (this is Easter night, so yes, this is an appropriate reading) and Jim is literally closer to the "truth," the light of the Resurrection and the Cross, than his parents and Jim can see things in the light (light symbolizes truth).
There was a scene at Jim's new high school that always puzzled me: why do all the students walk around the school's insignia on the ground, and Jim gets reprimanded when he does? It seems very backwards, because it is. While they avoid stepping on the insignia they walk all over each other, and this lack of respect for what truly deserves respect (other humans) illustrates our perverse values, morals and priorities, and Rebel Without a Cause illustrates what happens when we forget about Easter.
Jim's famous line, "You're tearing me apart!" (#97 on most famous movie lines of all time list) is an indictment against society. While they are talking about drinking, this is really about what we, as a society are taking in as our beliefs: who is it that tells us one thing and then switches it around? The press, the media, our family, our friends, our co-workers, in a word, everyone in society, because, like Jim's father, we fail to "stand up" and do what is right. This is an accurate understanding of the scene because Jim "drinks up" the water that the officer gives him. Water is an essential part of life, and it is sacramental (meaning that Jim receives grace that he needs). If he didn't drink the water, we wouldn't have any hope for Jim, but because he's found a "fountain of life," he'll come back to it when he needs it.
It's the lecture being presented to the students at the planetarium which gives us the biggest clue to our understanding of what these delinquents are going through: abandonment. The film tells the students that they and the earth will "disappear" into the darkness from which we came, that we came "from darkness in a burst of gas and fire," and "the problems of man seem little and trivial" so, if this is what the kids are being taught in school, no wonder they do things like have chickie races because their whole purpose in life--to attain heaven--has been taken away from them. Jim does something really important in this scene: he makes the sound of a bull. This animal call equates him with an animal, and, in this moment, when Judy is with her boyfriend and Jim wants her to be with him instead, his animal instincts are no doubt trying to take over him, just as the lecture tells him that he came from darkness and will return to darkness, and this is important, because, towards the end of the film, he will defy this. But right now, he's about to learn what acting like an animal takes him. . .
In the planetarium auditorium listening to the lecture.
When he goes outside, he finds "the kids" waiting for him at his car and he doesn't quite know what to do. Intentionally provoking him into doing something he will regret, Judy tries to outdo the others in making Jim uncomfortable and putting him "in his place." As Judy looks at herself in a mirror, she touches her mouth and she's sad, she knows she's "being ugly," and that's because, looking into the mirror, she's reflecting on how she's behaving. Judy in and of herself doesn't have enough courage to stand up and be strong, resist making fun of someone but she does recognize that she doesn't enjoy doing it.
When Plato is taken into the police station, it's for shooting puppies with the gun in his mother's drawer, in her bedroom. This is an interesting connection to Jim's mom, because Mrs. Stark is always "shooting her mouth off" and taking down her husband, Mr. Stark. Why puppies? It symbolizes the fragility of childhood, and seeing how someone killing puppies with a gun is violent helps us to paint a picture of what it does to children to see their parents fighting and mothers disrespecting their fathers, it "tears them apart." Why doesn't Mrs. Stark respect Mr. Stark? The "stark truth" is, Mr. Stark doesn't respect God the Father (he goes to a "drunken brawl" on Easter night instead of spending it with his family reading Scripture or some other worthy activity of Easter). The greater a mans respect for God, the more he loves God, and will know how to love his wife so she, in turn, will respect him. If the father doesn't love God, the whole family is sunk.
When they flatten his tire, (it's another invoking of Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis drives down Sunset Blvd and gets a flat and has to pull into Norma's garage to hide) it's more than just a mean, childish act: it's a spiritual act. The car, as a vehicle, symbolizes the Holy Spirit, our vehicle that "gets us through life, and takes us where we need to go," so flattening his tire flattens his spirit and his Spirit; part of what's responsible is the lecture, flattening his spirit that his problems are trivial and meaningless and he's going back to the darkness from which he came and no one cares about him.
Judy leaning up against Jim's car at the planetarium as she and the kids taunt him. The colors she wears this day are quite telling from what she wore at the station, the red coat. Today, she wears the green sweater, which, like the face of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz means she's rotting, validated by the black shirt underneath (black symbolizes death). The orange scarf around her neck is both a sign of hope and a possible curse. The neck symbolizes how we can be lead, so the scarf is like a leash and collar in this scene; orange is the color of life because it's vibrant, so, in looking for life, she's going to be led by what she thinks will life is supposed to be. That's why she's making fun of Jim in this scene, she thinks going along with the kids is what life is about, yet, after Buzz's death, she realizes what she really wants, love.
The other part of what's flattening him is that the other kids believe what the lecture told them, too, and they are going to act in accordance with it. The knife fight is the exact same thing you would see between two apes in the jungle. This links well with Glenn Ford's hit The Blackboard Jungle which had been released earlier that year and was an additional factor in producers of Rebel Without a Cause wanting to go with color, to help distinguish it from Ford's film.
All the kids sitting on the car gives new meaning to "peer pressure." If the car symbolizes the Holy Spirit, then the combined weight of all of them on the car is literally crushing the Spirit in Jim with the pressure of what they want him to do and the spectacle they want to watch. In this scene, there is a telescope in the shot when they fight each other, symbolizing that Jim sees "the far-reaching consequences" of what his actions will bring him to.
Not having a good role model, Jim has to literally fight his own battles, and his two enemies are Plato and Buzz (although it's not really clear right now that Plato is an enemy to Jim, but as he grows in confidence that Judy genuinely cares for him, the emotions and psychological wounds which Plato embodies will become a threat and it has to be overcome for him and Judy to succeed). So, where did Buzz come from? Buzz is the kind of guy Jim thinks Judy would like to date, what he thinks an alpha male would be like, and Buzz is the type of guy Judy thinks she would like to date, someone who is different and a leader. But as we see, and both Jim and Judy learn, Buzz isn't different and he isn't a leader. In creating these personas, these interior role models for himself, Jim is "tearing himself apart."The knife fight and the chickie run are two expressions of that.
I apologize that I couldn't get this great image in color, but the color of the clothes they wear tell us a great deal about exactly who is racing in these cars. Buzz wears a yellow shirt and a black jacket, meaning that, since he has failed to grasp his dignity as a human  (yellow is the color of gold and reminds us of our dignity as children of God) he's a coward for not thinking better of himself and other people. His black jacked, black being the color of death, re-enforces this. On the other hand, Jim wears a red jacket, and that's the color of love; his white t-shirt is the sign of faith so we, the informed audience, knowing the language of color, know which of the two contestants is destined to win the race.
After Buzz challenges Jim to a chickie run, Jim goes home and, above all things, he sees his father wearing a pink frilly apron, the ultimate symbol of the emasculated man of the early 1950s. What happened? This is really going to be discussed in-depth in January, but for right now, we can really only say that there was an unconscious sense of guilt by the American man, not because of World War II, but because it was the atomic bomb that won the war, not the men, and that trauma stained all their relations, as if they had lost the war (as I said, we will discuss this further in January). When Jim makes a big deal of his honor being at stake, and of the guys calling him "chicken" this is the problem, this is the wound that taunting hurts and it also refers, again, back to literally being an animal, a chicken on the table for dinner instead of a human being, a man.
Why do each of them want dirt? It's the same gesture, but different meanings. For Buzz, the dirt reminds him that he's only dirt, and this makes him brave in "steering" his life over the cliff, because, as dirt, he has nothing to lose. Jim asks for dirt because dirt is a sign of humility, he came from dirt as Adam did, but his soul is the very image of God himself and Jim wants to win because Jim values himself and because he values himself, he values Buzz more than Buzz values himself. Think about this: would Buzz have made such a big deal about Jim dying if the situation had been reversed? No, Jim is far more touched by Buzz's death because there is more inside Jim to be touched.
When Jim pulls up to compete in the chickie race, Buzz mentions that he likes Jim, but "he has to do something" to be accepted and get in the gang, it's not enough to just like someone. This offers one of the examples of basing society on the rules of Darwin and social evolution: we act like animals. The "need to prove" one's self is exhibited in the animal world and, in 1955, it was also exhibited in high schools. His name is Buzz because, just as Jim was making siren noises in the station at the beginning, and the officer told him to cut "the static," so "buzz-ing" is a form of static and that static of the lecture in the planetarium teaching kids to behave like animals.
One of the first great "race" which would come to dominate films for the net twenty years because nothing else so succinctly could communicate the dangers and risks of the Arms Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This is the fine line for a psychoanalytic double: the character is an extension of the main character, and the conflict within the main character is resolved by victory over the double, which usually means death; it's good that the issues which the double embodies dies, but this is making effective use of the character by then "re-investing" the character with new symbolism, such as the death of youth in America, racing towards self-destruction as in the film released two years earlier, Marlon Brando's The Wild One about rival motorcycle gangs.
I think he has a comb in his mouth; in keeping the hair straight, that reflects what kind of thoughts a character has, and his "combing his hair" is like keeping his thoughts "in order." In this shot, however, we know his arm is stuck on the handle and his hair shows it: messed up and disorderly, he's starting to lose his mind worrying about what will happen.
When they are ready to begin the race, Judy stands in-between the two of them, and, once again, this is quite literal: she is the reason they are having this race. Jim has to prove to Judy that Buzz, and guys like that, are not what she really wants, and that's not what he really wants to be. This is why Plato and Judy talk, it's his vulnerability--exhibited in Plato-that Judy is starting to become attracted to, not Buzz's dominant position in the school.
Buzz's jacket caught on the door.
Why does Jim keep trying his door before the race starts?
The cars themselves, as mentioned above, symbolizes the Spirit because the spirit is our vehicle through life, what takes us where we are supposed to go; these cars, being stolen, means they they are trying God, they are testing God's grace to help them survive. For example, when Christ was being tempted by Satan, Satan told Christ to cast himself to the rocks below and God would save him; Jesus rebuked him and said that man should not put God to the test, and that's what the "stolen" cars mean: they are stealing more grace for this moment in their lives than God has allotted by intentionally putting themselves in the path of artificial death (before their natural time).
Jim realizes this, that's why he's not wanting to stay in the driver's seat, that's God's place, so he checks the handle and tries getting out of the car. Buzz, on the other hand, in trying to keep himself cool (and I don't mean a persona or a social mask, rather, trying not to think about what they are actually doing and that he could actually die) because he doesn't understand the situation, and that's why he dies: Buzz's jacket gets caught on the handle because Buzz doesn't have a "handle" on what's going on and what he's doing.
Remember, they are on a stairwell, that means Jim has to decide between a higher and lower state of being, a higher plane of thought or a lower one, and his parents have him pinned in. His father doesn't want him to "sink" to being like other kids, so he's blocking the bottom of the stairs, but his mother doesn't want him "to think too much" about what has happened so she's blocking the higher plane of thought. His mother is literally wearing her nigh clothes, the cloak of the night in suffering so that symbolizes that they are not prepared to handle what is happening, they are never prepared.
When Jim returns home and talks to his parents about going to the police, they have valid arguments, if you are not a Christian. "A boy died tonight," Jim tells his parents, and what does he mean by that? All kids in his generation have died that night because some "parents" have mis-prioritized life itself (the boy's death) and their quality of life (no one knowing that Jim was involved); Jim's parents fail to uphold life, putting their own needs first (yes, this is the beginning of what would make the abortion culture possible). In not going to the police, Jim would insure that it would happen again because no one could put a stop to it.
Why does Jim react so violently to his parents?
It's like Judy in the police station, them not caring about Buzz dying means that they really don't care about Jim dying, either. Life is an absolute value, and to ignore one wrong death means that you will ignore any death. For his parents to not care begins the depersonalization process, the consequences which we are living with today. When Jim takes his father and throws him back in the chair and they fall backwards, that's a powerful scene suggesting the Crucifixion, that Jim is putting his father on the Cross (the chair falling backwards). His mother yells, "Do you want to kill your father?" but the question is, is Mr. Stark really his father? What does he do that's fatherly? Or he is more like a pal, a chum? Jim realizes that he needs more than just what his father can give him ("Every time you don't face yourself, you blame it on me!" Jim says) and part of his failure as a father is because of his failure as a human being. As Jim leaves and kicks the portrait of his mother, he's giving us an idea of the portrait of his mother that he has, someone with a "big hole" in them. That the portrait had to be turned gives us "a side we've never seen before," and Jim's going to make sure we see her as he sees her.
Before and after the chickie race, Jim drinks milk directly from the bottle, and there can be no mistake that this has the appearance of breast feeding, desperately meaning that Jim needs to receive nourishment in the form of love and help, guidance and acceptance. As Jim learns and comes to understand what it is that he needs, he also starts to learn what everyone needs and how to give it. As he lies on the couch, he turns himself upside-down and sees his mother coming down the stairs from his upside-down position: it's a moment of temptation to see things "as his mother sees them," upside-down from what he knows is the right way in life, but he successfully resists this temptation and that is what makes Jim Stark a real hero and role model.
The next part involves Judy and Plato.
As I said earlier, the part of Jim which Plato represents is the part which Judy is truly attracted to, however, this part of Jim also has insecure and dangerous tendencies. Why? How doe we know that? The "mansion" which Plato takes Jim and Judy to gives us our third Sunset Boulevard reference, because the property includes the swimming pool in which Joe Gillis swims and dies in Sunset Boulevard. Plato's soul (although he's just a double) is like that deserted, abandoned mansion: wrecked, and that's what Jim will become if Plato is allowed to dominate him. It needs so much work done to it that it can't be restored. Plato doesn't trust anyone, and that's a key to understanding Jim: he's afraid of trusting Judy, but as they get closer, he trusts her more, and so, in Jim's own way, he has to try and overcome Plato within himself.
The great sign of hope they have when they are in the mansion is they use candles.
Candles indicate illumination, and specifically, "natural illumination," so that's a sign that the light of hope is breaking through the inner darkness. Plato's unsuitableness as a part of Jim can best be summed up in his socks: the feet symbolize the will (remember Jim in the shoe-shine chair at the police station) and one one foot Plato has a blue sock and on the other he has a red sock. The blue symbolizes wisdom and the red love, except in Plato's case, his will is not guided by love or wisdom, rather depression (his misery) and red his anger (even his lust, there are reliable notes and scenes that suggest Plato lusts for Jim, but not in a sexual way, but in a need that is compounded by frustration and disappointment). These are traits within Jim which cannot remain if he's going to have a future with Judy.
Plato gets upset because while he was sleeping, they left him and that is exactly what happens. That part of Jim was so quiet because he has become so comfortable with Judy that "Plato" can go to sleep and not be alert to what's happening. Plato waking up means it's Jim's inner psyche rebelling against him and trying to tell him that Judy will leave him and betray him like everyone else. When Plato runs off and "goes crazy," it's quite literal, he's gone crazy. Where does he run to? The planetarium.
Those doors add an interesting dimension to this scene: on one side is the law of biology, what the planetarium means and stands for and teaches; on the other side is the law meant to keep everyone from hurting others and themselves. Jim is literally caught in the middle because if we are the animals which science tells us we are, the law can't do anything to stop us from hurting each other and ourselves, it's innate as it is in nature and cannot be overcome. In Plato's death, being shot by the police as he comes out "into the open" and on the side of the law, Jim has been saved.
Whereas Jim was thrown into prison earlier, now Jim is acting the hero and helping the cops, bringing his own self in. As he tries to get Plato to calm down, Plato asks him, "When will the end of the world come, at night or at dawn?" (something like that) and Jim quickly replies, "At dawn." Although he doesn't give a reason, we know the reason: the Resurrection of Christ was at dawn, it was the end of the world of darkness and sin and the beginning of the world of Life and Grace and, when Plato has died, it's at dawn, a new dawn for Jim. Now we can understand why his name is Plato. His real name is John, but likes to go by Plato. Although Plato is often considered... an easily "baptized" pagan philosopher, because of the nature of his philosophy, the name "John" means favored by God or loved by God, and because he preferred the "pagan philosopher," he runs to the planetarium when he's in danger and "showing his true colors" (the mismatched socks) like Buzz's true color was his yellow shirt (coward). The philosopher Plato can not save Jim anymore than Darwin can save Jim, and Jim knows it.
When Jim introduces Judy to his parents, he calls her "his friend," and not girlfriend, and that's a very positive sign that he's not going to try and own her, but that they have a lasting and abiding foundation of trust upon which to build their companionship and their lives, he respects her dignity and humanity in a way Buzz never could have and her father never tried. Always trying to give Plato his jacket, Plato gets cold because there is no love in his life to keep him warm and because of the effects of the Cold War (there's more of that in the film, I just don't have time to go into it here) Jim can now permanently give Plato the jacket because (in the shot below) he's traded it in for the jacket of a man because he has stood up and passed the real tests of knowing from where life comes and where we are all going.
Lastly, we have to remember that Rebel Without a Cause opened October 27 and just five days later, on November 1, the United States was at war in Vietnam, a war against Communism that would last 20 years, until 1975. In this way, we can easily see Jim's parents not wanting him to "go to the police" as their plea against the "police actions" state of Americans' relations with the Communists in Northern Vietnam and Jim's desperation to "do the right thing" and save the South from the Communists; Don't get involved," Jim's mother told him, but Jim insists, "We are all involved!" and that must have had a important influence in the lives of Americans now at war. Films always exist within a cultural context, and Rebel Without a Cause might have been the prelude to a the United States' cause against the spread of Communism that, in 1955, looked as if poised to take over the world.