REBEL OUT OF HIS TIME: THINKING OF JAMES DEAN IN OUR MODERNWORLD:
Garishly neon-red jacket, slicked-back hair, trapezoid jawline against all-consuming
night sky: this image of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) has reached a ridiculous
level of symbolic weight. Jim, as rendered through Dean’s frenetic yet rawly slack-jawed
performance, has been basically rendered as the original prototype of teenage angst, and
with his archetypal daddy-issue, masculinity-complex origin story, it’s relatively easy to see
why he is considered the quintessential bad boy of the 1950s. Besides the pure narrative
warrants, of course, Dean’s headlining status as an early member of the ’27 Club’ probably
also doesn’t hurt; America’s classic pop-culture morbidity works in mysterious ways, after all,
and I don’t doubt it’s attraction to this strange, meta-level rebellion.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally watched the film and found out that, uh,
well, it really isn’t that... good? I mean, okay, sure, that red jacket is fantastic, if a little hard
to look at sometimes, and James Dean certainly knows how to blue steel the camera, but his
aimless, nervous energy is trapped in a dim world of stilted plot lines and caricatured adults.
The story feels warped and distorted by its generational conflict, not truly at home in any
one age group’s perspective - like an adult’s rendering of a child playing house, all dimly
filtered through some strange approximation of adolescent emotionality. At the center of it
all is Jim, who, for such a character-driven piece, is shockingly impenetrable and off-putting.
Blame part of it on Dean’s obstinate refusal to follow a script - yet another strange,
meta layer - but blame the other part, too, on the odd framework that he has to lay his ill-
fitting performance on top of. Though the film may assert that Jim is “without a cause,” it
goes to considerable pains to demonstrate all the plain psychological motivators behind his
actions (this title is our third meta-level oddity, by the way, for those of you keeping score at
home). Chief among these is the perceived emasculation of Jim’s father, enforced by his
supposedly stone-cold bitch of a mother, as Jim laments that “If he [my father] had the guts
to knock Mom cold once, then maybe he’d be happy and she’d stop picking on him. Because
they make mush out of him! You know, just mush!” Neither of these characterizations are
really evident: his mother only has about 10 lines in the whole thing, most of which really
aren’t that unpleasant, while his father is shown, at most, wearing an apron (the scandal!),
dropping the breakfast he made his wife, and not wanting her to see the mess he’s made.
Certainly there could be some power imbalance there, sure, but is it exactly equal to Jim’s
famously soul-rending claim that he’s being torn apart? Is that really the appropriate
magnitude, and, more importantly, is the proper reaction a call to violence?
Violence, after all, is a tricky thing. It can be an understandable impulse in so many
places, and yet you always have to be wary of the instances where it becomes more than just
an impulse and transforms into active encouragement. The scene in the therapist’s office, for
example, where he says Jim should try hitting the desk and Jim subsequently just goes
apeshit, is both understandable - don’t you just want to go apeshit sometimes? - and smells a
tad too strongly, for me, of today’s ego-driven white boys punching holes in drywall just for
the hell of it.
Which is an interesting connection, actually, that I couldn’t stop making. In addition
to the general strangeness of the film - the stark color palettes and play-acting performances
and disproportionate emotional reactions - the actual rebellion here feels now out of place,
out of time. This patron saint of the bad-boy mentality, this symbolic ’prototype,’ does he
really still hold up? I’d argue that our vision of teenage angst has changed with our society,
shifted to include a grander scope of difficulties and emotions. What would Rebel Without a
Cause actually look like in our modern day world?
And you know what, this is where it gets a little bit ridiculous, even for me. So bear
with me, because I know this isn’t exactly an air-tight experiment (there’s a reason I deal in
film and not biology), but in a way that version of Rebel already exists. And it’s called The
Room (2003), and the simple act of typing it out like that has made me forfeit what tiny bit
of dignity I still had left. Damn.
Of course there are so, so many things that make The Room the strange, obsessive cult
classic that it is. I’d argue, however, that no small amount of its strangeness comes from the
egomania of Wiseau’s own character, funneled into his evident desire to imitate James Dean,
from the infamous rip-off of the ‘tearing me apart’ line to his obsession with calling people
‘chicken.’ If you look closely, and trust me, I have, you’ll find just how much of Wiseau’s
created identity originates from James Dean. His air of forced relaxation imitates James
Dean’s own awkward on-screen existence; his attempts at casual turns of speech; his nasal
shouts are Dean’s own yelps and siren yells; even his merchandise sells in primary colors,
mostly black, white, and that good ol’ James Dean neon red. This egomania threads itself
into The Room itself, where Wiseau predictably casts himself as the misunderstood
American, accompanied by the strangely teenage Plato look-alike (Denny) and the alluring
imitation-Judy femme fatale (Lisa) (emphasis on the ‘fatale,’ by the way).
He’s taken what he sees in Dean’s mentality and attempted to transpose it into the
modern world, and boy, is it ugly. Jim’s offense to his mother becomes, through Wiseau’s
rendition, full-blown hatred, his desperation to be seen as masculine becomes callous and
crude, and through it all, the question the enraptured audience keeps asking is How could this
get made?, which essentially splits into 2 sub-questions: 1. How can this film be so insanely self-
agrandizing? and 2. How did this film, being so unimaginably deranged, ever receive enough support
fom other creators to ultimately get made? In short, it’s about the ego, the obvious self-flattery in
trying to place this mildly hurt bad-boy type into our world. We no longer sympathize with
the bruised white male, and his self-imposed difficulties with the world around him; instead,
we laugh at him.
And though I can’t emphasize enough how imperfect of a data set this evolution
gives us, I think it carries a semblance of the truth at least, and that’s all we artists can ever
hope for, really (we’re not scientists, after all). Transpose James Dean into our modern world,
and you get an uncomfortably aged, out-of-time, sickly Tommy Wiseau throwing a temper
tantrum on screen while doing unspeakable things to a certain red dress (poetic, isn’t it?).
Even without the image of Wiseau, think about it: without the comfort of 1950s patriarchy,
the whole emasculation narrative starts to crumble, and all of Dean’s little quirks start
gaining elements of the grotesque. He just becomes a white boy, overreacting to mild
injustices, moping around on screen because of some strange, perceived threat. A very
attractive white boy to be sure, but still one who, I feel, no longer represents the teenage
discomfort of our time.