Thursday, 17 June 2010

Stranger In A Small (American) Town: Take Two

As promised, a few reposts will pop up as I prepare for examinations; this is an entry I did a few months back assessing two oldies in my top 100. I cleaned it up, and voila – the renewed essay, it's actually a bit different.
                       
When Rebel without a Cause premiered in 1955 it became a film symbolic of the troubled youths of its era. The film articulated the generation gap between the idealistic youths and their pragmatic parents focusing on James Dean’s Jimmy, an ill contented teenager, who moves with his parents, to a suburb in Los Angeles changing the town and the people there. In this way, Rebel without a Causebears striking similarities to another 1955 piece Picnic. Adapted from William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama of the same name, Picnic is less concerned with the zeitgeist emotions of Rebel without a Cause, instead focusing on how the protagonist, Hal’s, arrival in a small unnamed town precipitates actions of drama and melodrama. Yet, in its way of examining an outsider changing the society he meets Rebel without a Causeand Picnic exist as films existing similarly. Both mix realism with tinges of melodrama and both gauge the effects of the reluctant “hero” on those around him.
In many ways Rebel without a Cause is a perfect example of a film existing almost exclusively for the time in which it was made and yet managing to achieve mainstream popularity over the years. There was an unsubtle allegory to be found in James Dean’s appearance in Rebel without a Cause. Dean’s Jim was a potent deity for the youths of the fifties to revere. He was the sort of dubious hero that they were willing to idolise and emulate. Jim, after all, was the literal representation of what they felt like in society – strangers. Picnic, like Rebel without a Cause exists – completely – in its era too, but it never managed to become a hit after the fifties. Many would probably praise its ability to evoke the feeling of small-town sensibilities in the fifties, but modern audiences would probably be lost as to the relevance of it. Even though Rebel without a Cause is not necessarily a “futuristic” effort, Jim’s struggle to fit in is as relevant to contemporary teenagers as it would have been to those in the fifties. However, William Holden’s intrepid drifter’s dissonance as to whether or not he wants to exist in the peaceable small town – which is an almost stolid representative of the Eisenhower era – is not particularly modern.
It is very possible than in its attempt to examine more than just a singular plotline Picnic seems to be less personal than Rebel without a Cause. Even though Hal could be considered the protagonist, he is more of a de facto lead than a genuine one. In this way Picnic is less a story about a man and more a story about a tongue. Certainly, like Rebel without a Cause key characters are changed, oftentimes for the better, by their relations with the stranger. However, the characters in Picnic exist as creations of their own cinematic value and not just supporters to Holden’s Hal. Rosalind Russell’s Rosemary and Kim Novak’s Madge depend significantly on their reactions to Hal, but through the shades the women add to their roles we believe that they exist as independent characters in their own form. It seems different with Sal Mineo’s Plato and Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel without a Cause. The two cannot be accused of poor performances; they both earned deserved Oscar nominations for their performances. However Plato and Judy seem to exist primarily for the shades they add to Dean’s Jim. Thus, any character development that occurs does so only for its importance to our protagonist. It is possible that Picnic’s literary roots present the actors with more background on their characters, than the original screenplay of Rebel without a Cause.
Despite all the dramatic turmoil that ensues during the runtime, both films ends on a high note that could often be seen as far-fetched. Rebel without a Cause has thus far focused on the appalling generation gap existing between Jim and his parents and the film’s end is all together too coincidental. Despite, the “scare” his parents may have experience a connection derived from tragedy can hardly be more than tenuous. It is an unbelievable resolution that is altogether too glib to be regarded as realistic. It is the same in Picnic. It is almost ridiculous to think that after less than twenty-four hours of indolent flirting that Madge and Hal could enter into any significant romantic relationship. Picnic exacerbates the lack of realism by having another preposterous affiliation – the wedding of Rosemary and Howard. It is uncertain if William Inge’s original play was trying to be some revelatory analysis of the absurdity of American life in era. Whatever the play’s intent may have been the smoothness with which Joshua Logan treats the marriage and the romantic way in which he shapes the union of Madge and Hal only accentuates what could hardly be more than an ephemeral union.
When examining classics critics often ask whether a particular film has aged well. I do not think the problem with Picnic is that it has not aged well; it is just obviously a play and one that exists resolutely in its era. Perhaps, Picnic is one of those films that depend on the audience’s mindset. It is not necessarily one of formidable cinematic proficiency. Yet, it exists as a valiant effort. It is decidedly sentimental, but its sentimentality is not cringe worthy. Rebel without a Causeis often remembered as the important classic from its era, and its ability to speak to the modern audience despite its age is significant. Nonetheless, in examining the notion of a stranger in a small town both films exist as noteworthy efforts from 1955.
                          
Any thoughts on Picnic or Rebel Without A Cause? I prefer the latter, it does appear at #49 on my list of favourites and the latter appears at #57. Sure, they’re faulty but I have a soft spot for them – obviously. Which do you prefer?

5 comments:

Jose said...

Love both movies!
Despite the way they both have aged, what remains timeless is their creation of the modern male sex symbol, who can use his awesome biceps to dry his sensitive tears.

simoncolumb said...

having just written on a different blog about how big the cinema world is - i have yet to see either! yet am desperate to watch them (specifically Rebel with a Cause)... is it worth getting the james dean boxset with 'east of eden'?

Simon
www.screeninsight.com

simoncolumb said...

having just written on a different blog about how big the cinema world is - i have yet to see either! yet am desperate to watch them (specifically Rebel with a Cause)... is it worth getting the james dean boxset with 'east of eden'?

Simon
www.screeninsight.com

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

jose that is one weird image (trust you)

simon definitely buy the box set (sorry for the late response)

The Floating Red Couch said...

Dean looks so strange in Rebel, like a surreal caricature of what a teen should look like....Maybe its that Rebel is so iconic and the image of Dean, big headed, flat topped, and red leathered, is so ingrained into popular culture, it's almost a distraction (like Marilyn in the 7 Year Itch or Bogie in Maltese Falcon)