Jun 1, 2015

SIFF 2015: In Tribute to Stewart Stern, Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

I'd was already looking forward to seeing Rebel Without a Cause (1955) at SIFF 2015, particularly because screenwriter and Seattle local Stewart Stern recently died and I wanted to pay tribute, but the experience was much more touching than I'd expected. The film was presented at the Egyptian Theater this past Sunday and it was glorious to see that gorgeously colorful Cinemascope image stretch all the way across the screen.

My feelings about the film that night were strongly influenced by Brian MacDonald's introduction. A faculty member at The Film School in Seattle, he was also a close friend of Stern. In a meticulously executed speech, he shared his thoughts about this writer and teacher who was beloved in the Seattle film community. His first memory was of Stern looking out the window of his hospital room in his last days and saying, "What an amazing city. What a wonderful city."

MacDonald told stories about Stern's life demonstrating his kindness and compassion. As a child, he refused to take part in a snipe hunt at camp, because he didn't want to harm another creature, even though the whole activity was an exercise of the imagination. He killed a German soldier in World War II so that a younger American soldier wouldn't have to and have the death on his conscience. When he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he was ostracized by locals for his support, but never turned away from his convictions.

This string of memories was an excellent way to introduce Stern's most famous movie, which despite its rough tone, is all about the need for love and compassion. The screenwriter wanted to tell a story in which he attempted to understand teenagers, rather than demonizing them, as in the recent sensation, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Rebel Without a Cause was a perfect counterpoint to that film.

While James Dean looked a bit long in the tooth to play 16-year-old Jim Stark, he captured the vulnerability and confusion of a teen struggling to find his place in the world. He moves into a new town, with a long history of trouble behind him, only to find that he still can't seem to stay clear of drama. By the end of his first day of school, he has been threatened, wounded and a witness to death.

In the midst of all this turmoil, he meets a pair of soulmates: Judy (Natalie Wood) a girl starved for affection and Plato (Sal Mineo) an imaginative loner who lives with his absent parents' maid. 

Both of Stark's new friends become intoxicated by his kindness to them and the comforting confidence he seems to have in himself. Though he is merely friendly to Plato, the lonely teen dreams that he might long for him the way he does. Where Judy is concerned, she initially needs to be won over, but when she realizes Jim will give her the attention her father no longer will (he is deeply unsettled that his daughter is now a woman), she clings to him.

The three deliberately form a family. Though they play at homemaking as they hide out in an abandoned mansion, you can see that the trio truly delights in the discovery of their bond. Any outside trouble: from parents, police or gangs, is forgotten until they are forced to recognize that there is still an outside world to be dealt with.

It can be a difficult film to watch, because while just about everyone feels lost and isolated, no one seems to know how to deal with it. The characters have backed themselves into a corner emotionally because they feel they must follow certain codes of behavior. 

Gang members put on a menacing act, but fear and uncertainty flicker behind their eyes (in a supporting role as one of the toughs, young Dennis Hopper is particularly vulnerable). Parents are concerned, but distant, doing what they feel is their duty, but also fearful that they are not doing enough for their children. The rules they make for themselves cause them constant turmoil. Jim, Judy and Plato reject them to build their own world.

I got a bit emotional watching Dean, Wood and Mineo standing together at the end of the infamous chickie run scene. They peer over a cliff, watching their classmate burn to death, not one of them aware that they too will also die young and in a similarly horrifying fashion. Perhaps that can give Rebel a haunted feeling, but it also makes me all the more grateful that these talented actors were able to play so harmoniously together in this exciting, but also deeply moving film.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

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