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From Under A Rock: Rebel Without a Cause

June 10, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Rebel Without a Cause  


This week, we’re rolling back the clocks to 1955 with one of the most influential American films ever made.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael surprised Aaron with a great little indie film called The Way Way Back. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Rebel Without a Cause.

Rebel Without A Cause
Released: October 27th, 1955
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman
James Dean as Jim Stark
Natalie Wood as Judy
Sal Mineo as John “Plato” Crawford
Jim Backus as Frank Stark
Ann Doran as Carol Stark

Aaron Hubbard: Rebel Without A Cause is one of countless movies before 1980 that I’ve been trying to catch up on over the last year and a half or so. It’s always stood out to me as a cultural landmark, and I wanted to cover it on this column.

Michael Ornelas: This is a film whose name I’ve heard over and over and over throughout the years. I don’t have much of an interest in older movies (pre-70s), but will gladly check out the classics if prompted. I’m glad I was prompted here. James Dean oozes coolness, and I got a good laugh when I told Aaron that I thought the character was kind of a dork at times, and he pointed out that Jim was just a normal teen — it’s Dean that made him seem cool. He wasn’t written that way.
The Kids Are All Wrong
Aaron: The 1950’s were a hugely transformative decade for the United States, especially its youth. The conditions were right for high school children to develop their own cultural identity; without mandatory work to do or a war to fight, they suddenly had free time and a lack of direction. The “teenager” was born; a time defined by being aware of your lack of real power and coming to terms with that. And this was a film that captured the spirit of the time, in the time. James Dean gets his only time as a top-billed star before his tragic demise, and in the process nearly invented a genre that’s endured to this day. While I don’t think it’s the best coming-of-age film (John Hughes has a few classics), its influence is clear in everything from West Side Story to Back to the Future. And with all of that hype; man does this film’s opening just crack open a can of worms, huh?

Michael:The commentary on the youth of the time was what drove this movie forward (no pun intended). What immediately struck me was that it was about different “types” of teens at the time, being represented by Jim, Judy, and Plato. They all had untraditional and at times, hostile relationships with their own parents. Jim doesn’t have any real positive influence from his parents as his dad is an embarrassing pushover and his mom is an ice queen. He (rightfully) has no reason to want to turn out like either of them and has to forge his own identity in a time where the resulting identity didn’t even exist yet. Judy was “promiscuous” in her parents’ eyes (which is laughable by today’s standards), and their image of her caused them to be hostile towards her, pushing her away emotionally and creating that rift. Plato is probably the most tragic character of all in the film because we already know the psychological impact his lack of parents has had on him as soon as we find out what got him into police custody at the start of the film. So we get to explore the themes of all different types of upbringings and how they impact youth through these three and it’s brutally effective.

Aaron: I really love this first collection of scenes. I love that Judy points out her father has been distant since she grew out of being a child, but couldn’t accept her growing up either. Sums up everything nicely. I also like Jim’s scene with the police officer; it’s clear he starts to see him as a more assertive father figure. I would have enjoyed a bit more interaction between them. Overall, the film is much more critical of the parents and sympathetic to the kids, which is why I think it spoke so much to that audience.
High Stakes, Big Consequences
Michael: So one of the things I didn’t necessarily buy into in the film was when the plot went a little too extreme. It felt like it was reaching for drama at points (this would be things such as the kid dying in the car race or the climax), and while it may be unfair to criticize a movie for plot point like these, it just didn’t feel like these moments fit with the film. To be fair, though, they kind of are the film, but there were just times where it took me out of it. Before this gets the full wrath of the comments section directed my way, I do want to say that it was an excellent movie regardless and it didn’t detract a ton in my eyes. I’m just nitpicking at this point because everything else was spot on (the acting was spectacular).

Aaron: It definitely feels like a degree of shock value, or perhaps just on-the-nose metaphor. I mean, the text of “Hey parents, your failure to understand your kids is hurting them” is pretty apparent without actually killing off some of the kids. It’s also downright eerie to see a fatal car accident in a film starring James Dean. So, I’m a bit neutral on it. I think the high stakes work, and I especially like how it’s set up by the guard not caring about the knife fight earlier. Then something even more fatal occurs, with the added bit of tragedy that Buzz and Jim were starting to get along.

Michael: True. It’s not that it didn’t serve any real function or anything like that, it just felt needlessly heightened, and to borrow from you, “on the nose.”
James Dean as an Iconic Figure
Aaron: I have to admit, the main draw of this for me was to see what the fuss about James Dean was about. His charisma is evident, but I also really enjoy his ability to be emotionally vulnerable. But one has to ask; do we (as in, the general movie watching community) overrate James Dean because of his death? Or are we actually mourning the loss of potential? I’m leaning towards him being an interesting actor and I want to see more of him (East of Eden and Giant in particular). But I’m curious about what you think?

Michael: He was the strongest component of this film, in my opinion. I absolutely understand the appeal of him now. He just had this magnetism right off the bat that drew me in, and it’s evident that audiences in the 50s saw that as well. It’s also a testament to his mystique that he still comes across this way even 60+ years later.

Aaron: It always brings to mind Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight for me. I’ve heard some people voice that everyone overrates the performance because of Heath’s passing, but… no. And I think the same principle applies here. James Dean was a star and I wish he could have contributed more than he did.

Michael: This film definitely passes the test of time due to its original story and invention of an entire genre. The performances are fantastic. My only gripes are sound editing/cutting continuity in a few moments, and a few plot moments that didn’t gel with the rest of the movie. Still a classic and a high recommendation.


Aaron: Rebel Without A Cause is iconic and very, very good. James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo are excellent in their roles, and the exploration of teenagers and their relationship to their parents was groundbreaking and is still effective.


Michael: You still have a good track record of picking older movies I enjoy. Congrats.

Aaron: Most of my next few picks are a little more modern, but I’m glad we covered this as we head into the summer.

What are your favorite classic teenage dramas or comedies?

Next week:

Michael: So next week, we’re going to get to the chopper.
Aaron: I’m super excited for this. It’s another that I know bits and pieces of from cultural osmosis but have never sat down to watch.

Michael: I’ve actually only seen it once and it was 5 years ago now. It’ll be fun to go back and check it out once more.

What’s your favorite sci-fi action film?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown, Jaws, Unforgiven, RoboCop, The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2, Prometheus, Scarface, Gattaca, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Equilibrium, City of God, The Graduate, Face/Off, Snowpiercer, The Exorcist, Hellboy, Village of the Damned, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Idiocracy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fly (1986), Under the Skin, Die Hard, Dredd, Star Wars Holiday Special, A Christmas Story, Snakes on a Plane, The Big Lebowski, Bulworth, Raging Bull, Thank You for Smoking, John Wick, Mulholland Drive, The Karate Kid, Lucky Number Slevin, The Searchers, Black Dynamite, Labyrinth, Rick & Morty, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Abyss, Seven Samurai, Bio-Dome, Memento, L.A. Confidential, Tangled, T2: Judgment Day, Wonder Woman, The Way Way Back, Rebel Without a Cause

Aaron Has Another Column!
As per reader request, Dissecting the Classics took a double dip into the Christopher Reeve Superman films with the direct sequel.

Aaron is now on Letterboxd!
Check me out here to see my star ratings for over 800 films. Recent reviews include Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Mad Max: Fury Road and Wonder Woman.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Rebel Without A Cause is a culturally important film; it helped establish the teenage drama and cemented James Dean as an icon. Fortunately, it is also well-acted and a solid story that dives into the dynamics of 1950s teens and their parents. And it still feels relevant today. We recommend checking it out at least once, and we think you'll enjoy it.