Essay #5, Rebel Without a Cause

Click here to see what’s up with the essays. Anyway, #5 is Rebel Without a Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray), and I’d say this was the first time since Nashville where I had my shit together when writing this. It definitely feels a bit like bad college level writing at points, though.

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On Aspiring to Be a Rebel Without a Cause

Early on in Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray), three Californian suburban teenagers are detained at the local police station. Jim is publicly drunk due to his recent move to the town and his parents’ rocky relationship. Judy was mistaken for being a prostitute after she went out past curfew due to a fight with her father over how she dresses. John, who goes by Plato, shot a litter of puppies due to frustration over his father abandoning the family and his mother never being around. If one were to oversimplify the film, one could simply say “Three teenagers with names beginning with J struggle with teenage angst,” but the dynamics of the group are more complicated than that, and it results in Judy and Plato entering a sort of threesome with Jim due to repressed lust and parental issues in an abandoned mansion [1:18:43-1:20:38, 1:21:07-25:24, 1:25:52-27:41].

When Jim moves to Los Angeles, he immediately makes an enemy of the bullies at his new school, with only Plato becoming friends with him. While never outright stated due to censorship laws at the time, it is fairly obvious to the modern audience that Plato is gay and has a crush on Jim. Judy is dating one of the bullies, Buzz, but Judy and Jim recognize each other from the police station and clearly have a connection. A school trip to the planetarium ends in a knife fight and Jim being challenged to a game of chicken, consisting of jumping out of a car last when driving towards a cliff. He accepts, but Buzz ends up driving off the cliff and dying when his jacket gets stuck in the car handle. Plato offers to take Jim to an abandoned mansion near the planetarium later in the evening when they are trying to deal with the aftermath (essentially asking for a hookup), but Jim declines. He later meets with Judy and they kiss, before they decide to go to the mansion after all in an attempt to get away from their respective family issues, where Plato later meets them.

When discussing the meaning of a film, we ascribe certain meanings to symbols and the mise en scène elements within it, particularly the features of actors, as discussed by Vachel Lindsay: “We do not separate the features as frequently as did that ancient people, but we conventionalize them as often” (Lindsay, “Hieroglyphics,” 120). Thus, we must interpret the acting decisions used within Rebel Without a Cause when trying to analyze what is being alluded to at the mansion, in addition to the symbols and prior knowledge we have been given earlier in the film.

With the mansion being dark, Plato lights a candelabra [1:18:52] and asks Jim and Judy what they think of the mansion. Jim, doing an impersonation of his father, says “We’ll take it for the summer!”, beginning the group’s family roleplay. [1:19:19-23] Plato takes on the role of real estate agent and leads the way with the candelabra, with the vibe being more tuned to that of a horror movie than a teenage drama. Judy takes the role of wife when Jim asks her if she wants to buy or rent [1:19:30-34], and Plato creating an imaginary price of three million dollars a month [1:19:41]. Fully embracing the impossibility of it all, she claims she can afford it, while Jim claims they are a newlywed couple [1:19:43-52].

The parental issues begin to come to the surface when Judy starts off by asking “What about children?” [1:19:56-58] Plato responds with “We really don’t encourage them, they’re so noisy and troublesome, don’t you agree?” [1:20:07-09] In a bizarre shift of tone, Judy declares that children are terribly annoying and she doesn’t know what to do when they cry, referencing her own tears when fighting with her father earlier in the film [1:20:11-16], while Jim replies by impersonating his father and saying “Drown ‘em like puppies!” [1:20:17-20], with an immediate shift in camera angles so that we are overhead (the earlier shots were level with the actors) causing us to feel separated from the increasingly bizarre and psychologically twisted fantasy being played out.

Plato leads the group to an empty and dirty looking swimming pool, saying that the nursery is very far from the rest of the house and they can use the pool as a playpen before the three teens climb down into it and he declares “If you lock them in, you’ll never have to see them again!”, a blatant hint towards his parental abandonment issues [1:20:20-38]. Jim’s issues with his parents come to light when he points out that no one talks to children, they just tell them [1:20:38-44].

After they leave the pool and we have a brief cutaway scene to focus on the bullies chasing the group to the mansion because of the police potentially becoming involved with Buzz’s death, we follow the group playing around like children in the pool area [1:21:07-55]. The group’s ability to switch between adulthood and childhood is a way to draw attention to their adolescence and allow the audience to empathize with what is a difficult transition, but it is also highly coded due to the prior cutaway, with the laughter and playfulness after a fade out hinting at something happening between the group in the time between scenes, especially with the bizarre dynamic at play.

Eventually, Jim rests with his head in Judy’s lap, and we cut to an angle that makes it more obvious that both Judy and Plato cannot keep their eyes off Jim while he is looking at neither of them. With Jim playing the role of the father in the earlier roleplay, their gazes can either be interpreted as romantic, or as related to their parental issues and desire to gain their fathers’ approval. While Plato goes on a lengthy talk about how he used to run away from home and his mother deciding to use the money she was spending on his psychiatrist to go to Hawaii instead [1:22:05-1:23:00], he rests his head in Jim’s arm [1:22:50], which can either be viewed as an attempt at flirting or a desire for parental comfort. It is also revealed that Plato is a compulsive liar when he tells a story about his absent father that contradicts something he told Jim earlier [1:23:00-18]. An upset Plato lies down on the ground [1:23:18-31] while Judy ruffles his hair (once again taking on the mother role that Plato does not have) and hums a lullaby as Plato falls asleep flat on the ground [1:23:32-39].

After Jim suggests that he and Judy explore the mansion, they laugh at sleeping Plato’s mismatched socks (one red, one blue) before admitting they’ve also done that in the past, then the two each taking one candle from the candelabra and leaving the last one by Plato [1:24:32-25:09]. Similarities between the characters abound here even without the J names, and the socks and candle parallels. Jim is wearing the red shirt and blue jeans that he changed into for the chicken race, while Judy is wearing a pink sweater and pale blue skirt. The bizarre family/lover dynamic of the group is becoming even more pronounced.

After another cutaway to the bullies, we see a very happy looking Jim and Judy lying on the floor elsewhere in the mansion (more parallels between the two of them and Plato). Judy begins talking about all the things she loves about Jim [1:25:52-27:41], with her head resting on his shoulder. However, the scene contains a certain off-putting element, namely the fact that the two of them barely look at each other (a slight variation on earlier), or even in the general direction, while Judy talks about all of Jim’s positive qualities. The fact that Judy says “I love somebody, all the time I’ve been looking for someone to love me, and now I love somebody” while looking wistfully off into the distance could simply be to make us focus on Judy herself, but it also reads as her using Jim as a substitute for her father’s love, especially in the context of an earlier scene in the film where she is slapped after attempting to kiss her father. All the other similarities between the group also seem to be pronounced in showing that Judy and Plato aspire to be more like Jim, for whatever their motivations may be.

With the study of film being so wrapped up in the heavily personal experience that is film-viewing, any interpretation of a scene that is so strongly in contrast to the rest of the film as the mansion scene is to Rebel Without a Cause requires a certain knowledge of film’s conventions and tropes. The use of clothing color and acting decisions like Jim’s impersonations of his father are what put us on such high alert for moments like the direction of the gazes of the three stars when they are talking to each other. However, the use of ambiguity is what makes the character motivations for what is essentially a threesome of sorts interesting. Is the viewer more inclined to project a more straightforward reading of sexual desire onto their interactions, or does it come down to a need for family affection that manifests itself in a highly sexual way? Whatever the case, the mansion scene is so unlike the rest of Rebel Without a Cause that the jarring effect winds itself around the rest of the film’s more tonally consistent approach to impact the perception of all other scenes.

Works Cited
Lindsay, Vachel. “Hieroglyphics.” The Art of the Moving Picture. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 116-25. Print.
Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Warner Bros., 1955. DVD.

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