Me and my SO saw Rebel Without A Cause for the first time yesterday, which has long been considered a classic. It didn’t age well. Specifically, changes in social norms have made it impossible to relate to anyone we were supposed to relate to.
Before before we begin, can I ask if there was a shortage of teen actors in the mid-50s? I’ve never seem so many 30-year-olds attending High School gathered in one place!
Back on topic. Overall this is a pretty good flick about being an isolated teen. No one understands you, your parents suck, and bullies are making life terrible. It has a great “things spiral out of control and tragedy ensues” arc, which I normally enjoy quite a bit. But unfortunately, there is no way to identify with anyone in this movie anymore. The creatures on screen are weird alien lifeforms that you don’t want to associate with, and so it’s much harder to identify with their angst.
James Dean’s character – the protagonist in this piece – isolates us in the first scene of the movie. He complains to a cop that his mother is too bossy with his dad, and then says (direct quote) “If he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop picking on him.” Yes, that’s right. The lovable rogue is an advocate of spousal abuse. If only his dad would beat his mom then she’d be soooo much happier, and everything in their family life would be great! This is the reason I can’t watch most things set in the 50s/60s (I couldn’t even finish the second episode of Mad Men). They make my “murder all of society” levels rage into Hulk-Smash mode, and I can’t enjoy shit.
This isn’t an accident either. Later in the movie his dad is shown to be a weakling that his son can’t respect because, when he drops a plate of food he was carrying, he crouches down and starts cleaning it up!! “WTF Dad?? Cleaning is WOMEN’S work! Get off the ground and make the bitch do it!” These aren’t Dean’s exact words, but that’s the message that comes across.
And this makes it very hard to relate to him in his other trials, particularly his girlfriend issues. The female lead in the movie is established to have an abusive father, and so we figured this would be a movie about the cycle of abuse, and how victimizers seek out victims, etc. Nope. Instead they make lovey-eyes at each other, and have a typical teen romance. Which was so nausea-inducing that we kept interrupting the screen with things like “I can’t wait to make you my wife, so I can beat you every day,” and “Once we live together in this mansion, I won’t have to go to your father’s house to beat you.” Etc. I guess in the 50s it was considered cool to beat a mouthy woman unconscious. You could be a proponent of that and still be taken seriously as a gentle romantic lead. But morality has progressed to the point that all you can think of when you see James Dean’s character is “Vile Wife-Beating Piece of Shit.”
The other major character we’re supposed to feel sympathy for is a younger boy who has basically been abandoned by his parents. He hasn’t seen his father in years, and his mother leaves him alone for weeks. In the end it’s the family’s housekeeper who weeps over his body crying “This poor baby got nobody! Just nobody!” It would have been a powerful scene, if we could in any way feel sorry for the kid. But honestly, we’re glad he’s dead.
Because ALSO in the first scene of the movie he’s introduced as a serial-killer-in-training. Seriously, he gets his mother’s gun, gets some puppies, and then MURDERS THE PUPPIES. I guess in the 50s they didn’t realize that cruelty to small animals (especially killing them) is an early warning sign of psychopathy? The cops let him go with, I dunno, a warning?
I seriously thought he was being set up as the villain of the movie. That in the end they’d have to fight off his crazy murder-spree or something. And I kept thinking I would be right! The kid always talks and looks creepy. He stalks James Dean throughout the whole movie. He’s shown constructing elaborate lies about their past relationship. Every single sign points to “this kid is just a step away from being Ben Foster in “Hostage”” (fucking amazing movie, btw). But then at the end it turns around – he gets picked on and bullied, and we’re supposed to feel sad for this poor broken kid, and sympathize with him. No. Nope. Nuh-uh.
I think we (me and SO) need to restrict ourselves only to movies made post-1980-ish. The morals of the past are so bizarre that it’s hard to relate to them. My Fair Lady had a similarly shocking ending. It’s hard to imagine that our grandparents grew up in this sort of environment. I am much more impressed with their ability to adapt and grow as morality evolves, based on this.