James Dean and Generational Conflict

I love James Dean, and his legacy as an embodiment of adolescence and teen angst. So, here are my thoughts on two of his three movies, with emphasis on the themes of conflict between parents and the new generation.

Jim Stark Learns Responsibility

I absolutely love the opening credits of Rebel Without a Cause–apparently improvised by James Dean. It’s just such a great detail which silently communicates that, despite parents constantly assuming the worst in them, deep down teens just want to be loved. It’s the system itself and the broken kids already in it who bring out the bad qualities in otherwise good souls, like Jim and Judy. In this case, Jim got drunk while underage, which is all society needs to determine he’s a “bad kid” fit for prison and browbeating. Few adults would bother to ask why he got drunk, which was avoiding a dysfunctional home life. What’s important is that Jim, when left to his own devices, just wants to tuck a little bongo monkey into a makeshift bed. If that weren’t enough of a mark in his favor, the next scene shows Jim giving a kid he doesn’t even know (Plato) his jacket. 

Rebel‘s all about exploring how parents who are too harsh (Judy’s), too soft (Jim’s) and absent (Plato’s) screw their kids up. This introductory scene establishes what will come in the climax, where Jim and Judy become surrogate parents to Plato. When Plato dies on their watch despite their best efforts, Jim and Judy learn firsthand that parenting isn’t as easy as they’d thought. We see Jim gain a newfound respect for the ones he’s got, and his dad learning to adapt to his son’s unique needs. That’s always been my take on it anyway. Even though I prefer American Graffiti and Saturday Night Fever, I think you could make a compelling argument that Rebel is still the best coming of age movie ever made for depicting this timeless message. No other movie I’ve seen so thoroughly examines the interplay of parents and their children, with the insight to determine that teens who act out have problems at home.

There are some truly terrible parents out there and no one should be forced to bond with their abusers due to blood relationship alone. However, in most other cases, the important thing for parents and their children to do is see things from the other side. I’m sure Plato would have been ecstatic to have even an effeminate dad like Jim’s, or a hardass dad like Judy’s. That’s not to say that Jim’s father couldn’t have been more empathetic of Jim’s plight. (When your kid comes home bleeding, telling them it won’t matter in twenty years isn’t an acceptable answer.) Nor does it let Judy’s father off the hook either. (Your children don’t suddenly stop requiring affection just because they’ve reached an arbitrary age.) All that aside, that doesn’t mean their parents were bad people, and barring some extraordinary circumstances of abuse, neither are most of ours. They might let us down sometimes, they might be misguided in their approach, but most parents mean well. At its heart, that’s what Rebel Without a Cause is all about.

While Jim Stark may be the lead, my favorite character in the film is actually John “Plato” Crawford. The link embedded in the previous sentence directs you to the philosopher’s thoughts on children. However, Plato was famously a student of Socrates, who also had a negative opinion on the new generation of his time (which would have included Plato himself.) Of course, Plato turned out alright and even debatably surpassed his mentor, demonstrating that the new generation really wasn’t as bad as its predecessors thought. This is the best reason I can fathom for John’s unusual nickname.

Some consider Plato’s immediate attachment towards Jim to be born of romantic feelings. While I’m not necessarily against such an interpretation, I think it’s more likely that Plato just needed somebody to fill the emotional void he harbored by not having parents in his life. Plato probably latched onto Jim because he recognized him from the night before as the one who gave up his jacket. (That may have been the first time Plato was ever shown kindness outside of his housekeeper.) Plato is clearly suffering from, among other things, attachment disorder and abandonment issues. That would explain why he violently overreacts to being left alone by Jim in the film’s climax.

(Aside: Sal Mineo, who portrays Plato in the film, is another favorite underrated actor of mine. In college, I read his biography and would highly recommend checking it out.)

Cal Trask Strives for Approval

East of Eden is a somewhat unusual story and severely altered adaptation of a Steinbeck novel (though he apparently liked the film.) It’s basically a modern retelling of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible, with Dean playing Cal the troubled son who doesn’t get along with his father. (His brother Aron is the good son, the Abel stand-in.)

It goes without saying Dean is great. It’s a role that’s very similar to the one he played in Rebel Without a Cause: a troubled teen with a dysfunctional relationship to his parents and a girl next door he wins over. Like Jim Stark, it’s apparent early on that Cal is not a bad kid, but he’s been told as much so many times that he’s just settled into that role by default. When he’s not around his dad getting his wings clipped all the time, we see Cal can be chivalrous and industrious. The former is demonstrated when he stands up for his brother’s girlfriend, Abra, at the carnival in the face of a creep. The latter by earning back his dad’s lost fortune in a farming venture. Unfortunately, Cal’s father has a very narrow idea of what makes a person “good” or “bad” and treats those he perceives as the latter with open condescension. Since Cal doesn’t fit his dad’s Biblically-inspired standards, he’s frequently criticized–even in front of others.

I love the way the dad is portrayed in this story. He’s not mean-spirited or overtly abusive, and you can see where he’s coming from at times. He says hurtful things to Cal, but apologizes immediately and tries to talk it out. He tries to impart morality via the Bible but it comes off as very heavy-handed, and irrelevant to the situation. Some of the things he chastises Cal over (throwing ice out a window, stealing some coal-loaders’ chute) are justified but others ( especially trying to pay his dad back) aren’t. The dad is not a one-dimensional jerk, but you just want him to get the stick out of his ass and appreciate the way his son is trying to do right. It rings true for me as an honest depiction of dysfunctional parent-offspring relationships which don’t reach A Child Called ‘It’ levels yet fall short of The Brady Bunch or Full House.

Similar to Rebel, my favorite character in this story happens to be a supporting role. Abra (played by Julie Harris) is not only the girl-next-door love interest but also a neutral observer to the family’s dysfunction and the one to bring them together in the end. My favorite scene in the movie is this one between Cal and Abra, where she imparts some morality to him without a self-flagellating Bible reading. This monologue is the lone instance of anyone showing Cal some basic empathy as opposed to a patronizing lecture. It’s her endearing attempt to bond with someone she’d previously looked down on, and communicate that she’s in his corner going forward. This interaction comes after Cal throws a ton of his dad’s ice out a window, and by relaying a similar incident in her own life, she’s showing Cal that she understands why he did it and that she’s done worse. (Abra threw her dad’s ring in the river because she felt as if she were being replaced–just like Cal, she acts up as a result of hurt feelings between herself and her father.) This basically sums up the theme of the movie that sometimes we do “bad” things with good intentions, and that kids act out because they don’t feel appreciated at home.

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