This Is a Blog: Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Rebel Without a Cause

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Rebel Without a Cause

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at  Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

I saw this movie last time in the most ideal setting. Cinespia in Los Angeles does movie screenings every summer at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Surrounded by the graves of old Hollywood royalty, the crowd gathers on the lawn while they project the movie on the side of the huge, white mausoleum. It has a way of enhancing the movie experience. It's not just a bunch of people who want to see a movie. It's a group who want to stand in a long line just to sit on the damp grass for hours as the summer night gets chillier by the minute, just to watch this movie. It made "Clockwork Orange" funnier, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" far more exciting, and, to a West Hollywood audience, "Rebel Without a Cause" a thousand times gayer.

Back when this movie was made, so much had to be subtle. Movie makers weren't allowed to discuss homosexuality. On its surface, this teenage rebellion movie is about a kid who never feels empowered enough to live his own life. Now that the subtle tricks of 1955 are tropes of gay style, the undertones are so much clearer.

None of us in the crowd remembered this movie being so, well, gay. In Hollywood, homosexuality is as normal as Christian values are everywhere else in the country, so we found this film refreshingly open about being gay. It's not just Sal Mineo, either. Virtually every word, every gesture, every unintentionally sultry reaction shot from James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Mineo illicited a chuckle from somewhere in the crowd.

When I saw this movie in high school, it confused me. I had always heard about James Dean as this leather jacket wearing, motorcycle riding, cigarette smoking bad boy. This role, arguable Dean's most iconic, had none of the first two and only a little of the third. What he shows in this movie is raw emotion. In the 1950s, when men were supposed to be men, this show of feelings was revolutionary. Still, he was packaged as masculinely as possible.

If the rumors are true, and James Dean was gay, it brings the entire history of male sex symbols into question. It makes a lot of sense that most of them were gay. There's a level of unattainability that makes them so attractive, and nothing is more unattainable than a gay man. In the emotionally repressive '50s, a man became a heart throb by letting those controls go.

Maybe I'm going way too far out on this one, but it seems that "Rebel Without a Cause" should be a wake up call to women across the country that since they were impressionable teenagers, they've been enamoured with gay men. Homosexuality has always been a part of American society, we're just finally open enough to admit it. It's not change homophobes fear. It's acceptance.

Wow, that seems preachy, but this is why I love movies. They can be such a deep and layered form of expression. Who knows what the filmmakers actually intended? Because of that, filmmakers have been able to say what they wanted to say, without fear of retribution. As an audience, we can get what we want out of it. Depending on how we see the movie, and who we see it with, that meaning could change every time.

So yeah, in short, movies are FABULOUS!

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