James Dean Glanced at Life's Menu and Ordered "Change"
There’s no shortage of cinematic biographica on the storied James Dean, including TNT’s pedestrian James Franco-starring TV flick of some years ago, but indie director Matthew Mishory has mounted a decidedly experimental take on the Dean legend in his A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951. Filmed in crisp, painterly black-and-white, the opening shots – done in the desolately beautiful titular desert hamlet – suggest the stark nature photography of Ansel Adams, and he’s only the first of several notables which come to mind.
Mishory first eavesdrops, albeit briefly, on the bedroom of Rimbaud, circa 1873, attempting to draw comparisons between the 19th-century Parisian poet and the fragile, poetic soul of Dean. He skips to a house in Fairmount, Indiana, where Dean was raised, then whisks his camera to a casually decadent pool party in the Hollywood Hills in 1951, when Dean was a struggling actor, mulling over whether to continue his education at UCLA or devote all energies to his beloved craft. The lush, noir-lit cinematography lulls you into a visual reverie, interspersed with brief home movie-like clips in color, while you’re still deciding what to make of the languorous narrative pace.
As Dean, James Preston (The Gates) has the late star’s brooding, hooded eyes, even if, typically, he’s handsomer than the real Dean ever was; Dean’s fanatical embrace by teens of his generation surely stemmed partly from this Midwesterner’s very ordinary, boy-next-door appearance. It was easy for white teenagers in Einsenhower’s America to be empathetic for Dean not just because he articulated a primal dissatisfaction with the status quo, but also because he seemed like your unremarkable neighbor. I wouldn’t say that of Preston, who could easily model Abercrombie & Fitch ads at Nantucket.
The film quickly explores an alleged predilection of Dean’s that would have made ‘50s America antsy. According to veteran screenwriter William Bast – scribe of my adored guilty pleasure, The Betsy – Dean was bisexual, and the two of them shared intimate moments while college roommates. Bast’s character is labeled only “William” in the film, and curiously, even in the closing credits, Mishory declines to reveal his surname, even though Bast has written publicly of the experiences.
However, Mishory doesn’t shy away from the depicting an under-the-radar gay frisson that likely existed in those conservative times, as Preston’s Dean enjoys anal sex – especially in a playful rough-and-tumble atop a stairwell – with young men he picks up in a variety of places, and dishes about voracious closeted “queens”. Curiously, Dean reportedly avoided the military draft by proclaiming a homosexual bent, and both Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Gavin Lambert have attested to Dean’s alleged same gender-loving orientation.
At this point, the film’s visuals evoke the faintly homoerotic photographic layouts and films of Bruce Weber, not to mention Calvin Klein’s legendary underwear ads of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Less so Gus Van Sant, who, like Tom Waits, seems to revel in the scruffy and un-pretty. The characters in A Portrait of James Dean, particularly the males, all seem airbrushed into a sometimes eerie, sun-kissed physical perfection. I guess it’s possible that the film could simultaneously be denounced and celebrated as a queer appropriation of Dean’s life, depending on one’s political persuasion.
I’m also reminded of TV’s current show du jour, Mad Men, and Matthew Weiner’s elegant dissection of privileged but unsatisfied people. Everyone in A Portrait of James Dean seems to be yearning for something; in Dean’s case, that would be a nebulous un-hypocritical truth that he may only find in performing, if at all. As a pansexual aesthete, Preston’s Dean is a square peg in the anti-intellectual postwar years, with the burgeoning Cold War crowding out serious inquiry. Dean also fears becoming a whore, of being placed on the casting couch by Hollywood’s secretive power brokers. He tells his candid friend Violet (a magnificent Dalilah Rain) that he wants to ascend solely on his talent, but she insists that he will compromise, as all before him have. “Hollywood will never change”, she warns him.
That’s an ironic verbal missile to lob at the man who would help foment an artistic revolution. Along with Marlon Brando and other devotees of the Method school, James Dean would usher in an new authenticity that crackled through the film world like electricity. Their work was rooted in the theater at a time when Broadway was a cornucopia of edgy serious plays that influenced early ‘50s live television dramas, which in turn helped create the vibrant New Hollywood scene that emerged from the ashes of the demolished studio system. “Change” was on the menu, and Dean ordered it.
Matthew Mishory’s A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951, some will argue, is a triumph of style over substance. At it’s best, the character-driven film is a lush, romantic tone poem and teasing snapshot of a kind of optimistic, materially abundant Southern California life which swept darker currents under the rug. Dean’s beachside tete-a-tete with a sultry blonde boy is a highlight, but other sections are sometimes less compelling, and though only 93 minutes in length, it could be more concise.
Also included on the DVD is Mishory’s award-winning 12-minute short, Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, a stylized imagination of the late Derek Jarman’s youth. Before his 1994 death from AIDS, Jarman was unquestionably an enfant terrible of the British cinema; think of an angrier, more experimental Stephen Frears. Delphinium, whose creative advisor was Tarnation director Jonathon Caouette, features several actors who would later appear in the Dean picture.
James Dean’s onscreen personae offered an alternative to the strong, silent men who preceded him, and thus tapped into an unspoken generational angst that his fans, just discovering rock ‘n’ roll, barely knew they felt; perhaps in a similar way that English pop star Morrissey ‘speaks’ to contemporary Mexican-American youth caught between two worlds. Dean remains a household word some 60 years on, even if, predictably, through the relentless retro-kitsch commodification of his image, as witnessed in countless Hollywood Boulevard souvenir shops.
An offscreen narrator offers this eloquent parting quote from Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince during the film’s denouement: “It is here that the little prince appeared on Earth and disappeared”. For a bygone generation of Americans, James Dean was that prince.