'A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951'

Matthew Mishory's film depicts an under-the-radar gay frisson that '50s America refused to acknowledge.

A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951

Director: Matthew Mishory
Cast: James Preston, Dan Glenn, Dalilah Rain, Edward Singletary, Jr., Erin Daniels, Robert Gant
Length: 93 min
Studio: Iconoclastic Features
Distributor: Wolfe
Release date: 2013-06-04

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.