Thursday, December 13, 2007
"Rebel Without A Cause" Essay 3 - Revision
The title sequence of “Rebel Without A Cause” exists to capture the audience’s attention and to pull you into it’s story, with a devastating use of the color red, and the magnetic innocence of James Dean wandering the streets alone, drunk, and directionless.
When Jim finds the toy wind up monkey, in the first shot of the film, clapping it’s cymbals in the middle of the street, it speaks volumes about the way that Jim views himself and the world, and acts to establish a tone and resonance throughout, eventually leading back to things you might not have thought about before, later in the film.
The titles, first off, are the most prominent part of the scene, not James or the monkey. All of the text consists of huge bold red letters that literally chew up the entire shot with words stretching from screen left to screen right. Personally, if the color red where not so important to the film overall, I wouldn’t have chosen this type of title exposition to be in any kind of film that I hoped to enjoy. It makes you uncomfortable, it messes with the focus of your eyes, and it dominates everything else behind the text, much like the way a matador flashes a red blanket to get a bull to charge him. What a statement to make about the use of titles. If Nicholas Ray, the director, is the matador for this film, than what is going on in this scene? What’s going on is, Ray is putting a barrier between you and the character we center with in the film, almost as a way of saying, “I dare you to challenge what this film is going to say” or, even more simply, “I dare you to enter into Jim’s world and see what he sees.” Now the audience can’t help but watch and be attentive. Now, what do we see behind the red curtain?
The toy monkey is clapping its cymbals together as Jim stumbles upon it. At first, the doll is going by itself, which gets Jim’s attention, but then winds down to nothing, and he frowns disapprovingly. The fact that it was clapping by itself is strange enough, because there is no way it would be moving unless someone had already wound it up to be moving on screen before it is even discovered. Thus, the act of the monkey moving has meaning that doesn’t pertain to just its actions and needs to be further investigated. James reaches out, winds the monkey a few times, and then watches it like a little kid until it winds down again. Covering the monkey with some trash as a blanket, they both lay on their sides in the same direction, quietly and unmoving, as the sound of police cars gets louder and louder.
The meaning that I have linked to this exchange is the idea that Jim in some way relates to this monkey, and, if you analyze this moment and the elements of their similarity it lends itself to reveal a lot about the James Dean character’s motivation and despairingly grim self image.
At this point in his life, Jim feels directionless and lost, without a reason to exist except for the occasional defense of his honor. So, in a way, he thinks that he’s just this wind up motor powered device that has the sole empty purpose of making a ruckus when he gets wound up. Other than that, he’s just living through these meaningless movements and relations over and over. He’s a toy in the way that, whenever he’s done with his perpetual cymbal crashing, his only means of existence, (and registered contextually by him beating up kids or crashing cars), his parents just pick him up and take him off to some other place and he gets wound up again.
This is the first time that Jim is physically linked to the color red, except for the titles, which exist more abstractly and for the audience. Later on, you notice the monkey’s red hat is the same color as Jim’s sport coat in the film. The red has pulled us, and him, in the world of the new town, and leads us throughout all of the interactions with other characters and story. When Jim is taken to the police station, the car that the officers bring him in has a red siren light on its hood, and later on a close up image of the red hated monkey is juxtaposed in the foreground, out of focus, as we see the character Judy, played by Natalie Wood, in focus in the background. Now we are lead into an introduction of the disparity that she feels relating to her parents and why she is out wandering the streets late at night.
Back in the first scene, the act of Jim covering up the toy monkey with the paper blanket also returns later on in the story, as Jim openly acts as a caretaker of his friend Plato, who is revealed in the police station along with Judy. Jim offers his coat to Plato when they first meet, as a sign that Jim desires the act of being comforted, or the act of being comforting, to be in his life. Either, he wants someone to come up to him and reassure him that everything will be fine, which never happens because his father and mother are clueless, or he wants to help someone who feels the way he feels so that he can in some way reach redemption for his past sins. The offering of the coat is used at the end of the film as well. Jim offers his coat to Plato and Plato wears the coat when the police at the observatory shoot him. Sadly, Jim exclaims, “He was always cold.” This idea of being comforted and sheltered is also revealed during the first exchange between Jim, his parents, and the police lieutenant. When his parent’s try to diffuse the situation through meaningless statements of stature and reasoning, Jim speaks and says, “You can’t protect me.” He realizes that his need for consoling is not going to be reached through his parents, but since he knows what he is going through he can possibly help some one else. The person who sees through Jim and understands that he needs some kind of help is the police lieutenant who questions Jim for being drunk in public and is a general liaison to the troubled youth of this town. Jim tries to punch him in order to instigate some retaliation that will finally send him away from everything, but he is thwarted by the older, wiser, and hardened police officer. He has seen this before and realizes that Jim just needs some kind of outlet for his uncertainty in order for him to survive in this town without making some kind of bad decision; when to act and when to hold back. Jim beats up the officer’s desk, and gains a person to confide in.
So, when Jim finds this monkey, he has discovered something. The thing that you could say he has discovered is he, in this town, on this street. After countless times being wound up and taken to different places he has found out that this is the place where he is finally going to stand up and get the answers that he wants from the world and his father, and to try to change the life of his friend Plato later, and to meet the pretty girl and find love and understanding. He feels finally happy and he curls up on the street to lay with this monkey version of himself and takes us to where the perpetual powder keg of the story first starts to build up, with all of the main players in the story meeting at the police department. Plato, unknown to Jim at this point, is emotionally disturbed and has just killed some puppies, Natalie Wood’s character was wandering around late at night, and Jim’s parents come to take their toy away again without understanding just why he was out late at night drunk.
When Jim gets taken to the police station he is still holding the toy and can’t imagine parting with it as he pleads with the officer at the desk. “No! Can I keep it? Huh?” The officer then replies that it’s all right and Jim and the toy are left to rest against a wall.
The Judy and monkey close up happens after this, and, when the Judy scene is finished, we no longer will ever see that monkey again. In a way, it has used up its significance as a plot or character device and no longer has any useful story properties, visually. Or does it? When we see Jim again he is sitting on a big high chair without a care if the world, making siren noises and manufacturing shootouts with his pistol finger at other officers. So what happened to the monkey? Did he loose it? Did it get taken away? I don’t think there’s a possible ‘right’ answer to that question, but, in a way, the director is no longer saying that Jim connects with the monkey. He, instead, shows us that, in fact, Jim is the monkey, being wound up and gazed at for amusement of his drunken antics by the police lieutenant, his family, and everyone else that he meets throughout the story (including the audience watching the film).
So how does Jim act as the monkey later on?
If Jim were the monkey in the rest of the movie, then he is always being stumbled upon and studied and wound for the enjoyment of others. When his parents arrive at the police station, his father is laughing as Jim tries to set him up on a pedestal. The fatherly god-like image is what Jim desires and when his dad starts to laugh Jim bitterly says, “Do you think I’m funny?” He even goes, as far as to question Plato as to why he didn’t take his jacket. Even later yet, the jocks challenge him at the observatory in a knife fight. Jim wants nothing more than for these people to just like him and not give him a hard time, but all they can do is rile him up and wait to see what happens. Since the knife fight that occurs leads to Jim having the upper hand, another challenge is established in the form of the car race with Buzz. Subconsciously, Jim has realized what he is to everyone around him. So, instead of finding another outlet to release all of the winding and tension building in his life, like punching the desk like he does at the police station, and it ends with a person being killed. Jim realizes that he could have stopped this and is tired of things being that way, so he returns to the police station, but the officer he confided in is gone. Again, he is left alone.
After meeting up with Judy and Plato, they escape to the Mansion that Plato had told Jim about. They are hiding from the kids that are after them for going to the police. They begin to chase them and Jim realizes that he doesn’t have to keep himself safe anymore, but he has to keep Plato safe, after Plato murders one of the kids with a gun and shoots at the police as they are escaping.
Jim follows Plato back to the observatory and tries to be a father figure for his friend and finally gets his coat accepted by the frightened kid. A small battle won that relates to covering the monkey at the beginning. But, the only one who gets to benefit from this is Jim because as soon as Plato leaves the building he is shot. The color red that is so prominent throughout the movie is left in the form of the red jacket being left with Plato’s dead body as the paramedics take him away.
So Jim thought, am I just crashing two cymbals together in order to amuse or entertain the gazes of the people around me? Or, do I really feel good about the decisions I make in life and do they make me a better and stronger and more assured person because I know deep down that I am not some mindless thing and there is good and honor in the world that I just have to find a way to harness and take control of.
Conceptually, this essay tried to explain the presence of the cymbal monkey in the credit sequence of Rebel Without A Cause and explained how Jim is a toy in his universe until he eventually decides to break free of himself and become a real person. All in all, we’re just spinning our tires until an incident snaps our attention back and we find purpose and understanding in a seemingly pointless and cold world.