“You shouldn’t believe what I say when I’m with the rest of the kids. Nobody acts sincere.”
So says Natalie Wood’s character Judy in this celebrated movie about teen angst released fifty-eight years ago. Is this a great movie?
It’s probably impossible to evaluate it on its own merits. Budding star James Dean died a month before the release, catapulting himself and the film to mythical status. We learn from Wikipedia that (even before his death):
“When production began, Warner Bros. considered it a B-movie project, and Ray used black and white film stock. When Jack Warnerrealized James Dean was a rising star and a hot property, filming was switched to color stock and many scenes had to be reshot in color.”
I’d strengthen that point. The movie is for the most part silly; Dean carries it.
An early scene makes the point (you can watch it here). Jim (Dean) notices Judy, who is initially unimpressed, but we see Dean’s a cool, charismatic dude. Judy’s mild contempt rings hollow in the face of Jim’s bemused indifference. One imagines her description of him to Buzz as the “new disease” to be more plaintive than smug. By the end of that day she’ll have changed her mind.
The movie is actually mostly set within that single day, the first day of school for Jim Stark who recently moved to the area. Like many kids, he’s embarrassed by his parents and is really sensitive about being picked on. After Judy catches his eye, her boyfriend Buzz bullies Jim and challenges him to a knife fight (!). No cutting, you see, just sticking. Jim wins by knocking Buzz’s knife away. Buzz then challenges Jim to that famous game of chicken and the rest of the movie follows its tragic consequences.
We see a lot of B-strength writing in the film’s pandering to cultural talking points of the day. Here is Roger Ebert’s review:
In the early 1950s, his unfocused rage fit neatly into pop psychology. The movie is based on a 1944 book of the same name by Robert Lindner, and reflected concern about “juvenile delinquency,” a term then much in use; its more immediate inspiration may have been the now-forgotten 1943 book A Generation of Vipers, by Philip Wylie, which coined the term “Momism” and blamed an ascendant female dominance for much of what was wrong with modern America. “She eats him alive, and he takes it,” Jim Stark tells the cop about his father.
Weak writing seeks to confirm the flawed intuition of an audience. It takes an ambitious film to challenge it and a great film to change it. It’s easy to say “kids are crazy these days” and point to whatever fad happens to be in the news as evidence. The thing is that kids have always seemed crazy and always will. Have you seen this study (or another like it)? Adolescent Brains Biologically Wired to Engage in Risky Behavior:
“Our results raise the hypothesis that these risky behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs or having unsafe sex, are actually driven by over activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system, a system which appears to be the final pathway to all addictions, in the adolescent brain,” Poldrack said.
These kids weren’t ‘crazy’, the were just bored and happy to risk their life for an edge in the status game of teen-hood. Jim, for all his protagonist’s self-awareness, is incensed by simple name-calling of “chicken”. For a teenager, humiliation and death are frightfully close together in significance before an accident.
And yet the film is capable of nuance. The ultimate act of madness, the game of chicken, had a distinctly non-crazy, almost nonchalant emergence. There wasn’t a grudge between Buzz and Jim: “I like you, you know?”, says Buzz at one point. “Then why are we doing this?” asks Jim. “We got to do something. Don’t we?” Same today. Buzz can’t eject because his sleeve gets caught and over the cliff he goes.
The film misses a chance to dwell a bit on the effect this would have had on the kids. There are glimmers of fear and shock and remorse, of course. And the boys worried about Jim talking frankly with the police rings true to me.
I was actually surprised at how modern the film felt and looked; much of our society’s norms and visible technology was in place then in the 50s. It makes me wonder, how far back could such a movie been made?
For technology, probably not long before. But I suspect that its plot and theme of parental angst over crazy teens would probably resonate with any group of middle class families back to the dawn of time. Try reading Lermontov’s *A Hero of Our Time* a mid-19th century treatment of similar modern themes.
Not starving? Not at war? Got some serious leisure on your hands? Then it doesn’t matter when you were born: you probably whine to your friends about how the kids these days just don’t get it.