By Robert Kenneth Dator.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955); East of Eden (1956); Giant (1956); three films, and only three, classics all and the stuff of legend, starring the only actor to truly give a young Marlon Brando a run for his money: James Dean. The only thing more difficult to accept than the untimely death of this absolutely unique actor of extraordinary gifts, whose screen presence and performance power remain unmatched, is lamenting what he might have left on film had he lived, and matured, and stretched…
Who was James Byron Dean? It is certain no one knows—not to a certainty, not all of the living embodiment of mystique that was James Dean, not all of him.
A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951, renders the finest speculation yet offered. But more than this, and most significantly, writer/director Matthew Mishory has managed to capture an austere beauty of a kind little known and little understood by all but the likes of Baudelaire. Baudelaire, who understood the languorous insouciance of perfect youth stretched out like a cat in the warm sun, of that fleeting moment when immortality seems possible in the morning of life, in that eternal summer.
Those who love Baudelaire know of that particular wistful generosity of spirit that observes, forever, with a clear and tender eye, all those on the uphill side of thirty, in the afternoon of their lives, not yet ready to yield their place and retire to the shade. And it is all here, gliding past like swans down pushed by a breath of wind on crystal waters; for lovers of the Decadents, a film that delves into the secret world before gay people and gay culture; in that time of homosexual Hollywood; in that time when bicoastal Greeks installed their Agora at Ciro’s, and west coast Romans built their Palatine in Beverly Hills; in that time when everything that gave anyone pleasure in America was taboo, and so, it was game on. Anything and everything, anytime, anywhere, all the time—provided it demurred, hiding in plain sight of the envious.
Into that Babylon of gilded cynicism and tall, cold, frosty glasses, came the blond prince, James Dean, wandering at will like a curious viewer at an exhibition.
Michael Marius Pessah delivers inspired photography through establishing shots in stylized Black and White that lends the period look of the 50s era, fine print stills, and more, the overall texture is reminiscent of the sumptuous grey scales seemingly coaxed out of the film by the storied and late lamented James Wong Howe; not derivative, but unique and in such a class, which is high praise indeed. Moreover, the successful collaboration between Pessah and Mishory yields a dream complete. The careful use of “early” super-eight color against a Black and White world manipulates the temporal landscape and begs such ontological questions as: ‘What reality, which reality, who’s reality…’ A mature camera plot, anchored by well-developed and well thought-out cut points, makes for marvelous transitions; and more to the point, the camera, as entity, hovers like a disembodied spirit, seeing all, judging nothing. A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951 has, through the combined efforts of Production Designer, Samuel Perone, Matthew Mishory and Michael Marius Pessah, mastered the technical possibilities of dimension better than anything seen in a good long while. To this end, the soundtrack, in some instances soundscape, is an effective blending of diegetic noise, period ‘Top 40’ music, and moody harmonics that knit the metanarrative with its own themes to contemporaneous scenes, so that what Arban Ornelas and Steven Severin have achieved is something of a score as script with subliminal cues. In any event, it is as evocative as it is effective.
This is the story of the fragile James Dean in those moments before his meteoric rise; brash, over-confident, beautiful; now arrogant boy toy; now the insecure adolescent; now the pseudo-intellectual bully; now the tactile hedonist voyager; now the jaded student prince—but always, The Little Prince, alone in the desert, curled up weeping, a Peter Pan terrified of growing up and powerless to stop the progress.
James Preston does an impressive job of capturing the smoldering mystique of Dean’s self-awareness: that up-from-under aspect of his magnetic nature that tells one that he always knows he’s being watched, and that he always knows where the cameras are. Of note are those scenes in which Dean explores the Actor’s Studio. In these, Mishory does a wonderful job of demonstrating, or, more accurately, exposing the promise of method acting as well as its aspects of dime-store psychotherapy, only hinted at in a brief nod to “sense memory,” which made the practice so unnecessary and dangerous that it emotionally ruined so many in that era, and undoubtedly influenced Dean to his detriment.
Ironically, performances do not fair better for it either. The standout in the cast is Dan Glenn, the roommate, and the closest thing Dean ever had to a true friend and lover. Glenn’s work is focused and steady, possessed of real purpose and an inner life that simply does not quite come from everyone. Edward Singletary, Jr. does a fine job of playing the patrician roué Roger. And while this is very hard to say, and it does not please me to do so, the cast, in the main, seems to be doing a ‘walk-through.’ While not everyone is capable of delivering a riveting performance, this film really deserved, at the very least, the attempt. But since there is an evenly matched understatement bordering on the somnambulant among almost the entire cast, one has to wonder if this was not the product of an unfortunate choice on the part of director, Matthew Mishory. Happily, not even this tragic flaw can dim the sparkle of this jewel of a film. Be warned: James Dean was the original sauvage au coeur, and A Portrait of James Dean, Joshua Tree, 1951 is no more tame. The camera does not blink, and neither does the image of James Dean, the man who would be…
This is a portrait elusive and poetical in its apparent contradictions, as poetical as the man, more boy, here as courageous as he is fearful, as intrepid and insuperable as he is shy, and small, and bewildered, and alone.
Maybe, in that still September all those many years ago, when the lights came up and the world went about its business, visibly shaken and unalterably changed, James Byron Dean, The Little Prince, les enfant terrible, proved more Jim Stark, Cal Trask, and Jett Rink than anyone knew—then again, maybe he is none of these.
Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator, worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. Rob and family live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects including the website Cinepsyche, currently under construction.
A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951 (2013)
Director Matthew Mishory
Cinematography Michael Marius Pessah
Producers Edward Singletary, Randall Walk, Robert Zimmer Jr., Michael Marius Pessah
Editor Chris Kirkpatrick
Original Music Arban Ornelas and Steven Severin
With: James Preston (James Dean); Dan Glenn (The Roommate); Dalilah Rain (Violet); Edward Singletary (Roger); Erin Daniels (The Roommate’s Mother); Rafael Morais (John); Edgar Morais (Franco); Clare Grant (Beverly); Elizabeth Hirsch Tauber (Claudia) Robert Gant (The Famous Director).
Runtime 92 minutes
DVD Black and White (NTSC, Region 1) USA, 2010
Produced by Iconoclastic Features
Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital