[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

The White Flight phenomenon of the 1950s saw middle-class America withdraw from the cities and settle down in the suburbs. This resulted in the television supplanting cinema as the preeminent medium of entertainment. The film industry intended to tackle this by offering unique attractions and introducing more spectacular formats such as the widescreen CinemaScope. The aim was to lure audiences from the cosiness of suburban houses back to theatres. One of the most prominent examples of CinemaScope, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause too sought to shake up the tranquillity of suburban life by exploring the disquiet simmering beneath its apparent peace and propriety. The constituent of this disquiet is juvenile resentment and dissent, but unlike The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Rebel Without a Cause tackles the subject entirely from the perspective of the youngsters.

            In the first scene, three teenagers are seen detained at the police station at night: Jim (James Dean) for drunkenness, Judy (Natalie Wood) for vagrancy and Plato (Sal Mineo) for killing puppies. Ray expertly cuts from one character to another to develop of a collective portrait of youth gone astray. As the cops interrogate the trio, we get an idea of the reason underlying their worrisome action. Jim, the protagonist, bemoans a lack of authority in his life. His cuckolded father (Jim Backus), who can’t stand up to his nagging wife (Ann Doran), disappoints him with his indecisiveness and timidity. In his fear of inheriting his father’s spinelessness, he roughs up anyone who calls him a ‘chicken’, prompting his parents to move towns to cover up his aggression. At the police station, he gets thrown down by the interrogating officer, who earns Jim’s respect for that.

Judy’s father doesn’t dote on her the way he used to when she was a child. Suddenly expected to behave like a woman, Judy draws the attention of her parents through her transgressive behaviour. Plato lives with a guardian ever since his parents separated and left him alone. Armed with a pistol, he lashes out at anyone abandoning him. The film makes it amply clear that these are not teenagers from difficult economic backgrounds. The youth we see are affluent; most drive around in their own cars and live in large suburban houses. It is, in fact, the materialist and convenient life of post-war America, devoid of a sure moral grounding, that the boys and girls are reacting against. Rebel Without a Cause is thus an account of a generation coming to age at a time of peace, but also one of empty spiritual lives.

Produced by Warner Brothers, the film traces its lineage partly to psychiatrist Robert Lindner’s eponymous book on psychopathy. While its script does offer ample psychoanalysis of its characters, Nicholas Ray isn’t interested as much in offering a study of these wayward youngsters as obliging the viewer to share their viewpoint. Criminal behaviour is evoked, but it remains off-screen, registering simply as symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Classical Hollywood’s poet laureate of youth, Nicholas Ray immerses us into a world in which adults are only powerless spectators. His focus is on young people living through the final hours of a tumultuous period in their lives. The film unfolds in just over a day, a duration in which the teens break with their parents, make friends, experience death, find love and come of their own.  

            In one famous scene, the school takes its students to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a show on constellations. The youngers’ rivalries and grudges seem positively petty set against the commentator’s remarks on the insignificance of human life on the cosmic scale. On the other hand, the emotions they are living through is a veritable end-of-the-world scenario for them. Jim and his peers are, as it were, “half in love with easeful death”, even though they don’t wholly understand the concept. They engage in a sensational knife fight outside the observatory in a display of one-upmanship. That night, they continue their battle in the form of a “chickie race”, which involves driving stolen cars towards a cliff and jumping off at the last moment. Jim survives, but his rival Buzz (Corey Allen) perishes.

            As Jim unsuccessfully explains to his parents that he should turn himself in and walks away to the police station, the other youngsters decide to threaten him against it. This leads to a long night of strife in which all the teenagers of the town are out on the streets, the adults relegated to the margins of this failed society. Running away from the mob, Jim, Judy and Plato end up at a deserted mansion near the observatory. They romance, crack jokes and horse around in the dark—a behaviour much removed from the death-stricken panic of the hour before. If the film’s depiction of the youngsters’ amoral power games was a sharp deviation from the clear moral binaries of classical Hollywood, this indifferent response to a fatal incident borders on the scandalous.

            In their playacting at the mansion, the trio simulates a nuclear family—Jim the husband, Judy the wife and Plato the child. And in this improvised roleplay, they come to work through each other’s complexes and satisfy one another’s needs. The diminutive Plato sees in Jim and Judy parents who will never abandon him like his real parents did. Judy finds a protective figure in Jim, under whose affectionate kisses she can grow up at her own pace. And in standing up for Judy and Plato, Jim walks out of the shadow of his father’s cowardliness to find a stable moral compass. None of these roles is real, but it is good enough to take them through their night of sentimental education.

            “It’s an age where nothing fits”, remarks Judy’s mother. She’s talking about Judy straddling childhood and adult life, but it could well be a comment on Ray’s use of the Cinemascope. Shot in a dizzyingly wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1, the film employs the horizontal spread offered by the format in striking ways. In the very first shot, Dean falls down drunk on the road, his body slowly contracting to accommodate itself into the frame. Objects and actors hurtle across the screen at great speed all through the film, and Ray’s compositions in deep space, his unusual camera angles and movements, his anti-grammatical editing produces a strong, baroque aesthetic. Ray pays great attention to the teenagers’ clothing and footwear, whose primary-colour dominated palette clashes violently with the brown-and-grey outfits of the adults and the sedate, beige wallpapers of the houses.

            The single most non-conforming element, however, is the figure of James Dean himself. His very presence in the film, conveys a sense of spontaneous revolt. The memorable image of him in his iconic red jacket, collar upturned and his fists in the pocket, is a picture of coolness as much as of barely contained rage. Dean’s is a truly modern performance in the vein of Marlon Brando. His improvised body language, with muffled gestures and a lowered head, and his purposefully inarticulate line reading draw him inward from the screen, cultivating an aura of seductive mystery about him. Dean died in an accident a month before the premiere of this film at the age of 24. His death catapulted his celebrity onto a mythical plane, turning him into an enduring symbol of youth rebellion. Rebel Without a Cause, his most famous film, embodies what its French title describes: a lust for life.


[Originally published at Firstpost]

On Inspiration and Neorealism

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 483; 19 April 1959.

Wind Across the Everglades

It’s not because—in accordance with his sacrosanct habit of quitting a film on the eve of the last day of shooting when it’s not commensurate with his genius—Nicholas Ray abandoned the “set” of Wind Across the Everglades that it must be considered a lesser work. It’s not a masterpiece and it will figure perhaps at the eight position among the seventeen films of its auteur; but it’s nevertheless above the mean.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those ambitious films intended for an adventure movie market and, in this market, way too far from the norm. If he likes big subjects, Nicholas Ray nonetheless doesn’t consider the adventure movie a minor genre. For him, action, the behaviour of man in the natural world, teaches us everything about the individual and the universe. That was what was novel in Bigger than Life, where each psychological feature was expressed by the most violent of physical gestures.

Contrary to what we might think before seeing it, Wind Across the Everglades isn’t any Hollywood film. It’s an independent production put together by Budd Schulberg, writer of socially-oriented films like On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, who hates nothing more than Hollywood. But the story of this film demonstrates that he hasn’t understood what Ray sought beneath the neorealist principle of the film. For Ray, neorealism is a passkey to profundity while, for Schulberg, it’s neorealism for the sake of neorealism. Since Italians make good films in the street, it’s enough to copy them and sit with your arms folded.

Made on a small budget in the vicinity of a small village in the marshes of Everglades (Florida)—a wild, tropical Bresne—in entirely natural settings, with unknown, indigenous and amateur technicians and actors—it’s a jockey playing the ex-jockey, a boxer playing the ex-boxer, a famous writer playing the man of law—Wind Across the Everglades is first of all a documentary. Ray isn’t satisfied reusing footage from Warner Bros’ documentary stock. He films himself the shots of birds and reptiles which are among the most beautiful that cinema has given us. Beautiful in their violence, in their striking framing, in the poetic movement (which we find again in the scenes played by actors) by which the camera moves towards the animal, in the very manner that Ray directs these animals by making them overcome various obstacles. A Walt Disney crew already went to the region, but couldn’t give us as lively a document.

The subject? Like in all Nicholas Ray films, it’s violence. At the turn of last century, a young professor of natural science, now a guard at the Everglades natural reserve, seeks to stop the massacre of millions of birds that Cottonmouth, surrounded by outcasts, lunatics and convicts, hunts for pleasure in the depths of the marshes. The most surprising aspect is this portrait of beings on the margins of the society that interests Ray, who spent a part of his youth rummaging in the least civilized regions of the USA (even The Lusty Men and Hot Blood focus on bohemian lives and gypsies). But the portrait here is very cruel (cf. the jockey character). The struggle of the young man against violence is only of secondary interest. Ray has already dealt with that subject a number of times, and today he has dedicated himself to seeking the poetry of reality.

And so, the guard takes great pleasure in the lives of his worst enemies. Like in Bitter Victory, whose most subtle scene—the snake and the gunshot—we find reversed here, which also recalls the ending of Run for Cover, Wind Across the Everglades shows us the fever of men and the uniqueness of things. A very 1900s bath in the sea, a baroque pleasure house, an insane feast and a dying Burl Ives calling out to the crows: “Come and get me! Swamp-born, swamp-fattened!” The actors—Christopher Plummer, Chana Eden, Sammy Renick—are excellent since Nick Ray knows how to make them accomplish very natural gestures, which he accompanies with very short camera movements that give the impression of improvisation. In such a feverish life, the hero is always dishevelled, just like the film. The colour is average; the script, editing and music, very mediocre.

Will a more homogenous, more complete work, where the subject is just a pretext, emerge from this return to nature, whose beauties Nick Ray has naively sought to capture with the same love for life as a Griffith (Schulberg, though, hardly likes it)? That’s what happened with Renoir and Rossellini. Unfortunately, Ray is unemployed since a year thanks to a lack of clients.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

We Can’t Go Home Again (1976)
Nicholas Ray


We Can't Go Home AgainNicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again, ostensibly the director’s most personal and complex film, was made by the director and his students during his stint as a film professor at State University of New York, Binghamton, under abysmal financial conditions (which is also what the film is about). Ray kept editing the film for almost a decade and the final version never saw the light of the day. The second cut, which dates to 1976, is as far from the studio pictures made by the filmmaker as it can be. We are far from the eye-popping days of ultra-widescreen, for one, with its 4:3 ratio. Instead of the frame becoming an infinite canvas in front of us, it keeps diminishing, sharing screen space with a bunch of similar frames. (The film was shot on a number of formats, projected on a single screen, which was then recorded on 35mm). This splintering of the visual field, the generally pathetic sound and the entire filming method highly befits both the ideological fragmentation of Ray’s radicalized students and the progressive mental and physical breakdown of Ray himself (who appears to play a slightly fictionalized version of himself). This sharing of screen space by multiple smaller frames, like a cubist painting, seems to suggest the amorphous worldview of the misguided youngsters – types from an era – who see the equally vacillating Ray as some sort of secondary father figure, one away from home. The one-eyed Ray, as if throwing light on the politics of his films, seemingly advises them, without condescension, that no ideological position must blind them of the human elements that make up the system, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.