It is often the belief that arts, independent of their different nature, serve an ultimate goal: to express, no matter how abstract or direct, a certain aspect of the social nature of man. To this end, both an adequate historical background and a powerful personal experience make the premises for the development of a picture worthy of mirroring the reality of a certain era, seen from the perspective of personal existence. Such is the case with the cinematographic production “Rebel without a cause”, the story of three adolescents on their way to adulthood.
It may seem a rather common subject in today’s society, yet, at the time of its release, it was considered a most ambitious project, as it pointed to different aspects of the social context which had not received public attention or scrutiny. Therefore, the film marks the emergence of the first signs of rebellion against the entire structure of the society; ii challenges all the components of the human environment, from its most evident element, the public authorities, to the basis of society, addressing the issue of family and parenthood, up to the most intimate and deep aspect of human life, the inner self.
It can therefore be seen as a panoramic view over the American society in the mid 50’s, touched by an outcry for reformation, change and emancipation. Public authorities are represented throughout the film as a negligible presence. The main element of authority and official rule is the police, yet, it too is placed, through its actions and by the attitude that the characters manifest towards it on a secondary plan.
In their continuous attempt to insure public order and a civilized social environment, the police manage to arrest James Dean’s character, Jim, for “plain drunkenness”, as Tim Dirks remarks in his review of the film. Nonetheless, it was quite obvious that he did not represent a threat. This only comes to add to the moral and personal constrains the character would later on deal with. From the very beginning, it is clear that the rebellious personalities would eventually clash with and disobey social moral conduct.
The relation with the police is further pushed in derisory through the open defiance of its authority from both teenagers and parents afraid of bad publicity. On the one hand, Buzz and his friends, representing the typical trouble group in search of adventure and always willing to defy extreme circumstances as a way of proving their emancipation from parental control, have no difficulty in acquiring and making use of stolen cars, which they have at their disposal.
This fact underlines the lack of concern for the rule of law of for eventual legal consequences, thus opposing any outside control. On the other hand, the minimal role that the police play in imposing a certain respect for public practices is further pointed out by the reluctant attitude of Jim’s parents when the latter insists on reporting Buzz’s death. The reaction of his indecisive father, “But you know that you did the wrong thing. That’s the main thing, isn’t it? (Dirks, 1996) together with his mother’s proposal to run from the responsibility which Jim’s presence at the accident scene had triggered, points out the disregard for the rules of moral and social justice. The school environment is yet another element of authority that is confronted by the rebellious attitude of the young teenagers. Traditionally, an exponent of the social integrity and order, the school is pictured here more as a background which intermediates the future development of the action, therefore, the entire notion of official control is symbolically undermined.
Reducing the area of perception to a deeper level of analysis, the family environment is considered, by most experts, to be in the centre of the rebellious actions that built the development of the plot. The construction is based on two dimensions: one that presents the family as seen in relation to the outside world, the society, and the other which explores the relationships that form the private atmosphere of the home. In the first situation, the three main characters are the representatives of three different classical types of family structures.
Jim’s parents are a well off couple, who try to save appearances no matter the circumstances and the implications. An example is the evasive response given by Jim’s father at the police station “You see, we just moved here you understand, and uh, the kid hasn’t got any friends, you understand, and we moved into a… ” (Dirks, 1996) the challenge facing this system of thought is evident in Jim’s following line, when he provokes his father to reveal the true reason for having moved.
Their presence on the scene of the film tries to draw the attention on the typical American family that refused to ever discuss private matters or draw negative attention upon them. Such actions were immediately labeled as dishonoring and were seldom publicly dealt with. A second archetype is represented by Judy’s family that, unlike Jim’s does not manifest itself so much in relation to the exterior, but rather in connection to attitudes among family members. Their entire structure is based on the father’s dominant figure whose affection and attention constitute the center of Judy’s universe.
He has preconceptions that are, at times, contradictory: on the one hand, he refuses to acknowledge the physical evolution of his daughter, opposing any elements of femininity such as the red dress and lipstick which he brutally rejects, and on the other hand, denies her any gestures implying fatherly affection, on reasons that “Girls your age don’t do things like that” (Dirks, 1996). This confusion in attitude is pointed out in order to underline the gap between generations, which at the time of the film constituted a serious issue in family relations.
At the same time, it succeeds in portraying Judy, and subsequently the group she symbolically stands for, as a victim of unaffectionate relations and thus offers a justification for her rebellion. Plato’s family experience is reduced to the omnipresent black maid, who is left to look after a troubled child, for whom the parental caring had been replaced by money checks. It is the usual case of the abandoned teenager in desperate need of a family surrounding.
The presence of the African American maid is a clear example of the reality of the time, suggesting the sense of racial inferiority, as it was considered a common thing that black people to take things rejected by whites. The final and most profound level of analysis is that of the personal inner self. It is at this stage that the unity of the action is considered to having been built. Director Nicholas Ray, quoted by Eisenschitz when asked on the subject, “normally reticent about articulating his ideas, was ready to reveal the name of the game: look for the father.
In one sentence, he told a journalist visiting the set, ‘he fails to provide the adequate father image, either in strength or authority'” (Eisenschitz, 1993, 254). Therefore, the key that both opens and closes the interpretation of rebellion causes is the need to find a fatherly figure. The failure to identify a figure that could embody their own personal aspirations triggers a sense of dissolution and consequently of rebellion against the entire failing system. Each of the tree characters are the results of previous and present disappointments. Jim is outraged by his father’s docile attitude in relation to his authoritarian wife.
Therefore he lacks any respect for his eventual authority as head of the family. He refuses to acknowledge him as his “pal” because he lacks the courage to confront his mother. This attitude of opposition is explained by Vicky Lebeau as the result of a “palpable desire for parental authority, and the alternative family set up by the adolescent rebel, Jimmy, can be described as simultaneously an attack upon, and a demand made to, a paternity which is failing through the father who refuses either to ‘stand up’ to the domineering mother or for his son” (Lebeau, 1994, 83).
She goes on to justify the scene in which all there characters imaginarily build a family as “an attempt to put the emasculated father back into a position of authority over his wife and son as it is an investment in peer group solidarity as source of refuge from a persecutory, or alienating, parental culture”. Judy’s search for a fatherly figure ends rather dramatic, as she eventually reoriented her affection towards Jim’s character.
There have been though interpretations that suggest, as pointed out by Fink, that in fact Judy’s strive for her father’s attention comes from the manifestation of the Electra complex. His rejection though is the final step which determines her to break away from her father and seek independence. Plato’s case is more special, as he lacks the entire family experience. Therefore, he usually imagines stories about his father, rather than actual living them. This creation of other characters makes him dependent on the conditions of his environment.
He is therefore worn out by a sentiment of powerless and vulnerability. Lawrence Josephs explains Plato’s actions and disobedience towards the society as the manifestation of “desperate and ruthless neediness in which alleviating one self of the experience of powerlessness becomes a compulsive, driven need that seems beyond volitional control… Split off from the unconscious sense of helplessness and dependence is an unconscious sense of murderous rage” (Josephs, 1995, 274-275).
All in all, the 1955 “Rebel without a cause” can be interpreted as a cinematographic manifest of the common attitudes that defined the American society at the time. Challenging authority, may it be that of the public authorities or that of the family environment, is pictured as a means of evolution and development of one’s self. Rebelling against the lack of a dignifying fatherly figure is an attempt to discover new personality perspectives and to make the transformation to adulthood.