Rebel Without a Cause really gets the heart beating when the world is blown to bits.
In an iconic scene near the beginning of the movie, James Dean's Jim Stark and other denizens of his high school gotto the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where they view a diorama, voiced by an elderly scientist, of what will happen when the earth is finished. The stars collide with our planet, the sky explodes and a crazy-quilt color of sight and sound greet the impressionable youth.
Jim's child-like friend Plato (Sal Mineo) can't take the apocalyptic projection and dives under his seat. To which Dean finds him after the show. Looking over the cowering boy, Dean says, famously, "You can wake up now, the universe has ended."
The scene is part of a Cold War horror show of the 1950s, when Americans were sufficiently concerned about the world ending to create elaborate fallout shelters and learn how to roll into a ball when a nuclear bomb hits at school. In Rebel, released in 1955, the youth act out in assorted dangerous ways as a means of release from a world gone loco.
They knife each out while playing games of chicken. They are killed during "chickie runs," where two hot rods race to a cliff's edge to see who can either brake or jump out of the car last. They physically torment class members who show any signs of weakness.
While in my mind not a masterpiece, Rebel Without a Cause shimmers brightly due to its preoccupation with estranged youth and the effects on society. Jim Stark's parents, with the dad played by future GIlliigan's Island castaway Jim Backus, constantly bicker and change towns seemingly one of a year. Backus's character is especially timid, wearing an apron in one climactic scene where Dean's Jim pleads for him to stand up to his harpy of a mother and be a real man.
Plato's rich parents have left him with nannies and are uninvolved and unavailable. Dean's love interest in the film, played by Natalie Wood, is harassed by her unloving father and must kowtow to the point of wearing prim outfits and not being allowed to go out. She is simmering with resentment and joins a rough crowd at school.
The parents are weak and clueless about the needs of youth, a nice metaphor to why the teenager's world is ending. These youth are prone to nihilistic self-destruction. School and book learning are unimportant when the world is about to come crashing down.
Dean's agonized lament, oft-repeated today: "You're tearing me apart!"
That the move ends in tragedy for one of the main characters, bringing together parents and teens, is a bit too melodramatic. Yet it strikes a chord about the cultural gap between generations that is only healed through death.
That was the 1950s. I also recently watched a much-more subversive teen-based movie from the late 1960s, a time when students were rebelling on college campuses and marching and throwing firebombs on the streets of Paris. There was the Vietnam War in full bloom, sending innocent lives to be massacred, assassinations and race riots. Quite a time to be alive.
The movie in question is Lindsay Anderson's If..., a 1968 film starring Malcolm McDowell in his first starring role., where he was discovered by Stanley Kubrick and cast in A Clockwork Orange. McDowell plays Mick Travis, one of a class of teenagers at a rigid English boarding school -- called a boy's college in the film -- who deal with their own set of problems brought on by older individuals in authority roles.
In this case, Mick and his friends are the victims of the Whips, a set of older students who are charged by the ineffectual school administrators to keep discipline and enact punishment as needed. They do so with gusto, constantly threatening students with body-damaging blows and isolation from others. There are no parents around to save these teens -- as they purportedly have little involvement with their kids and have left them to the torture chamber of a boarding school, in a gothic, stone-walled castle.
These students might meekly subsume their identity to the Whips but they are far from innocent in thought. In one major scene that only could only have been shot in the late 1960s, Mick and a friend go into the city, steal a motorbike from a showroom, and drive the countryside with a nude woman in tow. The woman is by all accounts a fantasy but that is never made clear. The scene fits with other fantastical flights in movies of the time, when reality and dreams are sometimes aligned without an explanation (see Luis Bunuel and Jean-Luc Godard for reference).
Their act of rebellion is much more serious than stealing a motorbike. The movie is, in fact, controversial and still leads to shock today for its plot evolution. After a severe beating by The Whips in which McDowell's character is lashed while bent over a bar for several long minutes, the teens fight back. Conveniently, while cleaning out the school's basement storeroom as punishment for misdeeds, they come across a stockpile of automatic weapons and grenades. And they know what to do with them.
In a final scene (spoiler alert but necessary to this narrative), they lure the administrators and The Whips to the school lawn. They are waiting on a building roof, where they open fire in a carnage of smoke and bodies on the ground. McDowell, along with his mates and the now-clothed girl, rain down bullets and leer in triumph.
The movie fades to black, with the word If... in white across the dark screen.
If... is a fantasy, of course, a revenge fantasy where those in weaker positions take bloody vengeance on their tormentors. It fits the '60s motif of rebellion to a sharp point, a time when you couldn't trust anyone over 30, groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were calling for government overthrow and violence was envisioned as a solution for change.
So, we have the self-destruction tendencies of Cold War Kids in the 1950s, embodied in Rebel Without a Cause, and the outwardly destructive 1960s teens who believe in violent resistance.
What does this say about today's movies? We have turned more inward, less rebellious against others who may be in our way. We have movies about drug abuse and abusive parents, we see teens lives destroyed by poor personal choices. But we don't have wholesale rebellion any longer, not really against society or the neighborhood where you live.
We can claim the older generations were a more innocent time for teens. But watch some of the films, including Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass, or the juvenile delinquent drama of the 1950s, Blackboard Jungle, for an adult view of growing up unloved. It was a different time but it also made for some compelling and controversial cinema.