Thoughts On: Rebel Without A Cause - Triviality


Rebel Without A Cause - Triviality

Thoughts On: Rebel Without A Cause

Jim, a troubled teen, spirals into calamity when trying to integrate himself into a gang.

This film is, in short, about a bunch of fucking idiots. To put it more eloquently, this is a film about growing up in trying conditions with naivety and an overwhelming recognition of the arbitrary chaos present in society and, macrocosmically, the universe. The major conflicts of this film then derive from an inability to comprehend or deal with, what is best put in abstract terms: life. For this focus on such complex yet universal themes, this film has earned the status of classic. However, this is not a perfect film. The film is extremely expressive with its characterisation and plotting because it concisely conveys its meaning, but, the hyperbolisation of both character and plot hurts the narrative in terms of verisimilitude. In this, I mean to say that the themes are over embellished, the characters overwritten and overplayed (mainly the smaller parts) resulting in an overly fantastical view of teenage issues that isn't entirely believable. To further clarify, like American Pie overplays teenage sexuality...

... Rebel Without A Cause overplays the conflicts between teenagers and their childhoods.

But, despite the hyperbolisation in the characters and plot, Rebel Without A Cause rightly deserves its place in cinematic history. The real triumphs of the film then encompass everything outside of the abandoned mansion sequence (the bulk of the third act, discluding the ending). What makes the majority of the film so great, especially the opening, is the way we're brought into a teenage perception of the world with empathy and understanding. We see Jim punching the desk, writhing with exasperation in the presence of his parents, and we completely get him. What we're being told with the opening act is then a pivotal aspect of the movie and what we'll dive into first as to get a grip on the depths of the film's meaning.

The relationship between Jim and his parents talks to the title of the movie - Rebel Without A Cause. Jim is of course our archetypal teenage rebel, rebelling against authority in its many forms: parents, school, police officers, teachers, bullies, social norm. But, whilst he rebels against these things, they aren't atom bombs, corruption, legislation, abuse, such and so on. The difference between being upset with your parents and the government is the personal and incredibly nuanced issue of mother/daughter, father/son problems. You can't protest for the change of some document somewhere to fix problems in this respect. And for this the cause of the rebel becomes intangible, essentially ceases to be. This leaves Jim rebelling for no easily perceived reason. What we're made to see with the opening and through the characterisation of Jim is, however, his cause. This is what makes this film so great - because this is quite a hard thing to do well. We see this to be the case when looking at many films with similar themes...

What these films struggle to balance, as this film does too, is action and reaction. In other words, when these movies try to delve into guns, huge parties, high stakes and a whole lot of romanticism, they loose their grip on the crux of their themes. The greater teen films are of course...

What makes these films great is their concentration on character and the confines of their plots. What this says about teen films in general is that we need verisimilitude and character to comprehend conflict - the driving force of films. Rebel Without A Cause, despite its slightly contrived climax, is a great example of this, which goes to show that the introduction is most important, that what lies beneath the title of the movie is where we find the film's worth. So, to delve deeper into Jim's situation, we simply have to see the introduction in context. What pushes Jim to get drunk, to lash out, beat the table, is a build up of many small things. It's his mother's moaning, his father's unreliability, his inability to give him a straight answer or be of any use. In short, Jim is who he is, in large part, because of his childhood and upbringing. And this is a persistent theme throughout the film. Through both Plato and Judy we are told of kids who are in a terrible transitory period between a warm childhood and colder adulthood. In this, it becomes evident that the core goal of Rebel Without A Cause is to break down the human psyche into a complex yet comprehensible equation; we are the product of our pasts interacting with our present, we are the product of how we were treated as kids, we are, in large part, the expression of things we cannot control. Jim's conflict thus becomes much clearer with this concept. His mother strives to be a huge factor of this equation of self. In short, she is controlling, she wants to determine his character and who he grows into. This isn't a bad thing, she doesn't do this with ulterior motive - she just isn't very great at it. On the other end of the spectrum is Jim's father, he is afraid of being that causal agent in his development of self. He tells him that 'you'll see when you're older' and other abstract cliches that in no way help him in his present predicaments. Jim then, without a great sense of articulation, tries to communicate this disconnect between himself and his parents. But, he can't get through to his mother that she is too much, neither can he convey to his father that he needs to man up.

This is, in fact, a huge part of Jim's character. He gets into knife fights, into the chicken race so he cannot be called 'chicken', so he isn't seen to be like his father. All of his actions are meant to be in a haphazard direction away from becoming being this...

The most poignant reflection on this paradigm of Jim growing up with these parents comes when his father says, "Choose your friends, don't let them choose you". This is said as Jim leaves for his first day of school and is a commentary on the previous scenes between Jim and his parents. The obvious implication is that Jim doesn't get to choose his parents and that such is the root of his problems. However, this suggestion is broken down with three proceeding events around the gang, the American flag and the school insignia. On his way to school we're introduced not only to the gang Judy hangs around with, but a symbol of societal formulation; people getting into groups as to add structure and hierarchy to the chaos that is a vast pool of potential big fish (high school; life in general). At school this is layered with a macrochosmic idea of groups; the American flag being raised - all before Jim steps on the school's insignia. This gets him in trouble with...

... a group of shoes - in other words, nameless, faceless masses that represent something you're not yet apart of. All of these images weigh into the thematic discussion on self-determinism with Jim and his parents. Not only is he a product of how they raised him, but also subjected to concepts of collectiveness that he also has no control over. The film then appeals to a Freudian and behaviorist perspective on the human psyche; we are blank slates controlled and determined by childhood and our environment. The conflict then built into characters from this position is all based upon a question of control. This is all surmised with the planetarium sequence:

We, along with the students, are directly told that people don't matter, that there is a confounding triviality of humanity in the vast truth of space and time because Earth will eventually be gone and mean nothing to the universe around it. This is a huge plot point of the movie, one referred to with the ending; with Plato being killed outside of the planetarium...

The composition of the above shot speaks best to the significance of this. Jim is a small figure in the frame, the planetarium gates overshadow him. It is the symbolic reference to trivial human worries that overwhelm both this shot and the characters within; Plato most. He, like almost all of the characters in this film, struggle to deal with the 'harshness' of life. I put harshness in quotes as to imply that humans attribute the adjective to an unconscious procession of events that the universe shows itself to be. It's this attribution that lies at the core of the movie. The film doesn't dwell on these existential ideas in such abstract terms though. Instead of the universe not caring for these characters, it's parents, gangs, schools, police, government. In such, we see the direct correlation between those Jim and co. rebel against and those that they wish they had some amount of control over. This control they wish they had is expressed, with corny overtones, in the abandoned mansion sequence.

These kids wish for change, for family, that people and the world alike would see as they do. This essentially leaves the film questioning who are these kids supposed to turn to for help, who is at fault for this film's ending? Is it the police? The parents? The school system? The gangs? The kids themselves?

Jim, Plato and Judy certainly see that their predicament as the consequence of their parents - essentially, how they were raised and how they're currently treated. There is, however, a huge difference between Jim and his two friends. In my opinion, fuck Plato and fuck Judy. Both of these characters face similar issues to Jim: mummy and or daddy issues. But, Jim is the only character who makes an attempt to change, who has a somewhat mature approach to his problems. This is why I opened by saying that this is a film about a bunch of fucking idiots. Whilst I understand their struggle, whilst I see why they act as they do, I don't sympathise with how they behave - Plato especially. Not only is he shamefully clingy and emotional, he shoots puppies when he's angry - and all because he hasn't got any parents around him. This, whilst a difficult situation, is not a justification for the shit he does and ends up doing. I might seem like an asshole in saying this, but I'm glad he gets shot in the end. Whilst the film maybe wants us to sympathise with the teenage plight presented, I cannot to this degree. This is not just a personal perspective, it's one that is somewhat supported by the film. Whilst it implies that parents don't always listen, that teenagers are the product of things they cannot control, it also makes clear that to fix these problems you have to turn to the root of it: the disconnect between the people and their surrounding world. This reaffirms the poignancy of the planetarium as a symbol. It's essentially because the characters in this film find it so hard to face their problems, both on a large abstract level and on a smaller one, but also to communicate to their parents as well as understand their view, that they are who they are. The ending of the film is then both the fault of parent and child. But, this end isn't just Plato dying, it's the archetypal tragic climax of a troubled teen. We get to this climax through a lack of comprehension of the universal idea that we are all living trivially minute lives on a microscopic speck in this unfathomable universe. The response to this truth shouldn't be a loss of hope, shouldn't be a nihilistic justification for violent and destructive anarchy. This truth should be a great equaliser amongst all of us. I don't mean this in the basic and banal sense of YOLO and we should stick together to get through this tough, tough life - not at all. What this universal pointlessness should make clear to us all is that we are weak, we are small, we are next to nothing, but that's something we can work with. We can use this futility as reprieve, as a way of re-contextualising self-determinism. No, we can't just fly, breathe under water or spit fire due to the constraints of physical law - and in the same respect, we are the product of things we cannot control. What we are allowed however is a certain degree of control over the way we perceive things. We can choose to see universal pointlessness as just a mere fact, one that doesn't have to affect how we see the world in a negative light. Our predicament is, as I always say: control, the fantasy; control the fantasy. Controlling everything is just what we wish we could do, what we can actually control is how we see things.

However, as the film does, we won't concentrate on the greater existential interpretation of teenage problems. How this idea of being able to control the way we see things relates to Jim and co. is in the simple idea of walking in someone elses shoes. Jim can choose to see the world as his parents do and vice versa. In this, all they have to do is listen and not react to not being heard with arguments, moaning, knife fights and so on. The simplicity of this solution, whilst ambiguous, is key. The film makes it clear that what is missing from the relationships between children and parents is a simple two-way communication. Whilst the tone of the movie, being from a teens perspective, leans harder on the parents, what Jim's character arc says is that both child and parent need to change. To fight for the cause of subjective teen problems pushing young adults into calamity, ruining lives, all you need is clarity, both in how you see and how you communicate.

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