(On Cable TV, May 2018) As a swan song for James Dean, Giant is a fitting statement. A vast family generational drama set in the vast expanses of oil-rich Texas, Giant begins as our newlywed heroine (the ever-captivating Elizabeth Taylor) moves from the East Coast to arid Texas, and befriends a ranch hand (Dean). One semi-accidental death later, the ranch hand inherits some land that proves to be soaked with oil. Over the next few decades, he develops an empire, leading to a climactic confrontation at the opening of his grand hotel where long-held feuds are detonated. Dean manages to play both a young cowboy and an aging industrialist, holding his own not only against Taylor, but also Rock Hudson as the ranch owner who ends up butting heads with his ex-employee. If Giant has a flaw, it’s that it’s a really, really long movie at three hours and twenty-one minutes. I don’t mind the multi-decade scope as much as the length of each individual scene—time and time again, the film takes forever to make a point that could have been made far more efficiently. Surprisingly enough, I don’t quite dislike Dean’s performance—he’s mopey in the film’s first half, but rural mopey rather than urban mopey or suburban mopey such as in his other two films and as such sidesteps his caricatures that have emerged since then. In the film’s last half, he effectively becomes a drunken unhappy industrialist and actually sells the role rather well despite playing decades older than he was at the time. My other issue with Giant is how it doesn’t reach a climax as much as it blows up over a lengthy period at the hotel, then moves to a roadside diner for a moral climax that actually makes the film’s conclusion feel far smaller. That’s what you get from working from a novel as source material, though—whether you have the guts to change what doesn’t make sense on the screen, or you get criticized for it. The film has endured rather well—its anti-racism streak is still surprisingly relevant, and its anti-sexism message also comes across. The film also shows with a decent amount of detail the transition from Texas’ ranching heritage to its more modern oil extraction boom. I may not like Giant all that much, but I respect it a lot, and I frankly find it disappointing that it got beaten by as frothy a spectacle as Around the World in 80 Days for the Best Picture Oscar.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) As someone who doesn’t react particularly well to the surly teenager archetype, I’m not surprised in the slightest to feel a bit underwhelmed by East of Eden, which features James Dean as a moody teenager trying to figure things out in a complicated setting with separated parents (one of them in hiding in a neighbouring town), sibling rivalry, overbearing religion, gathering clouds of war and difficult romance. It’s really not meant as a feel-good movie, and the slow pacing of the film doesn’t really help things along. This being said, there are a few things worth dwelling upon. Dean does have a certain magnetic quality to him, albeit so often repeated by other actors that it has been dulled compared to what audiences must have experienced at the time. The early-twentieth-century atmosphere of a small coastal California town is faithfully rendered in glorious colour, and there’s a sequence featuring a train and defrosting cabbage that’s quite impressive in its own right. Otherwise, I suspect that East of Eden will appeal most strongly to those with a built-in interest for historical family drama. Or to Dean enthusiasts, as one of only three in a far-too-short filmography.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Things change, people evolve and standards move … but in James Dean’s case, he remains etched in perpetuity in three movies, of which Rebel Without a Cause remains the most iconic. Dean, modern audiences are told, exemplified the new American teenager of the 1950s: cool and lost and identifiable to teenagers while being vaguely threatening to older audiences. Younger audiences then lapped it up, of course, and we ended up with an icon made permanent thanks to his undue death. From a modern perspective, though, Rebel Without a Cause remains a film of its time, and Dean is rather irritating. His then-new detachment has become annoying moping by the 2010s, and his style has been taken on by so many better actors that, at times, Dean seems to be playing an exaggerated version of James Franco. I’m being too harsh, and yet I’m stuck at how much I don’t buy into the Dean mystique now that I’m middle-aged and contemplating a near future in which my own kid will be a rebellious teenager. Rebel without a Cause, to be fair, does work now as a time capsule of mid-1950s Californian suburbia. As a teenage drama, the stakes of the film are relatively low, with an emphasis on generational disconnect rather than outright confrontation. What’s more, what the Dean hype doesn’t quite tell you is that Dean’s character in the film is more confused than detached—he’s trying to do the right thing, but the world is stacked against him and the not-so-cheery ending makes that clear. I don’t think it has aged all that well—the rebelliousness did anticipate the sixties (explaining the film’s appeal to baby boomers) but seems rather old material today when endless teen-TV series are looking at the same material, except with far more complexity. Rebel without a Cause remains an essential film if only to understand Dean’s appeal, but it’s not exactly terrific on its own for modern audiences.