Rebel Without a Cause: The end of the world will come at dawn

‘Rebel Without a Cause’ plays at SAFMA.

Bilal Iqbal September 11, 2011


Jim Stark is a Rebel Without a Cause. He knows he is unhappy with the way things are, but he does not understand why. Nor does he know what to do; he wants answers but nobody seems to be able to give him any.

He wants his father to be strong for him, to stand up, to “knock Mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop picking on him”. He loves his father but does not want to be like him, a “chicken”; this spurs him on to do things that he knows are dangerous, but these are things he has to do for the sake of “honour”. Then there are Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), who have problems of their own. But really, all three teenagers just want to belong somewhere.

The 1955 film, directed by Nicholas Ray, was nominated for three Oscars and praised for the performance of its lead actors. It was screened at Safma Media Centre on Friday.

The attendance was high, possibly because of the month-long hiatus during Ramazan. That and James Dean himself is quite the crowd puller, according to the organisers. Consequently a few had to stand as they watched the film. Some people entered the auditorium well into the movie. Others kept on shuffling, disrupting the experience.

The copy was clean, but the audio level was low, making listening to the dialogue a challenge to those sitting at the end of the small hall. The organisers turned on the subtitles, which while addressing the low-volume issue, added an unintended comedic element to the film. For instance a character sobbing on scream was accompanied by the subtitle “sobbing”; a whispered dialogue’s subtitle would read: “Whisper: XYZ”; and a climactic moment in the film was accompanied by a subtitle along the lines of “thrilling music”.

The film itself has rightly earned itself a place in the classics. Teenage angst has been the undoing of many a people and seldom has it been portrayed as brilliantly as in Rebel Without a Cause. Set aside 1950’s America, and the characteristic jazzy dialogue of the era, and what you have is a story that transcends cultures and times.

The film is made along the lines of classic Hollywood narrative. As such the emphasis is on the characters and their motivations, rather than creative manipulations of the scenes or camera. Nicholas Ray, the director, thus relies heavily on his actors to carry the film. Thankfully for him they do not let him down. The performances strike a fine balance between over-the-top and the understated.

Equally strong is the film’s plot, which is as confused as the characters. There is no heavy-handed moral lesson to be had here and no Bollywood-style closures. The plot keeps the viewer guessing as to how it will end and manages to avoid the all-too-obvious clichés.

If there is one criticism to be had, it is how seemingly fast the plot moves. The entirety of the film happens in a span of a couple of days and the kind of strong relationship that develops between the three characters just does not seem realistic by any stretch of the imagination, even after accounting for the fact that they are but teenagers.

This in turn perhaps affects the viewer’s interpretation of the end, which while adequate, is not outright strong. It goes well with the story but fails to have the kind of impact on the viewer that the director probably intended.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2011.


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