Rebel Without a Cause ★★½

Watched as part of the July 2018 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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18. Watch a film starring any two or more screen legends from AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars list

This is the first James Dean movie I've ever seen, and I was legitimately shocked to discover how cartoonishly dated and treacly sentimental it actually is, compared to its perennial reputation for providing Dean with his most famous "sexy tough guy" role. Part of that is simply from the movie's concept itself -- I've been long mistaking this in my head for Marlon Brando's The Wild One from those same years, and thinking it was about a motorcycle rebel, but in fact "Rebel" in this movie's title is actually being used with a bit of irony, in that it's actually about the rise of petty crime among bored middle-class teens in the millions of soul-killing suburbs that suddenly sprang up in America after World War Two, the start of the '50s hysteria over "juvenile delinquents" and also the start of the "suburbs are killing us all" meme that was still so prevalent in the '80s when I was a teen.

And then part of that -- sorry, Rebel fans -- is the undeniable fact that this movie has not aged well whatsoever, almost 65 years old now and as square as you would expect for a movie that age. I have to admit, it was hard for me to watch Dean in his dorky grandpa windbreaker, chugging bottles of milk whenever he's upset, and having any other reaction than cackling wickedly at how edgy he used to be perceived half a century ago; and this is not to mention the "gang" of squeaky-clean white-bread hot-rodders who serve as Dean's antagonists, who evince all the menace of a bunch of Broadway dancers prancing around as Jets in West Side Story. Ironically, the only person left in this movie who even passes as legitimately compelling is Sal Mineo's bullied nerd Plato, who the production crew has famously confirmed over the years was very deliberately written to be gay in a sublimated Hays Code era; his nice-guy routine that suddenly explodes into unexpected horrific violence is still highly relatable in a modern LGBTQ, social-media world, making this minor character now the most interesting thing in this oftentimes now eye-rolling mellerdrammer.

I mean, yes, it's still a classic, and yes, it's still worth watching at least once -- if nothing else, its innovations in film processing makes this the most visually dramatic color film of its time. It's just funny to me, thinking back to my youth in the '80s, when Dean and this role was still held up as the ultimate example of dangerous cool, emblazoned on thousands of mirror-posters sold at suburban Spencer's Gifts from coast to coast, while just one generation later it comes off now more as a historical object for a time capsule than a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed in a modern way, one of those movies you'll have to force your kids to watch at half-attention while they smirk the entire time and tweet about their out-of-touch parents. Although still worth your time, it should be watched with all these warnings in mind.

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