I spent some time trying to think of a scene that was most representative of the mind-fuck that is Rebel Without A Cause, and I ended up picking this one:
Aside from the weird assortment of power objects on the left-hand side of the frame, the scene is innocuous enough: a father and a daughter enter a dining room. The impression of normality isn't entirely blown when she leans in and kisses Dad on the mouth:
Dad's reaction, however, which is to act appalled and say things like "We should have stopped doing that a long time ago" sounds a bit like "protesting too much"and when the daughter protests the protestation, explaining the kiss away as just a girl "[loving] her daddy," the overall atmosphere has begun to sink into a squirm-inducing miasma of sexual tension.
"Girls your age don't do things like that," insists Dad, "You need an explanation?" It's probably fair to say that a more overt explanation isn't really necessary for most viewers: at this point the hidden incest subtext is pretty much threatening to burst out and become, well, the text. Not to be daunted, she goes in for another kiss (the addition of the young brother to the scene only compounding the Freudian dynamic here):
Dad's reaction, this time, is violent:
Judy storms out, and Mom makes the effort to rationalize the whole episode by saying that sheJudyis at "the age where nothing fits." The little brother gives that age a label"The atomic age!" and he fires sparks across the table:
and that's the point where you really start saying "Did the film really go there? Did they really just draw some kind of unholy quadrangle joining up unconscious incest fantasy, domestic violence, the 1950's, and atomic technology? And what's all this doing in a film that I thought was supposed to be a piece of classic-Hollywood fluff about rebellious teens?"
OK, yeah, on one level Rebel Without A Cause is in fact about rebellious teens. It has some sequencesa knife fight, horseplay with cars on a dangerous bluffwhich offer the old promise of revealing "what today's kids are really up to": the kind of prurient moralizing tease also engaged in by more recent films like Larry Clark's Kids (1995), or next week's pick, Thirteen (2003). But Rebel Without A Cause is about a much broader set of social anxieties, of which "out of control kids" is only a minor subset.
The film seems to be anxious about everything, ranging from psychosexual family dynamics (above) to the literal end of the world. The kids go on a school trip to the planetarium which culminates in a Scary As Fuck cosmic apocalypse:
Then there's also the major uneasiness about contested masculinitybest exemplified by Mr. Stark, James Dean's henpecked dad:
Speaking of"henpecked"there's also a subtle but recurring hangup about the "animal other" going on here: Dean complains repeatedly that his family is a "zoo," and a few times in the film he's called a "chicken," an insult he seems to take literally, even before the film goes to the trouble of literalizing it for us:
Basically, the filmmakers stuff 20 pounds of cultural anxiety into a 10-pound bag, and the vision of the world that results is leaking enough dread that it borders on into the surreal. It's menacing enough to leave me thinking of it as a clear influence on fucked-up processing-the-baggage-of-the-50's films like John Waters' Female Trouble (1974) or David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986). (Note that Rebel Without a Cause features a young Dennis Hopper as a rather beautiful thug who could easily turn into Frank Booth 30 years down the road.) These later films represent a full bursting-open of the overstuffed, oozing anxiety-bag that is Rebel Without a Cause, and in this regard seem practically therapeutic in comparison.