Monday, July 6, 2009

James Dean Ain't Got Shit on Me

#92 A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens

Fonzi eventually became a corporate hack, right?

A leather jacket, greased backed hair and disregard for the English language. In 2009 these dudes are relics, but forty to fifty years ago they were it -- the shit. Riding a motorcycle with no place to go made you the coolest mother fucker in the world. The less direction and ambition you possessed the better. And why was that so cool?

It’s part of Americana to be aimless (The song “'Aaay'mless” was even sung by American rebel Fonzi in Happy Days the Musical). Maybe that’s because, as a nation, we’re a little aimless ourselves. We’re the rebels, the whippersnappers breaking away from old man Europe. Eventually, though, we became the man. Just like we know Fonzi eventually married Pinky Toscadero and stopped bagging preteens. Fonzi got a suit and tie and invaded Iraq like the rest of us.

Even in the literary world there are the cool cats. Writers like Ernest Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac seemed just as likely to smash your face in as to pen a sonnet. But these drifters all are part of our larger cultural history.

Rebels can be mainstream, too. That doesn’t make them less rebelish, though. Shaquille O’Neal is still a super bad-ass basketball player despite aging. In addition to his presence in the paint, Shaq is a pop culture icon. And he tweets. And his tweets are interesting and honest and give a glimpse into the world of a man that wears size 23 shoes. Twitter certainly is a fad that some (me!!!) have latched on to. To think that I could easily be in communication with Shaq anytime I want boggles me. It probably took Shaq eight seconds to set up an account, but with that action, he made him accessible to the world. I mean, can you picture Michael Jordan doing that? Plus, he doesn’t fake it like Britney Spears does. Shaq latched onto a mainstream idea and -- as a celebrity -- that makes him a rebel.

And I guess that’s the paradox of a rebel. The only people who really want to be outcasts are the most Plain Jane people among us. Fonzi pined for acceptance. Sure, his bravado was too much sometimes and he hated to admit he was wrong, but he never really wanted to escape. From his garage-attic apartment he yearned for the love and familiarity the Cunningham’s often took for granted.

And that’s what the film A Place in the Sun examines. There are no rebels without a cause. I’d argue that only true aimless people are drug attics. Rebels always possess some motivation, however veiled in may be. Even if it’s crazy, there’s still a driving force. The Joker loved chaos, Dean Moriarty loved to wander, and George Eastman from A Place in the Sun desired acceptance.

As a movie, A Place in the Sun was mediocre at best. The plot contained lots of holes and dragged at times. Lead actor Montgomery Clift – much like that Clash song about him – failed at evoking empathy from the audience. The idea behind his character and the questions his actions posed were enough to sustain me.

Playing a country boy, Clift wants to work in his wealthy, famous uncle’s factory. He doesn’t want a handout or to be included, he just wants a job and to orbit the celestial body that is his family. He’s dark, mysterious and kinda good looking. But that’s really all you know about him. Throughout the entire film, there’s really not too much revealed.

And then he goes out and murders someone. And all this shit hits the fan and all of a sudden, now he’s a big rebel. But I think he’s less, though. Murder is common, and it’s the easy way out – especially if it’s a crime that makes sense. OJ Simpson isn’t a rebel (especially since he got off), he’s just a little nuts. However unjustified he might have been, it totally made sense. Simpson found his ex-wife shacking up with some dude. What makes more sense that to kill him/her? Not right, just kinda logical. Like the Unabomber and Tim McVeigh are mass murdering, political message driven murders – they’re rebels. A crime of passion involves just dudes that overreacted at the wrong time when dangerous elements were around.

In the film, George lives a double life and finds himself in a love triangle. While a poor boy, he knocked up his nice, innocent girlfriend (Shelly Winters). Now he’s found moderate success and a fancy, rich lover (Elizabeth Taylor). What are you gonna do with the preggers broad? The obvious answer may not have been taking her out to the woods for a “romantic” getaway, renting a boat, and capsizing it, causing her to drown, but it worked. Until he got caught and stuff.

Which is even more interesting. If he wasn’t such a bumbling idiot rebel, he totally could have gotten away with it. His problem was that he drew attention to himself (with a laughable fake name) and interrupted a scout camp out by looking like -- or being – a crazy murderer roaming the woods in the middle of the night.

But that’s not what the original author – Theodore Dreiser in the novel An American Tragedy -- wanted to convey. He wanted a book about right verses wrong; if the murderer gets away at the end it looks like wrong wins – which makes for a bad Hollywood film, especially in 1951. I’m not sure if the novel made it so wishy-washy, but the film even makes the murder ambivalent. Eastman never denies that he refrained from helping his Baby Momma, but claims he didn’t kill her. This raises the question of whether inaction worse is than action. I mean, he gets the electric chair in the end, so I suppose the author/director/screenwriters decided inaction’s pretty bad (like in Seinfeld). What’s more interesting is the trigger happy capital punishment system in 1950’s America. It’s tough to put someone away without an eyewitness and all.

This movies really not worth watching, but its title provides ample fodder for discussion. What would you do to secure a place in the sun? The proposition of murder makes people cringe at first, but a guarantee that you’ll never receive an earthly punishment sweetens the deal. Rebel or no rebel, it’s definitely worth considering.
(#92) My Fair Lady directed by George Cukor

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