Sunday, May 26, 2024



Tough GenX SWMs like me were confused when we first saw James Dean in movies. He looked badass enough on the posters that adorned our dorm walls, smoking with his feet kicked up over his steering wheel in the one from Giant, or his loafing against the wall with his red windbreaker and cigarette for Rebel, or smoking in his big black coat up in a rainy Times Square for Dennis Stock-but who had seen his movies? No one. So when Rebel without a Cause came to our college's revival house we were psyched for a dash of serious cool. 

Instead we got goddamned crybaby narc!

This doe-eyed gentle little greaser faun who cries cuz his parents are too easy on him? Who snivels at the cops' office because his dad doesn't hit his mom? This kid was worse than a narc, he was a jinx. Such a coward over a friendly little knife fight he gets three people killed? 

"If he'd just... belt her one, occasionally."
You doubt me? Consider the facts: No sooner has he arrived at his new school than he's stomping on the school seal, befriending a craven puppy killer, and trying to crash the A-list with his stupid planetarium "Moo!" The A-list, a rowdy gang of toughs (that include Dennis Hopper!) give him a chance to audition for the gang, a friendly invitations to gentlemanly switchblade duel. Outside the planetarium on a nice sunny LA day, what a pleasant way to get to know the boys. Sure maybe a few little cuts, punctures, but that's hazing, Jim! You want in, you gotta play be the rules, not run to momma. It takes so long to goad Jim into that by the time he's finally started his stick and move routine, the afternoon is over--the astronomer in residence is yelling at them to stop. That kind of leaves everybody hangin' as they say, so they have to reschedule for an evening chicken run instead 

He's a jinx, that's the thing. Picked up on a public drunkeness? What did he get a little sip of a beer somewhere? A weensy little pint of Wild Irish Rose? Crying like a little bitch in a cop's office because his dad's not mean enough, trying to give his jacket to a little wuss hauled in for killing puppies!  Screaming at his parents like a hissy fit-throwing neurotic because mom and dad can't decide how to punish him.  This is the guy with the cigarette on the posters in our dorm rooms!??? 

Rumors were Dean was bi, into sub/dom shizz, would go to gay bars and ask guys to stamp their cigarettes out on his chest. This was the 80s -- we couldn't believe it. Right up there with Richard Gere mouse rectum scandal - maybe just a rumor. That was enough back then. 

We couldn't know just how brave it was back in the early 50s for a young man too be gentle and faun-like. It was a time when men had to pose and posture in studded leather straddling hogs to indicate they weren't gay. Times change, but one thing that doesn't is the behavior of Jim Stark in this movie--separate from Dean's sensitivity--makes him not only a literal (as well as figurative) Buzz kill, but a little bitch--in a sense that has nothing to do with feyness or tortured posturing, but everything to do with being a narc. In other words, Jim is no better than that blonde hash slinger in Over the Edge. He had a pool, too. 

That Rebel has all the postures and JD rites of cool makes Dean's narc attitude especially problematic. This is a Nicholas Ray's film, after all, a man who never met a drug he didn't want to get at least an ounce of, or a person he didn't want to either fight, borrow money from, or have an affair with, a filmmaker second only to John Ford as far as violence to denote and enhance rites of masculine passage. Only with Ray, who came a bit later, that violence was no longer accepted, or was being drained of its ceremonial initiatory function, either by laws or draggy moms (moms seldom factored into Ford's equations--if anything they rooted from the sidelines while the men tried to block their view). In fact, if you couch Rebel with Ray's Bigger than Life, and In a Lonely Place, you get the full spectrum of male dysfunction- the rites of Ford run smack into the iron mom of Hitchcock. 

The tragedy with Ray is in the matriarchal obstacle: We could have easily overlooked Dean's many faux pas in the police station, and even the planetarium because that night at the chicken run he's all of a sudden cool as McQueen. It's his one big moment of Wild One moxy, and he does it all real good, but then after Buzz goes over the cliff, he undoes it all by trying to rat out the attendees after everyone runs home.  Jim, the jinx. And now the narc. You've got one person killed already through your bad decisions, through trying to do the right thing (according to your overbearing mom). But the night is young, isn't it Jim? And don't blame your mom, either! Even your mom is cooler than you! After Buzz's death she wants him to just shut up about it, never say a word to anyone, and go to bed, like all the other kids who were there. He snivels and demands his dad back him up in his desire to throw himself at the feet of strong police men, no matter who else he drags down with him.

Son, both parents think you should forget about it and go to bed. That's what you call a 'free pass'!! 

The gang sure made the right choice by scorning him. Imagine if he was accepted by the gang and someone gave him a puff of a reefer, you know, Mary Jane?  He'd probably freak out, and demand the gang drive him to the ER, shouting: 'Sorry, but just this once I wanted do something right!' as everyone at the party is led past him in a handcuffed row... for their own good. So they don't get hooked, right Jim?

And just imagine who Jim would want to bring around to gang meetings if he was in. Considering his new best friend is a super needy rich kid who just killed a whole boxful of puppies the night before, which is the slam dunk hat trick of red flags.

God help your cat, Jim, if you ever cancel a playdate. 

And man was he getting close! Luckily three guys from the gang found him first - So Plato shoots one, then hides out in the planetarium (where the days trouble began). Our bright 'right'-doing Jim Stark decides to save the day by racing past past the cop's cordon and into the planetarium to try and talk Plato into coming out, without even explaining his intention to the cops. Think, Jim! How can they know for sure you're not bringing Plato ammo rather than taking it away!? 

Then, in a final jinx move, staggering in its idiocy, Jim gets Plato to give him the gun, then takes the bullets out, but then gives him back the gun!! You should have just given him the bullets, Jim. The cops don't shoots kids who wave bullets at them, as you will soon find out.

Dean's big acting moment, the one that almost made him live up to the hype as a powerhouse actor, is his great slur-shout of "I-got-the-BULL-ets!" after Plato falls dead. Waving them ineffectually, as if trying to shoehorn his own roaring teen angst into Plato's big Buffalo Bill butterfly moment, I think we're supposed to 'feel' for his chutzpah at this juncture, and even rail against the callousness of the Big Bad World. But I say if its big and bad, its to protect itself by 'heroes' like Jim Stark.

 Jim, next time, just shut the fuck up when people make animal noises. You're worse than Tony in West Side Story, who gets two people killed just because a girl he met a few hours ago tells him "any kind of fight's no good for us."  Well, at any rate, Jimbo my lad, now now you don't have to worry about your cat. 

I know it's not a popular trope these days, but as a deep tissue Jungian I'm partial to the idea of masculine rites of passage. I think it's imperative for masculine identity to make a social rite out of the brave facing of fear, pain, death and humiliation, and above all, most importantly, cuts and bruises (women's reproductive system includes built-in rites, they don't need any more).

 John Ford gets it. Nicholas Ray gets it, Colonel Blimp and Crocodile Dundee get it. Apollo Creed every boxer in the world gets it. Tyler Durden, John Wayne eventually gets it, and all of Ireland.

Luke Skywalker, squares, Maria, Jim Stark don't get it. Cops and school principals don't get it but they're not supposed to, so it's OK (they're the referees) 

If we'd all just belt each other occasionally. 

You got to do something. 

I used some color screenshots, as I generally don't like colorizing, but in this case it's by a fan on YouTube for
their own amusementand in Teen's case the purple/green schemata adds a weird sense of dislocation

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959) does plenty -- it's the rampaging Yin to Rebel's puling Yang.  Dean might get all the posters can't hold a candle to the endearingly Dumbo-eared Derek (David Love) as one of the....TEENAGERS. Almost totally emotiionless, he gives an actually lovely demonstration of how a man might be sensitive, and decent, and nice yet no coward, kibbitzer, or narc. He's not some 'rebel' against middle class conformity, to him middle-class conformity is rebellion. The planet he comes from is void of things like comfort and emotion. So when he winds up in a perfect small town, as warm, inviting as Rebel's is dour and lockstep, in soothing b&w instead of Rebel's garish color (Natalie Wood's garish lipstick makes me shudder just to think about). But after that the similarities are striking. 

For example: both occur within a single day/night. Both involve a new guy in town who finds himself protected by a girl who likes him and pursued by a gang of boys who want him to stop trying to change the Way Things Are. Both involve puppy killers who pay for their crimes, alas, indirectly. In Rebel the black sheep is surrounded by perfectly into their small town 50s conservative (heteronormative) social structure; he finds a small group of fellow outcasts, who like him are unable to sublimate their dysfunctional daddy issues.  Meanwhile a runt with a gun tags after him, demanding full attention -i.e.trying to Jim into his daddy.

Derek comes to a new town from a lockstep conservative but all male (structured around one big daddy issue) social order where being an outcast means longing for small town heteronormativity, and finds one in a friendly 50s social structure where there is no daddy at all just a friendly old suspenders-wearing Harvey P. Dunn, and you know he's harmless and gentle because just the sight of a girl with long nails nearly kills him in Ed Wood's NIGHT OF THE GHOULS, and his cool granddaughter, just about Dereks's age.

 If only Jim and Derek could trade places! 

I'll grant you, Derek really lucks out when he stumbles onto friendly gramps and his nerdy-cool granddaughter. Unlike Jim Stark, he doesn't need to be all "you're tearing me apart!" whiny about feeling alienated from his assigned-at-birth tribe. Derek never freaks out, just flatly asserts his preference for a warm, emotional environment. But you know how that team can be when you try to jump ship and who can blame them?

I love a lot about Teenagers from Outer Space (though the title put me off seeing it until only a few years ago): I'm a big fan of post-sync dubbing with these lower budget numbers as it lends them a weird dreamlike unrealistic air--Carnival of Souls wouldn't be half as surreal without it, and it's a perfect vehicle for Derek's flat emotionless (in character) delivery, he's like the anti-Dean. His rebellion stems from realizling his peers are going to bring in the 'gargal' (indestructible giant shadow lobsters) and turn Earth into kind of giant pasture / feed lot / lobster bed. How does it feel to be thought of as food for someone else's food, America? Probably not very good. You might ask the third world how they cope. You migth ask the buffalo... or Black Elk. 

The hypocrisy here comes not from American society but from the aliens. They're not supposed to bring the gargans to an inhabited civilization-havin' world, but Thor, his psychopathic saucer mate, decides a zapped dog's tag is not sufficient evidence to halt the plan. As far as Thor goes, they're not supposed to wipe out sentient beings, the way the US Cavalry is not supposed to massacre all the Native Americans, including unarmed women and children. In other words, the powers that be want 'plausible deniability' in order to get rid of the problem once and forever, therefore the underlying (nonspoken) orders are carried out ("with extreme prejudice") contrary to the written 'official' order.  Feigning empathy with those you kill in order give your country's liberals are a panacea for their guilt is the bedrock of 'colonization.' Thor--jealous and bloodthirsty, trades on the friendliness of the townsfolk in his pursuit of Derek, but repaying kindness with merciless zapping as he goes, like any good 'civilizing' influence might wipe out the indigenous population of a land they were claiming for the crow after first getting to know them, maybe taking some pictures, directions, gold... and then, almost as an afterthought, wiping them out on your way to the next. 

But Derek, true teenager in his liberal phase, undoes the hidden meaning in a reverse counter-revolution --sticking to the letter of the law, using the oppressor's law against the unwritten (he even gets the press involved, symbolically at least). You go, Derek! That's the kind of teenager rebellion that works - a rebel with a cause. 

Take a lesson, James Dean / Jim Stark, Derek rebels against his corrupted order via its own strict guidelines, like a boss. 


Luckily the more rabidly homophobic the society the less gaydar they seem to have. Dawn Bender surely doesn't have any--all but chasing Derek around and instructing him to make decisions based on her interpretation of things she doesn't understand, clueless her new man's alien orientation. She uses her old boyfriend-friend (i.e. the equivalent of that guy who loves her unconditionally, even under the condition he's relegated to 'friend' status, so common to movies even today, though the 'gay bestie' has now taken his place), a reporter played by Graef himself, to do the legwork so we can easily go from q) to z) as far as getting the whole town to back Derek up as Thor comes blasting. It's a refreshing switch from the tedious swaths of parents and cops not believing the teens in the more conventional (i.e. straight shot) films, perhaps reflecting a kind of 'grass is always greener' along the outlaw divide effect, where the outcast fantasizes about communal acceptance and vice versa. Meanwhile, in her naive moral certitude, Dawn becomes a kind of saint /  heroine / representative of all Anytown USA has to offer. She and gramps become kind of a fantasy for lonely orphans--- instant love and acceptance, as if they'd been waiting all this time just for them. For St. Sebastians lashed to the wheel of intolerance, they are the ultimate heteronormative/tolerant backup, the solace they dream of. Meanwhile, someone like Ray Stark has to go to all sorts of ugly lengths to escape the accepting arms of his own family, clumsily lashing himself to whatever wheel he can find, invariably leaving one arm free in case he needs to itch, or take a selfie of his anguished struggle. 


As with a lot of post-sync films from the era, the air itself seems different -- eerily still. There is no wind, very few birds, everything is muted, the voices all right up front, the way people's talking sounds when you come to from a concussion, the way Carnival's small Kansas town becomes when Candace Hiligoss is suddenly plunged into an in-between place where no one can see or hear her. The difference here is that the weird quiet is benevolent. Before this film I didn't think a benevolent alienation was remotely possible. There's something for everyone here in town! There's even a foxy and sexually assertive single girl down the street-- with a pool! I mean, I suddenly wouldn't want to leave either. Too bad his jealous ex is stalking him, disintegrating everyone he meets--all of whom are too nice and kind to realize what he threat he poses, including the pool girl. It breaks my heart every time. Why not leave her alive, Thor!!!?

Like Jim in Rebel, Derek is a stranger in a strange world, but unlike him, Derek is no narc. In the end he makes the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity in general and the small town in particular, and he does so without any browbeating, giggling, grandstanding or adult-shaming.  Even after the boys send for his sugar daddy, his hairy-chested biological papa, the leader of their planet, he stands firm. I don't think Jim Stark would be able to. For him and his daddy-starved friends, Derek's papa would be like a gift from god. 

With those hooded Peter Lorre eyes, Bette Page bangs, Edith Massey teeth, 'Bette Davis whispering into the ear of a sleeping Val Lewton' vibery, and that starchy retro-hipster dress, Dawn Bender is a totally unique presence in movies. It's like a whole new category of 'types' has to be invented to support her her.  A whole new kind of 'small town cool' is born. Perhaps it's the queer perspective of the film that she--the only woman with any real skin in the game--is the most unique and thoughtful character, a true lead and not just another endangered love interest / lab assistant. In yet another of his innovative but weird editing choices, Graeff lets all her scenes play out a few seconds longer than an ordinary editor would, letting his camera keep an eye on what she does after the action in the script is completed, how she fills out the gap between the end of the scene and the actual cut. She uses the time by wistfully gazing through windows as if she's Lilian Gish on the lonesome prairie after yet another day with no mail from her far-flung fella in a DW Griffith silent. It's archaic yet ahead of its time. It wouldn't matter if she just shut down emotionally at the end, like a robot; we'd still be with her all the way, enraptured and confused by her weird charisma. (As in so many films by gay auteurs, the women are as handsome as the boys are beautiful.)

Regardless of which tent you currently live in, Dawn's gentle sewing needle and Dunn's folksy business can patch the tears, reminding us--regardless of how we perceive its perception of us--not all small towners are intolerant. And even if some are, all they need to change their minds is the right alien boy, the right Bronson Canyon cave mouth, and the right stock volcano explosion. Proof that innocence and sincerity can thrive without sacrificing difference. At least in this one film. This one time.

Oh, also in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter.  Just these two times. 

I forgot about Night of the Hunter--another movie about the strength of innocence in the face of hypocrisy  that was made by a gay man? And the only movie that man directed? And recognized as a cult classic only long after that man was dead? 

What is wrong with this f--ed up world? 

Less then a decade after making Teens, Graef would kill himself with car exhaust. Seven years after the critical and box office failure of Hunter, Laughton died of cancer, or a broken heart. 

God bless little children. They abide. 



  1. beautifully put. teen-exploitation movies might be the purest form of entertainment, interesting (for different reasons) no matter what age you are. Excited to check out Teenagers from Outer Space!

  2. Anonymous04 June, 2024

    I've never seen Rebel Without a Cause and was just recently thinking of rectifying that oversight (simply because it stars James Dean), but now I'm going to watch Teenagers from Outer Space instead! It's so fascinating how B-movies often manage to explore certain themes in a more in-depth, honest and insightful way than Hollywood ever dares to. And I absolutely love Night of the Hunter - the idea that one can triumph over horror and adversity is practically anathema to the part of today's society that fetishizes trauma.


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