By Trevor Weng
It’s April 20, 1999, a sunny school day. Two kids walk into a high school dressed in trench coats, cargo pants, and bandanas. Eric is 18, Dylan, is 17. At 11:19 a.m., they open the bag and pull out guns shooting their first bullets in the library. By 11:35 a.m., Klebold and Harris have killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded more than 20 others. Shortly after noon, the two teens turn their guns on themselves.
On the other hand, Pluto gets shot by a policeman outside the Astronomy Museum for being suspected of attacking the police. Jim (James Dean) raises his hand, showing the gun clip he had taken from Pluto, so as it turns out, Pluto had nothing but an unloaded gun on him…
One day and night in a planetarium and one warm spring day in Denver set up the stage for these two Classical Greek-style tragedies. It is as if the wall that occasionally separates space and time in these two films has been torn down: Eric and Dylan’s bullets fly across time bringing death to Pluto.
Rebel without a cause – is he, really? What leads to this devastation of youth, who creates it, and is it avoidable? For fear of sounding a little cliche, let’s say – society. The post-WWII golden age came down hard on James Dean’s generation. The U.S. was a winner that basked in its patriotism, ushering materialist abundance into the hearts of its middle class. Just as Jim’s father says in the film, “What do you want?” implying, “”What more do you want?” Yes – Jim has his own car, house and material comforts. What his parents want from him is only to continue going down the glorious road of consumerist capitalism. Jim is here a miniature model of the Baby Boomer generation. But even so, a cause is born.
When it comes to the young, parents seem to choose to neglect what we really are and need in our present, only thinking about our future and their own. But we are the ones who dream and the ones who fear. We fear becoming like them, the ones who so often forget the ongoing ills of society, e.g. terrorism, racism, and corruption in the nation they are so patriotic about. We want to be something other, newer and better. Bottom line, we want individualism because it is the nature of youth. We want to make our own mark that none of our parents or those of 50’s America could ever give us. Essentially in these two films, Rebel Without A Cause and Elephant, teenagers are looking for something that can shape them as human beings. Then they fight against social conformity.
The other, darker side of this coin could be devastating, however. The young, especially teenagers, also tend to stay in their peer groups, giving free reign to the group to drown out their individuality. Deciding to stand against this force of conformity can be dangerous. Buzz and Jim in Rebel try to use cuff racing to show off their individualism, and Buzz loses his life as a result. It’s tacitly understood that one’s own aggression easily results in being hated. To stand truly apart from the group, you have to pay the price of being an idol or a clown, and we all know the stresses of either choice. Then we keep ourselves in small groups to feel better, while we walk down endless school hallways, reflecting the feeling of being trapped.
What is the “cause” of the rebellion then? We are. Both Nicolas Ray and Gus Van Sant depict the perennial conflict between youth and society. The young can resemble a dog chasing after a car blindly and then, sometimes, drawing a blank when he arrives at his “goal”. Violence against society is only an illusion of a “way out” – a means to an end that always turns out to be of little or no worth. The 50’s have ended, and we are far even from the 90’s, but which one of us hasn’t felt the pull of roaming the streets of New York City that held Holden Caulfield in its grip?
We all have. Because the elephant is always there and its identity is the imminent loss of youth.
“James Dean kept himself in a small circle; he did not care how people saw or treated him. We could even say that he did not realize the existence of the outside world…Since the day his mother passed away, he became alone, anti-sociable, and afraid of getting hurt. Eventually he backed himself down into his small world…He kept a gun with him when he first got to Hollywood for the filming of East of Eden. He didn’t talk to anyone and constantly stayed in the small dressing room. Fast forward to the last film in his career, Giant, where he would silently drive his Jeep to chase a hare in the grass during the filming process. The vanity fair of Hollywood seemed far from Dean, it seemed like there was never a place that he felt he belonged to, and none could keep a long-term close relationship with him…”