Looking, searching - Rebel Without a Cause

When asked what the goal of the characters was in Rebel without a Cause (1955), director Nicholas Ray, “normally reticent about articulating his ideas, was ready to reveal the name of the game: look for the father. In one sentence, he told a journalist visiting the set, ‘he fails to provide the adequate father image, either in strength or authority'” (qtd. in Eisenschitz 254). Also present behind the scenes of Rebel was a desire on the parts of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo to find their own father figures, a desire that became manifest in the characters of Jim, Judy and Plato. Unable to obtain guidance from the imaginary to the symbolic world and lacking paternal attention, Jim, Judy and Plato embark on a psychological quest to find a father figure, leaving behind their dysfunctional families in order to gain entrance into the adult world. This egress, however, comes at a price, and the death of the third party, as characterized by Buzz and Plato, is necessary for Jim and Judy not only to find or act out the role of an ideal parent, but also to complete the journey itself.

At the beginning of Rebel, the object cathexes of Jim, Judy and Plato are revealed at the police station for the audience to see. An object cathexis is “the selection of an object or person as the love object” (English 352). One transfers his or her desires onto an object or another person. Jim’s desire, for example, is to see his father stand up to his nagging wife. Although Jim transfers this desire onto his father, however, his father lacks the courage to act upon it. For Jim, even the word “chicken” sends him into violent bursts, as it conjures up negative images of his father, who is “hen-pecked” by Jim’s mother. “She eats him alive,” Jim tells Juvenile Officer Ray, “and he takes it. He always wants to be my pal…If he had the guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy…I’d never want to be like him.” According to Vicky Lebeau, there is a “‘palpable desire’ for parental authority, and the alternative family set up by the adolescent rebel, Jimmy (James Dean), can be described as simultaneously an attack upon, and a demand made to, a paternity which is failing through the father who refuses either to ‘stand up’ to the domineering mother or for his son” (83). Emasculated to the brink of caricature, Jim’s father wears an apron over his suit and tie at home and is afraid to challenge his wife on her decisions governing Jim.

According to Jacques Lacan, as quoted by Bruce Fink in The Lacanian Subject, a mother’s role is her desire.

Her desire is not something you can bear easily, as if it were a matter of indifference to you. It always leads to problems. The mother is a big crocodile, and you find yourself in her mouth. You never know what may set her off suddenly, making those jaws clamp down. That is the mother’s desire. (56)

Like a crocodile, Jim’s mother is trying to “clamp down” on Jim’s innocence and prevent him from crossing over into the symbolic world.

For Judy, lipstick has both pleasurable and painful connotations. Her conflict with her father stems from her wearing it and his rejection of it. “He looks at me like I’m the ugliest thing in the world,” she tells an officer. Her desire to get her father’s attention with lipstick is characteristic of the Electra complex she has for him. Instead of showing his approval, however, he smears it off her lips and calls her a tramp. Conversely, he tells her that she is too old to kiss him. “I don’t want to stop,” she says, and when she kisses him on the lips, he slaps her. According to Fink, whereas a father’s “No!” “functions for a man as a limit to his range of emotion and pleasures, [it] is an elective ‘partner’ for a woman, her relationship to it allowing her to step beyond the boundaries set by language and beyond the pittance of pleasure language allows. An endpoint for men, [‘No!’] serves as an open door for women” (107). But his resistance to her affection closes the door to the symbolic world that Judy seeks from her father.

If Jim and Judy’s parents are difficult to deal with, at least they are home with their children. Neither of Plato’s parents is ever seen. Referring to Plato’s mother, Plato’s housemaid says, “Seems like she’s always going away somewhere.” About his father, she remarks that they “haven’t seen him now in a long time.” The only attention Plato receives from his father is a monthly child-support cheque. Plato’s shooting of the puppies is an act of the imaginative, as puppies are eventually abandoned by their mother and never know their father. Even Jim’s offer to give Plato his jacket (“It’s warm.”) is subject to Plato’s scrutiny of, and contempt for, any paternal gesture of kindness.

The goal, then, of Jim, Judy and Plato is to search for an ideal father figure, one who will offer them support and encouragement without abandoning them physically or emotionally, and who will assist them in their journey from the imaginary world to the realm of the symbolic. Of the three, however, Plato will never make the transformation.

The journey begins the next day when Jim’s class takes a field trip to the Griffith Park observatory for a lecture on the universe. Also in attendance are Judy, her boyfriend Buzz, his cronies — Crunch, Goon, Chick and Moose — and Plato. In the dark, wombish atmosphere of the light display, Plato falls to the floor in a fetal position. The earth, says a lecturer, “will be destroyed as we began, in a burst of gas and fire…In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed, and man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence.” According to Donald Spoto, author of Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean, the lecture, “localizing the cosmic apocalypse in family dysfunction, concludes with the killing of Plato by the police and the possibility of a new understanding by Jim’s troubled parents. Man alone is of little consequence indeed”(215). The lecture is important to the journey and is also important in establishing the bond between Plato and Jim. When Jim calms Plato down after the lights come back on, it’s as if Jim the father were helping his son Plato to his feet. For Plato, the search for the ego ideal in the position of the Other is in Jim, and Plato forms a sexual attachment for his new surrogate father.

During the filming of Rebel, sexual tensions among Nicholas Ray, Natalie Wood, James Dean and Sal Mineo eerily reflected the repressed sexual desires inherent among the film’s characters. According to Spoto, rumors “circulated of an erotic relationship between Dean and Ray…The suggestion, however unverifiable, is not outlandish: it is easy, for example, to imagine Ray making love to the image of himself…It is equally understandable if Jimmy had tried to please another respected mentor-father” (220). Dean had never recovered from his father’s abandonment of him after the death of his mother, and he sought a father figure in Ray.

Dean, however, was not the only actor with whom Ray purportedly had an illicit affair. “Early during the preparations,” writes Spoto, “Ray…easily seduced sixteen-year-old Natalie Wood, and throughout the production kept her in the thrall of a fierce sexual passion…She had already endured an unhappy home life with her mother…and father” (218-19). Both actors seemed intent on gaining their surrogate father’s attention.

Another anecdote comes from Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of Rebel, who claims that Ray was “‘the maypole around whom everyone needy and dependent swirled and danced, and he enthroned himself as guru at the Chateau Marmont, where he seemed to possess the souls of James Dean and Natalie Wood'”(qtd. in Spoto 219). Faye Nuell Mayo, Wood’s stand-in and double, also recalled that Ray’s Sunday afternoon gatherings at the hotel were “‘sometimes a bit wild, because everyone was avidly competing for the director’s attention and approval'” (219). Wood and Dean, like Judy and Jim, were searching for a father who would help initiate them into the symbolic world.

If there is sexual tension between Plato and Jim in the film, then sexual tension between Mineo and Dean was also present on the set. “‘I realized later that I was homo-sexually attracted to him,'” Mineo later recalled of Dean. “‘When he showed love to me, when he said it, that did it. He was really overwhelming'” (qtd. in Spoto 220). Although nothing sexual ever transpired between the two actors, Plato’s obvious desire of Jim, both sexual and familial, is indicative of Mineo’s attraction toward, and deep respect for, Dean.

In the film, there is also a repressed sexual tension between Buzz and Jim. While Buzz and his cronies cast Jim as the Other, they are equally in awe of his nonconformist behavior. Their ambivalent projection of themselves onto this ego ideal results in both their loving him (for possessing their ideal image) and hating him (for being outside of them). In a sense, then, they are still trapped in the fantasy world of the imaginary, a world that exists exclusively within their minds instead of being outside their invented reality. When Buzz seductively punctures one of the tires on Jim’s car, Jim says, “You’ve been reading too many comic books.” This is an example of Buzz’s living in the imaginary world. When he challenges Jim to a switchblade duel, Jim admonishes him: “I thought only punks fought with knives.” The switchblade, however, is a phallic extension of male camaraderie and initiation. It’s only when Buzz calls Jim a “chicken” that Jim decides to take retaliatory action, symbolically castrating Buzz by disarming him.

Unlike his cronies, Buzz verbally expresses his affection for Jim. “He’s cute,” he concedes. “But he’s real tough, too.” Dean fits the stereotypical masculine image of toughness and sensitivity. Later at the Point, a secluded place usually exclusive for lovers, Buzz takes a lit cigarette from Jim’s mouth (a gesture Judy later repeats), and the two exchange the following dialogue:

BUZZ: You know something? I like you. You know that?

JIM: Why do we do this?

BUZZ: You gotta do something. Now don’t you?

The “chickie run,” as Buzz calls it, has two important connotations: (1) it conjures up negative images of Jim’s “hen-pecked” father, and (2) it is a macho means by which Buzz and Jim can express their affection for each other. Buzz’s subsequent fall from the cliff, however, destroys any possibility of a future bond between the two.

The initial conflict between Jim and Buzz doesn’t occur until Judy and Buzz discover that Judy is the object of Jim’s gaze. Tall and domineering like Judy’s father, Buzz seems to be the logical choice for Judy’s transference of her Electra complex. But attention is really what Judy wants, and Buzz doesn’t offer her the affection she needs. When she looks at her lips in a compact mirror, she realizes she is the object of Jim’s gaze. Unlike her father, who had smeared lipstick off her face, Jim offers visual approval, and Judy discovers a more ideal father figure in him, one who will accept her as she truly is and will love her for it. As a result, her disconnected emotional isolation over Buzz’s death is evidence of her transition from the imaginary to the symbolic. His death is important to the journey of finding the father and is symbolic of the death of an uncaring father for one who will offer support and affection. Like Plato’s death at the end, Buzz’s death is the murder of the third party, the death of an imaginary who cannot exist in a symbolic world of meaning and responsibility.

Jim, then, becomes a surrogate father for both Plato and Judy. According to Lebeau, “Jimmy’s effort to establish an alternative family with Judy and Plato is as much an attempt to put the emasculated father back into a position of authority over his wife and son as it is an investment in peer group solidarity as source of refuge from a persecutory, or alienating, parental culture” (83). Before the “chickie run,” Plato indulgently embroiders a paternal description of Jim to Judy:

He doesn’t say much, but when he does you know he’s sincere…

Maybe next Sunday he’s going to take me hunting. And fishing. I want him to teach me how because I know he won’t get mad if I goof.

Exposing his delusional tendencies, Plato also concocts another story for Judy about his real parents:

PLATO: I used to lie in my crib at night and listen to them fight.

JUDY: Where’s your father now?

PLATO: He’s dead. He was a hero in the China Sea.

It’s highly improbable, if not impossible, for Plato to recall an argument between his parents in his infancy, but storytelling for him is a form of sublimation to mold Jim into the character of an ideal father. Although Jim’s wish at the beginning is to be nothing like his father, he later becomes a displaced object of fatherhood for both Plato and Judy. When Judy later recounts Plato’s story to Jim, she says, “He was talking about you. Like you were a hero in the China Sea.” To which Jim replies: “He tried to make us his family.” Whether or not Plato had Jim in mind when he was referring to his father, or whether or not Judy is transferring her image of an heroic father figure onto Jim, remains ambiguous.

As a case study, Plato fits the mold of an antisocial personality. According to Lawrence Josephs, author ofCharacter and Self-Experience, an antisocial person experiences a sense of impotence, helplessness and powerlessness.

There is a sense of incompetence to function in the world and a sense of being an invalid completely dependent on others. . . . This creates an addictive sense of self, a sort of desperate and ruthless neediness in which alleviating oneself of the experience of powerlessness becomes a compulsive, driven need that seems beyond volitional control…Split off from the unconscious sense of helplessness and dependence is an unconscious sense of murderous rage. (274-75)

Plato undergoes a sudden transformation from using Jim as his object cathexis of an ideal father to ajouissance of him as an irresponsible one. A French analytic term, jouissance refers to an “excitation due to sex, seeing, and/or violence, whether positively or negatively viewed by conscience, whether considered innocently pleasurable or disgustingly repulsive” (Fink 60). When Jim drives Plato home from the “chickie run,” for example, Plato says, “We could have breakfast in the morning. Just like my dad. If only you could have been my dad.” At the end of the film, when they’re back in the observatory, Plato asks, “Jim, do you think the end of the world will come at night? I can’t talk to you if I can’t see you.” While these lines prove to be portentous of Plato’s fate, which comes in the darkness of early dawn, they also conjure up the nightmarish imagery of Plato’s parents fighting at night and of Plato’s father’s abandoning him.

The violent, “disgustingly repulsive” side of Plato’s jouissance, however, comes while he, Jim and Judy are at the abandoned mansion. Leaving Plato by the pool after Judy lulls him to sleep, Jim and Judy go upstairs to be alone. But the alternative family that Jim, Judy and Plato have established is shattered by the arrival of Buzz’s cronies, who are out to avenge Buzz’s death. Taking it upon himself to defend his surrogate family with a pistol, presumably the same one with which he had shot the puppies, Plato also fires a volley at Jim, screaming,

Why did you run out on me? Why did you leave me alone? Get away from me. You’re not my father.

According to Josephs, disappointment in love “leads to the withdrawal of ‘object cathexes’ and an increase in ‘narcissistic cathexes’, resulting in a ‘narcissistic neurosis’.Covert hostility over prior disappointment in love is expressed through the idea: ‘If you don’t love me, I will hate you by not needing you or even recognizing your existence'” (242-43). Plato’s epiphany is that no one, not even Jim, can play the role of the father for him. The journey to find his father is both tenuous and disastrous.

While Jim seems to have temporarily abandoned Plato, however, he does not leave Judy. Describing her ideal partner to Jim, Judy states that he would be someone “who doesn’t run away when you want [him]. . . . That’s being strong.” Although Buzz and Judy’s father have abandoned her, both physically and emotionally, Judy realizes that Jim is more caring and responsible. Her journey to find a father is fulfilled in his presence.

Jim, on the other hand, must become a father. While Juvenile Officer Ray (Nicholas Ray, perhaps?) provides him with fatherly strength and support, Jim must enter into the symbolic world on his own. His parents, for example, encourage him to lie about his involvement in the “chickie run,” thereby depriving him of any moral parental guidance. Returning to the police station, Jim seeks out Ray, the only adult he trusts, but Ray is out on call and proves to be like the other fathers in the film, absent when he is really needed.

Unlike other father figures, however, Jim doesn’t shy away from responsibility. When Plato flees to the observatory in an attempt to return to the womb, it is Jim who provides support and encouragement for his ill-fated friend, even though the boy is beyond help. According to Josephs, a sense of helplessness comes from one’s own guilty conscience, which demands severe punishment.

The anti-social person at bottom is relentlessly and remorsefully hunted down by his or her own guilt. One can run but one cannot hide from one’s own conscience. Despite the fact that at a conscious level the antisocial person has the hubris to proclaim himself or herself as being beyond moral constraint, at an unconscious level there is a sense of complete powerless-ness in the face of one’s irredeemable inhumanity. To be hunted down and killed is the inevitable fate, which is simply a matter of time. (276-77)

When Plato senses his own powerlessness, he returns to the observatory, where he was first reminded of the inconsequential role of humanity, both in society as well as in the universe. His death is a rite-of-passage through which Jim and Judy may enter into the adult world, one that will be less fragmented and more meaningful. Jim’s covering Plato’s corpse with his jacket is a last display of paternal love for his fallen friend, and in a symbolic display of adult initiation, Jim’s father wraps his own jacket around his son’s shoulders. “Whatever comes we’ll face it together,” he assures Jim. “I’ll try to be as strong as you want me to be.” Jim’s father is now willing to help guide Jim into the symbolic world, although the boy seems to have made it there already.

The search for the father proves to be a learning experience for Jim, Judy, Plato, and Jim’s parents. Nicholas Ray seems to be saying that in order for their children to move from the imaginary to the symbolic, fathers must be up to the challenge of offering guidance. Rebel without a Cause has as much to say today as it did in the 1950s. It typifies the ineptitude of fathers to act as responsible adults and their unwillingness to accept their teen-aged children into an adult world. Ray also seems to be saying that once an adult, one must let go of his or her childhood. Those who cannot make the transformation often pay for it at an immeasurable cost. Those who make it through the threshold of adulthood try to make meaning of a fragmented society and a universe that holds little value for them.

Works Cited

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, London: Faber, 1993

English, Horace B., and Ava Champney English, A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms, New York: David McKay, 1958

Fink, Bruce, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995

Josephs, Lawrence, Character and Self-Experience, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995.

Lebeau, Vicky, Lost Angels: Psychoanalysis and Cinema, New York: Routledge, 1994

Rebel without a Cause, Dir. Nicholas Ray, Warner Brothers, 1955

Spoto, Donald, Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean, New York: Harper, 1996

About The Author

Chris Wood's article on the playwright Ann Devlin appears in the Spring 2000 issue of The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies.

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