“The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, complete. He searches for his soul.”
This quote by 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud is expressed in the film "Joshua Tree, 1951 : A Portrait of James Dean" by the character of Dean in a moment of self-reflection, and it accurately captures the spirit of the film. The movie was praised by audiences and critics throughout the LGBT film-festival circuit last summer, and it is being released June 4 on DVD and V.O.D. from Iconoclastic Features and Wolfe Video.
"Joshua Tree" ranks up there with 2009’s "A Single Man" as a compelling character study set in a decade preceding Stonewall. “Haunting” may be the word for this unforgettable rendering of the person once described by fellow icon Marlon Brando as “a young man trying to find himself.”
The production marks the debut of writer-director Matthew Mishory, who recalls that his father introduced him to Dean’s work when he was a child.
“I didn’t so much find this film as this film found me,” he said, acknowledging that watching Dean’s classic "East of Eden" counts among his earliest cinematic memories. “For whatever reasons, I think the film, the performance, and ultimately, the image of Dean as an actor and performer stuck with me, and subsequently, I wanted to make a film about him.”
In trying to explain why James Dean has fascinated so many people for so long, the director notes, “Dean fundamentally endures because he changed acting. The way he spoke and moved was in a totally new and different way for the time. … He also had fascinating and radical ideas about what acting could be. There’s also that ‘outsider’ element to his characters — I believe it has become iconic as well.”
While doing the background study required for the script, Mishory didn’t merely view all of the actor’s pictures. He also contacted several people who knew Dean during the time portrayed.
“The first thing that struck me as interesting when I was doing the research was what a very short period of time Dean’s success really was — he was well-known for only a few months, really,” Mishory said. “He died before his third feature was released. When you actually go back and speak to people and read through his historical records, you’re struck by the transient nature of his celebrity. That, too, was one of the reasons why I always wanted to tell a story about James before that period.”
His hours of study paid off. From the ambiance of the locations to framing the camera set-ups, the entire piece evokes a mythic time and place that was just on the outskirts of post-World War II Los Angeles.
The filmmaker draws an interesting allegory between the fresh-faced actor before he became a legend and Rimbaud, the poet who believed that in order to truly live life, one must experience all of life’s variety and excesses — including love (with whomever or whichever gender was available).
“These studio men … they want a ‘special’ talent,” Dean says at one point. “They want something I have. … If they want me, they’re gonna have to pay.”
James Preston’s portrayal of Dean is refreshingly unusual, wisely abstaining from a direct impersonation of the mumbling, tightly wound movie star. Instead, he’s depicted as a pan-sexual bohemian — fiercely intelligent, brilliantly artistic, but still not above using his considerable sexual charisma on anyone who might be able to advance his career, even as he protests being considered only in these terms.
However, it is Dan Glenn, playing a boy that Dean meets while both are studying acting at UCLA, billed only as Dean’s roommate, who gives the plot its anchor. Although the events don’t unfold completely from his perspective, he does supply each turn with an emotional grounding.
“The first day I spent with Jimmy was better than all the days I’d spent with anyone else put together,” the roommate exclaims. “It was as if I had seen in black and white my entire life, and suddenly I saw in color.”
Appropriately, Mishory and company cast most of the scenes in black and white, while inserting lurid jolts of Technicolor when seen from this roommate’s point of view.
“For me, style is substance,” Mishory says. “The way films are made and how they’re made is as much a part of them as any narrative aspect. This was a period that many of us imagine as almost having existed in black-and-white, so it was important that the finished product reflect this. The color accents are all about the subjectivity of the roommate. When we’re seeing Jimmy through his eyes, we do so in color. Think of it as his looking back on these moments with the rose-tinted lenses of memory.”
Also intriguing is the way that Mishory, as the writer, chose to leave several important characters – notably, the roommate, Robert Gant as “The Famous Director” and David Pevsner as “The Acting Teacher” — intentionally un-named and vague, which increases the overall “mythic” quality even more.
“One of the ways we tried to subtly remind the audience that we were not just doing a project about James Dean but also about the society that created and shaped him,” Mishory said, “was by giving these characters their anonymous identities.” He said a few were based on real people or composites of several people. “It was so much more interesting, I thought, to allow for the possibility of a more general interpretation and to maybe even dare people to think about them in terms of the society in which they existed.”
At its heart, "Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait Of James Dean" is a love story told in perceptive and fleeting vignettes about the man and a relationship that simply cannot be — exactly the stuff that most potent and memorable romantic yarns are made of. Yet always underlying the story is the dirty, gritty game of sexual politics that (many will tell you) still drives show business to this day.
“Audiences feel they’ve never seen a film quite like this one, and that’s what we set out to do: produce a film that’s really different,” its creator observes. “It challenges an audience to start a conversation.”
For more information, check out: www.joshuatree1951.com. To order online, go to www.WolfeVideo.com, or for video on demand, www.WolfeOnDemand.com. You can follow "Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean" on Twitter at: @joshuatree1951.