Did the ruggedly handsome James Dean ever hang out in the ruggedly handsome deserts of Joshua Tree, California?
The people who made the beautifully photographed Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean apparently think so. This stylish yet empty docudrama casts an expressionistic eye on the actor's early career, with an accent on the bisexual dalliances Dean had on his way towards brief movie stardom.
This 2012 indie uses a real-life pop culture icon to construct a dreamlike, stylized narrative - one that has only the slightest basis in factual events. While this type of filmmaking is not uncommon (see also: The Last Ride), director-screenwriter Matthew Mishory dresses up this particular biopic in so many layers of self-conscious "artistry" that it often obscures whatever messages he intended. At times, it plays more like a TV commercial for a men's grooming product than an actual film.
Regardless of the overly slick and stylish outcome, it's easy to see why James Dean's life would make for a good subject for artistic reinterpretation. Since he died young, didn't leave a lot behind in terms of personal reflection, and was subject to a fair share of postmortem gossip, Dean is the poster boy for blurring the lines between legend and fact. In this film, Mishory makes Dean himself the only element with a real-world counterpoint - the other characters (many of whom aren't even given names) are based on composites of people who knew and worked with him - or are completely made up. The real/unreal disconnect is further emphasized with the film's lack of structure. As it dreamily unspools, vignettes from Dean's life are strung together, shot in beautifully textured black and white (punctuated with a few completely random splashes of color). Against a backdrop of barren desert, Dean speaks with a world-weary actress - the woman's cautious diatribes on the moviemaking business prompt him to passionately kiss her. Dean goes to college and sets up house with a roommate. Arthur Rimbaud scribbles out a poem, unaware that his tortured prose would become fodder for a 21st century film. Back in the 1950s, Dean attends method acting classes. He also lounges around at the mansion of an agent who hosts clothing-optional co-ed pool parties. At the beach, Dean meets a cute guy and they share a tryst. While his roommate stews at home, Dean enjoys a small party at a smoky cocktail lounge. And so on.
In case it wasn't completely obvious, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean wallows in pretention. Some of Mishory's screenplay is poetic and strangely observant, however, and one can't deny that the photography (on celluloid, not digital) is lovely. I couldn't help but think that it would have been more successful, however, if it had dealt with a generic pretty boy actor in 1950s Hollywood. Having the story revolve around speculations on James Dean's private life invites all sorts of - justifiable - criticism. The most affecting scenes are between Dean and his college roommate, a relationship that evolves from platonic pals to bi-curious playing around, then finally to a deep and trusting relationship. It was based on a real friendship Dean had with still-living screenwriter William Bast (who, as far as I can tell, had nothing to do with this film), but those affecting moments are surrounded by so much artsy posturing and facile gloss that their impact is dulled.
Another disappointment with this film lies in the casting and performances (it's pretty much what you'd expect of a low-budget indie, decent but not breathtaking). This is especially glaring with James Preston as Dean. Aside from the fact that Preston physically resembles Dean in the slightest, squint-and-you-can-see-it way, the actor's bland vacuousness doesn't even hint at the mischievous, complex persona that we see in Dean's movies. A talented actor can overcome things like a lack of physical resemblance to their subject, by studying their moves and getting the essence of their mannerisms - Preston's schooling doesn't appear any deeper than copying Dean's squinting gaze from still photographs. His lack of charisma stands out against the good, substantial contributions from Dalilah Rain as the actress and Dan Glenn as the roommate.
The gorgeous photography in Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is given a good treatment in Wolfe Video's DVD edition. The 16:9 anamorphic image gets a little murky at times, but the rich, grainy texture of this shot-on-celluloid feature is nicely preserved on disc.
The 5.1 Surround mix contains a crystalline central channel with a good balance between clearly recorded dialogue and atmospheric music (only one scene contains obviously overdubbed dialogue). Surround effects are sparingly used, but they add some atmosphere to a select few scenes.
In addition to the feature, the disc contains Matthew Mishory's 2009 short film Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, a stylized, 12-minute visual collage of imagined scenes from the British artist and activist's early life. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer and previews for other Wolfe Video releases.
Like a beautifully printed yet vapid coffee table book geared towards gay yuppies, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean uses the screen legend's sexual ambiguity as an excuse for lots of indulgent artiness (with the occasional butt shot). This episodic, maddeningly pretentious exercise fails to pass muster as biography, although it's easy to get lost in the dreamy visuals and prose. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.