Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is a film about the pre-celebrity days of James Dean. Blending real elements with fictitious scenes, it tries to give us a sense of who the iconic actor really was, in addition to portraying how he got his big break. And, over 92 minutes, director Matthew Mishory crafts a very interesting vision of Dean as a flawed, earnest, passionate individual who was both obsessed with visceral pleasures and drawn to ruminating on life in a deep, philosophical fashion.
Of course, I nearly spit out my drink when Dean comes home to his best friend and roommate. The two dudes wrestle with each other before having some hard-and-fast sex. So after a quick trip to Wikipedia, I was soon informed that James Dean was known to be intimate with some men, despite not actually identifying himself as a homosexual (except to dodge the draft).
Although tastefully done and necessary to the story, I had not anticipated the six or so sex scenes in JT 1951. True, you will see this icon of cool have sex with a couple of women, but even in those moments there was simply so much bare man-ass in this movie… so much man-ass.
I did not really struggle to take this new information in, because it was just a simple matter of fact: Dean’s sexuality was “fluid,” and played a big role in the early days before he made a name for himself. And one of the things that Wiki also backed up was that some of Dean’s man-on-man affairs gave him contacts and opportunities that he would use to gain roles – and, eventually, stardom.
Joshua Tree begins with three people taking a ride through the desert. These scenes have both a sense of intimacy and poignancy, given how little time Dean had. This opening also establishes much of the film’s tone: people are constantly talking to James, intrigued by a strong personality that fluctuates from very simple to incredibly complex.
The best part about all this is that I was gratified by the portrait of the man as both an artist and intellectual, and the dialogue can take on the rich quality of an old noir film. The worst part about all this is that the lines can feel very affected, more suited for the stage. I recall wrestling with myself, wondering how seriously I can take the script – some parts feel too on-the-nose, some seem forced, and when people aren’t talking to James Dean, they’re talking about James Dean.
It did not help that, though the sound is occasionally mixed in a way that is both conspicuous and impressive, some parts are so hard to hear clearly that I really wished my screener provided subtitles.
Fortunately, the director did not simply stuff his dialogue with tons of “style,” he packed it into other aspects of his work, as well. The cinematography is exceptional. Not only was I frequently floored by the composition, but the black-and-white picture will occasionally give way to brief bursts of color. Sometimes the frame seems to stretch, or the image distorts as the camera pulls in for a closer shot. The sheen of sweat on a lover’s back is nicely contrasted with a cutaway to a man rising from the ocean.
Have no doubts, JT 1951 is not merely easy on the eyes, it is flat-out lush.
Another admirable aspect was that the film has a strong surrealist bent. Several sequences and segments have a nonsensical, dream-like quality that drives home the rich internal life of Dean. The man depicted here not only had ambiguity in his romantic life, but he was also a boytoy for influential folks who could mix a lot of philosophy in with their hedonism. Whether it’s reciting Rimbaud or relating the wisdom learned from his long-dead mother, we see a young man who wants to ask a lot of questions about life. Yet all this thoughtfulness did not prevent this picture’s lead from forgetting close friends, partying with a sugar daddy, or putting out to get ahead.
After so much jumping back and forth in time, the film ends as Dean concludes his early time in LA and moves to New York. The closing text tells us that JD soon hit it big on Broadway, returned to Los Angeles as a star, then made 3 films in the same year in which he died. History necessitates that the story ends in tragedy, but the timespan covered here not only evades the sour note of Dean’s early death, it strengthens what I thought was a key part of its tone: hopefulness.
Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is not a film for everyone. It really doesn’t do justice by Dean’s acting, with only a couple of brief scenes taking place in the acting classes that he attended. Some will struggle with the overly-stylized, too on-point dialogue – even I didn’t like the times when people discuss JD like he’s the Monolith in 2001.
Others may not like the surrealist elements, the sections wherein French literature is recited without translation, or the long take of a jazz singer crooning about love for some time before Dean enters the scene. And some may not like that this film features more gay sex than Swoon, the film I reviewed in January that was one of the premiere pieces of the Gay New Wave. But if you don’t mind a movie that’s a bit difficult, and mixes some fiction in with its fact, you should enjoy this sumptuous picture.