Few have captured the hearts and minds of audiences like James Dean. Misunderstood and aloof, he has captivated the counter culture of the 1950s with his stunning performances in only three motion pictures. It is no surprise that James Dean, who died at age 24, continues to be a source of fascination for so many, especially with his status as a queer icon. The question, unfortunately, on everybody’s mind is, what is there left to say about James Dean that hasn’t already been said?
I’m not even sure director Matthew Mishory could answer that question about his own film, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. A pastiche of vignettes, both real and imaginary, color and black-and-white, is used to interrogate the queer icon. What is it that made Dean so endlessly fascinating? Was it his charisma? Was it his good looks? Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean tries to make sense of this icon, by stringing together a bunch of dreamy-looking “what if?” moments and subjecting its audience to them for the next 90 minutes.
Honestly, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is riddled with problems, but chief among them is the script itself. In one of the vignettes, a man says to young James Dean (James Preston), “brevity is the soul of wit.” This quote from Shakespeare has never been taken so literally. The film is filled with awkward silences and quiet moments, an effective film style when used sparingly, but never the kind of thing to rely on for the bulk of your film. What moments aren’t filled with tedious nothingness are rich with stilted dialogue and poor delivery: almost enough to make me wish for the silence again.
The problem is, there’s no sense of importance or urgency to Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. It has long been implied that James Dean was homosexual, or at least bisexual, so this is not a new approach to the classic character. The action that takes place is a mix of the horribly hum-drum and the sexually explicit: neither novel or engaging enough to elicit much of a reaction. If the goal was to show “a day in the life of…” Mishory’s use of vignettes betrays any sense of normalcy that he might hope to achieve with the action in the film. Instead, this blend of boring activities and painfully pretentious voice-over feels like a Calvin Klein ad from the early 1990s.
However, this brings me to one of the only positive elements of the film: the look. James Preston, while far from James Dean in charisma and talent, captures the corn-fed, boy-next-door type that made Dean so magnetic. The film style, while bizarre and out-of-touch with the material, is surprisingly enticing. The grainy 1950s look is achieved with somewhat mixed results: at times, dazzling, while other times the actors are in sharp focus, betraying the cheap film tricks used for Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. Then there is, of course, the sex appeal of the movie. I love an attractive naked dude as much as the next gay guy, but for a film to rely on the gay obsession with youth and beauty to sell its audience on the premise? It’s cheap. It speaks to everything that is problematic in the vapid, youth-obsessed gay “scene.” It’s like when you’re a little kid, and you do something bad. Your parents tell you, “I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.” Perhaps that’s the best way to describe my attitude towards Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. Full of so much potential and a unique look, it fails on too many fronts: wit and pretension become interchangeable, looks supersede action, and all the while, James Dean must be turning in his grave.