One of the best aspects of the DVD revolution has been the rescuing of films (especially documentaries) that would long ago have fallen into deterioration. My wife recently purchased a GoodTimes DVD of the 79-minute long 1957 documentary film The James Dean Story, directed by George W. George and Robert Altman, who, long before his fictive film breakthrough with M*A*S*H, was a documentary and commercial television director.
The interesting thing about this black and white documentary is not its subject matter, but its approach. On the negative side, unlike most modern documentaries, the film is flowery, verbose, purple prosed to death, and melodramatically stentorian in its screenplay descriptions of the dead young actor’s moods. In short, it is a virtual hagiography. Yet, in its setups to interviewing real life friends and acquaintances of Dean, there is something interesting about the voice-over narration of character actor Martin Gabel as he ‘talks’ to the interviewees. Also, there are some interesting cutting techniques and musical selections that make the film oddly gripping to watch.
The film’s ‘tale’ consists of following Dean from boyhood to UCLA to New York and the Actors Studio to television to his three noted film roles in East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and Giant. The best parts of the film are those insights provided by the hangers-on who give small details of Dean’s life — a former roommate, as example, pores through Dean’s personal effects and one learns that Dean was poorly organized and terminally late on bills. This says far more of the man than later documentary films on him, which probed (or rather obsessed on) whether or not he was gay. Part of this aspect of the film’s success has to do with the ‘screenplay’ by Stewart Stern (Dean’s pal, who also scripted Rebel Without A Cause).
However, the film’s aforementioned purple prose has to also be laid at Stewart’s feet. Likewise, the fawning hagiographic depictions of Dean, which start from the opening shots of 1950s moviegoers, get to be a bit much, resulting in some really poor symbolism, from ‘the tree of loneliness’ on Dean’s relative’s Indiana farm, to a dead seagull on a California beach to footprints on that selfsame beach, when Dean departs for New York to make it on Broadway. The worst aspect of this tendency results in a digression on Dean’s delve into other arts — painting and sculpture. Thus, we get a shot of a small piece of sculpture, with a male figure in a sort of Le Penseur (The Thinker) of Rodin pose. We see that it has no facial details, and the film makes a big thing out of this, even though there are no other details of the body. Why? Because Dean titled the piece Self. Oo-la-la!
On the other hand (yes, I am as equivocal as the film), there is something very appealing about a documentary that dares to psychologize its subject (if not to the point of the Self digression), because so many documentaries these days try to feign objectivity to the breaking point, even when, a la Michael Moore, their position, pro or con, is manifest from the get-go. Similarly, the personal accounts of Dean seem far more genuine than later documentaries in which interviewees seem to mug for the camera, and pull apocryphal tales out of their asses, just to get their own lousy 15 minutes in the sun. The interviewees here are speaking contemporaneously, before Dean’s legend really took off, and there is none of the deliberate or unintended fuzzing of memories toward the better angels of Dean’s nature.
The lone exception to this particular good quality of the film is a scene where Altman gets the family and friends of Dean to re-enact their reactions to first hearing of Dean’s death in a car crash of his Porsche on September 30, 1955. What makes this section so poor a piece of filmmaking is the fact that earlier we get to listen to a surreptitiously recorded ‘real’ conversation between Dean and his relatives, and the contrast between that and the ‘scripted’ parts is so great. Also, the film makes good use of the slow panning technique over still photographs that would later be used so successfully by documentarian Ken Burns. However, a caveat should be noted, and that is that the reason the technique works so well in the film is that the source photos are so intriguing. Yes, Dean comes off as a terminal narcissist, but he really did know how to strike the pose, and surround himself with photographer pals to immortalize himself.
That said, the film, even at its mere 79 minutes of length, tends to wear a bit thin after the hour mark, because the reality is that Dean, despite this film’s best intentions and claims, was not a particularly good actor. He was a relentless and born ham, and one need only watch Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, vis-à-vis Dean, to see the gulf between good and mediocre Method actors. Yet, while scenes from his films are few, there are some good passages with some of Dean’s friends from New York and Los Angeles restaurants, some outtakes from films, newsreels of the opening of Giant, and a Public Service Announcement for safe driving, which more than make up for the film’s deficiencies. Thus, The James Dean Story is a film and DVD worth watching, even if there are no extras, for its dated style becomes that rare quality that enhances even as it detracts. When was the last time you engaged a piece of art you could say even that of?