Have you ever put off returning a Netflix DVD for so long that it slowly, subtly becomes such an integral part of your apartment's décor that it seems like a shame to return it? That it's somehow fucking up your Feng shui old-school? That's how it was with Robert Altman's 1957 documentary The James Dean Story and Francis Ford Coppola's 1968 flop Finian's Rainbow. After taking up not-so-valuable real estate in my humble domicile for the better part of a year I finally got around to watching both those fuckers recently.
It was a semi-edifying experience. Coppola and Altman are two of my all-time favorite filmmakers but part of what makes these films so fascinating, at least from a historical/cultural perspective is how little they feel like Coppola or Altman movies. There are a lot of great filmmakers whose very first film conveys exactly who they are and where they're headed. A very straight, direct line can be drawn, for example, from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to Edward Scissorhands to Sweeney Todd or even from Frankenweenie or Vincent and those films.
But there's very little in The James Dean Story that even vaguely hints at the greatness to come. I'll be covering Finian's Rainbow all too exhaustively for My Year Of Flops tomorrow (I'm trying to cut down on the verbosity and long-windedness, honest I am, but it's an uphill struggle) so I'm going to use this blog primarily to discuss the weird little curio that is The James Dean Story.
The James Dean Story was rushed into production in the mid-50s to capitalize on the public's seemingly bottomless hunger for anything even vaguely relating to the ultimate tortured teen icon, a man who was so emo it hurt. According to IMDB, which it should be noted, is never wrong, the film was originally conceived as a narrative film, with Elvis Presley angling to play the lead role. Instead it was made into a documentary and while the fusion of a great naturalist like Altman and the documentary medium might seem like an ideal match the filmmaking here is notable mainly for its stiffness and artificiality.
If Altman's fiction films often capture the off-handed, electric spontaneity of real life with documentary-style verisimilitude, The James Dean Story tackles real-life with stilted, uncharacteristic awkwardness. The layers of distracting artifice begin with an unseen, voice-of-God narrator (Martin Gabel) who seems to have gotten the gig by winning an Orson Welles soundalike contest. When not issuing florid pronouncements about Dean's inner life Gabel can be heard interviewing common folk whose orbit Dean entered en route to pop-culture immortality.
These stilted interviews try and largely fail, to connect the dots between the shy, awkward, daydreamer friends, neighbors and girlfriends remember and the brooding icon to follow. In its overwrought manner, the film manages to capture something of the savage tenderness at the heart of Dean's cult, how behind the hatred there lied a murderous desire for love. But for every insightful observation about Dean as a beautiful cipher teenagers could project their own thwarted passions onto there are at least a few overly ripe passages about the tortured Dean gazing, yes, gazing dramatically at the lonely seagull and admiring his freedom and power.
It wasn't until the film ended that I realized the narration was written by Stewart Stern, a screenwriter best known for writing Rebel Without A Cause, the cornerstone of Dean's legend and a film discussed admiringly, if a tad bit disingenuously within The James Dean Story. I couldn't help but wonder if the airy flights of literary fancy in the film were the product of intimate conversations between Stern and Dean or if they were a matter of Stern filling in the ample blank spots in Dean's life and career through purple prose.
The James Dean Story begins with Gabel crowing that the film would not have been possible without a dynamic new innovative new process: "The Dynamic Exploration of the Still Photograph" which is a very fancy/pretentious way of saying that Altman and co-director George W. George (who, besides having an awesome name, was the son of Rube Goldberg, a fellow who knew something about screwy/impractical new creations) jiggle the camera around to make it look a still photograph is kinda/sorta moving if you look at it just so. Somewhere a young Ken Burns was taking notes.
In the end The James Dean Story is as interesting for what it isn't than what it is. It's one of the last Robert Altman movies that doesn't feel like a Robert Altman movie: none of his myriad trademarks are on display, except perhaps for a fascination with celebrity and youth culture and a fusion of documentary and narrative filmmaking techniques. In his later days when Altman was asked what filmmakers influenced him he gave a stock answer that he learned mainly from bad filmmakers what not to do. The James Dean Story isn't a bad film necessarily but it's safe to say that Altman learned a lot from it about what not to do. He learned from other filmmaker's failures and mistakes but, like all great filmmakers, he also learned from his own.
Fellow Altman fanboys and girls: is the making of The James Dean Story covered extensively in any of Altman's biographies? Has anyone else seen the films Altman made before M*A*S*H*? Lastly, can you think of other films made by legendary filmmakers before they developed their signature style?