Even if you’ve never seen a James Dean film, there is one thing you can say for sure: the man was, without a doubt, an icon. That as a stand-alone statement, however, leaves a question open: if we take the definition of icon as “a person or thing that is regarded as a representative symbol of something”, what, then, is James Dean an icon of? Many would say he came to embody adolescent angst, but his cultural impact clearly goes well beyond that. It has become an important part of his legacy that, in recent years, he has oft been cited as “the male gay icon of all time”. This brings me to Joshua Tree, 1951 – a product of exactly that cultural significance: a speculative biopic that explores the ambiguity surrounding his sexuality.
The film is set on the eve of his stardom. Just prior to his move to New York (where his theatre work would ultimately pave the way for his all too brief Hollywood career) James Dean (Dean Preston) drives out to the desert of Joshua Tree National Park. His companions on this trip are the un-named ‘Roommate’ (Dan Glenn), with whom he is having a romantic affair, and Violet (Dalilah Rain), a down-and-out actress who, using her experience as a victim of the Hollywood system, bestows cynical advice upon the brooding young artist.
To start with, the films aesthetic befits Dean’s iconic status beautifully. Shot in stark black and white (aside from a few shots through the lens of ‘The Roommate’s’ super 8 camera and a climactic romantic scene near the end), the film exudes a cool and timeless style. Light and shadow are used to create a real poetry; in fact the way in which certain scenes are lit felt almost reminiscent of Terrence Davies’ early work (which explored similar sexual themes). Visually it is quite simply a treat.
The film succeeds too in building a convincing world of 1950s L.A., a sun-splashed world of swing jazz, cocktails, and swimming pools. We get snap shots of acting school, private moments from his shared apartment, parties at Roger Brackett’s house; but it always comes back to the desert, a place of much emblematic value – the raw beauty, the loneliness, the intense isolation. Certain shots show that director Matthew Mishory was clearly aware that this environment is ‘playing James Dean’ as much as Preston is.
That’s not to be critical of James Preston; indeed, his portrayal is intense and thorough (though, for my money, his performance is perhaps not as nuanced as James Franco’s). Preston’s is a moody and thoughtful Dean with an immature edge that, rather than undermine his philosophising actually deepens his character. He speaks in poetical terms saying things like “I’ve never told anyone this, but when I think, I think in pictures not words…”
This, however, brings me to the film’s biggest flaw: the James Dean we are presented with is basically impenetrable. For those who know nothing about him, it provides relatively little beyond this particular perspective on his sexuality. The decision to stray away from a conventional plot is fine, but the film doesn’t get intimate enough with character – one or the other (or both) is necessary for a truly successful biopic.
That’s not to say there’s nothing of interest here, on the contrary Mishory has the makings of artist. An example of one of the films many flourishes is a prologue featuring 17th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, an incredibly provocative referral point that establishes the specific side of Dean that Mishory wanted to show.
Style over substance is an over-used phrase in film criticism, but overall I think it may be appropriate here. The possibility of Dean’s homosexuality is certainly given credence, but beyond the beautiful photography and a charismatic performance, the film offers little else.