Friday, September 20, 2013

Matthew Mishory's mythologizing visual treat, A PORTRAIT OF JAMES DEAN: Joshua Tree, 1951

Myth-making's a funny thing. If you're not careful (or brave enough to go whole hog), it can turn around and bite you in the ass. Matthew Mishory's visual-treat-cum-mythmaking-attempt, A PORTRAIT OF JAMES DEAN: Joshua Tree, 1951, occasionally takes a nip or two, but I'd say that, for the most part, Mr. Mishory's tush remains unscathed. Not that this is an entirely successful film. For all its concern with what's real, honest and profound, it remains resolutely on the surface. Fortunately that surface is awfully nice to view.

This is Mr. Mishory's first full-length film (the filmmaker is shown at right), and he and his crew have gone all-out down the "period visuals" route. The look of the early 1950s is captured quite beautifully, and the (mostly) male and (some) female bodies on view appear true to that age. The young men are not overly buffed or muscular, and the women have more meat on their bones that you might see these days. (Who'd heard of anorexia back then?) The clothes, the cars, the hair styles, the home decor -- both low-end and high -- seem to me quite accurate. Of course, I was but a ten-year-old movie fan living in Los Angeles at that time; still, those memories linger, and the film does them justice.
It particularly does justice to our imagined/cinematic/nostalgic view of Hollywood and its environs circa the early 50s.

The filmmaker has chosen to shoot almost all of his movie in black-and-white, and his cinematographer, Michael Marius Pessah, has done an ace job of it. The darks and lights; the shades of grey; the rich, almost blacks will make most cinephiles' mouths water.

Mishory has assembled a good-looking cast and has coiffed and clothed them up to look quite "period." In the pivotal role of Mr. Dean, he has cast a actor -- James Preston, above and below -- whose face does indeed resemble the late actor in enough ways to make the movie work. And he's drawn a decent performance from Preston, too, in which the actor "holds back" in the same way Dean did, thus making himself interesting on a cinematic level and more desirable on a personal one. (Anthony Perkins had this same quality, early in his career; Ryan Gosling has a little of it, which he is quickly losing: too much Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably.)

The remainder of the cast is also well-chosen, visually, especially that "roommate" of Dean's (played, with a hesitancy that is quite moving, by Dan Glenn, below), who is never identified with a name, but is clearly here seen as one of the important friends and loves of Dean's short life.

Also looking good are Dalilah Rain (below) as Violet, the smart, no-nonsense woman in Dean's life; Edward Singletary as Roger (at right in the second photo below), the "agent" who helps start Dean's career; Robert Gant (third photo below), billed as "the famous director" who arranges for Dean to go to New York to study and gain his Broadway sea legs; and especially David Pevsner  from last year's Scrooge & Marley, as Dean's highly watchable acting teacher.

As good as Mr. Pevsner is, his character, in fact, is one of the problems of the film and most clearly shows up the depth that's missing here. In his acting class, he has a young woman do an exercise about waiting in a train station. She first does it poorly -- overacting to beat the band. But then, after a bit of "coaching" she does it utterly boringly but is perceived by the class to have done it brilliantly. This is so we'll know that the "actor" must concentrate hard in order to convince us of the "truth." To which I say, Pshaw! This is just silly. Good acting requires more than concentration.

Mishory's screenplay never gets beyond telling us and its characters what we and they must think and feel. He hasn't yet learned how to plant his themes within organic scenes that grow and live. His screenplay isn't awful by any means, and his dialog is decent, if surface. It's best in the scene on the beach (and later in an apartment) in which Dean picks up a young man who lives nearby and goes home to talk and fuck.

I also question the filmmaker's use of color in the movie -- seen only in tiny moments initially, and then in a longer dose toward the end. This is simply unnecessary. It's adds little while distracting a lot. Finally, if this is not the definitive James Dean portrait, it's at least a nice addition to the continued mythologization of one of the most iconic actors who ever, and all-too-briefly, traveled the Hollywood route.

A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951 -- from Wolfe Video -- is available now via Netflix streaming & elsewhere.

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