Observations of the Observatory
(Obscure Alternative Title: Paula Abdul, You’re No Natalie Wood!)
I suppose my initial and indirect introduction to Rebel Without a Cause occurred back in ’91, via the ‘MTV Exclusive’ video premiere of Paula Abdul’s vomitous paean, “Rush,Rush.” I knew a little about James Dean. He was that guy Morrissey was enamored with and had written a song about (“Suedehead”); not to mention, a poster of him smoking a cigarette and looking cool was sold at the local mall’s Musicland. However, I never truly sat through the entirety of the 1955 film directed and co-written by Nicholas Ray until I was forced to for a class I had taken last year. At the time, I was attempting to tackle the homoerotic subtext of Rebel Without a Cause, but that’s beside the point. What is important is that through my obsessive viewings of the film during that muggy month of May 2010, I began to firmly believe that the quintessential and revelatory scenes in the teen-angst masterpiece are tethered to the telescopic fortitude of the Griffith Observatory.
It is here that we witness Jim Stark’s failed attempts to fit in. It’s here that Jim has his first physical altercation with greaser Buzz Gunderson. It’s also here that Jim has his first real conversation with the unstable Plato. Of course, Jim is the maverick posterchild of awkward-cool. His soft-spoken words and disconnected mannerisms endow Jim with a hip-weird duality and a loner chic. In Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray deftly managed to capture and expertly channel the often tempestuous surge and swell of feelings and emotions that most adolescents endure during their teenage years—and he has done so through: the film’s dreamboat anti-hero, Jim; Jim’s anima in fire-engine red lipstick, Judy; and the psycho-pathetic Plato. Each of these characters’ insecurities manifest themselves at the Griffith Observatory. The observatory itself serves as the Cartesian theater where the hands of fate maneuver the marionette strings of our misbegotten, delinquent triumvirate of protagonists.
In effect, the dome-shaped planetarium becomes a cerebral extension of its teenage occupants both physically and mentally, housing chaos on a cosmic-scale, fomenting familiar teenage feelings of insignificance and one’s own mortality. As planetarium lecturer, Dr. Minton, sifts through simulated constellations and cosmological explosions—explosions that mirror the ones of the stolen cars used for the chicken run scene later in the film—he states, “While the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light years into distance…we will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came. Destroyed as we began, in a burst of gas and fire…In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the Earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed. And man, existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.” Astronomical facts they might be, but there’s little denying that Dr. Minton’s lecture could easily be translated into high-school poetry scrawled between the faint-blue lines of a Mead Composition notebook. If you disagree, simply go to page 81 of The Jack-Roller and re-read Stanley’s “Life’s Circumstances;” I’m sure it will lay all potential questions and concerns to rest.
Rebel Without a Cause (Two-Disc Special Edition). Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005. DVD.