As a non art critic previewing MOCA’s most recently opened exhibit, Rebel - temporarily installed at 941North Highland inside an annexed space – James Franco and seven other artists have put together a tightly conceived, unabashedly irreverent, though for me, an emotionally incomplete, deconstruction of James Dean and the Hollywood culture.
Opening the pre-exhibit press conference, MOCA Director, Jeffrey Deitch told the story of how he had been involved in developing the exhibit. It began in New York. Some impetus for the project grew out of a previous installation, which involved the entire General Hospital set. As many may know, James Franco has regularly played a character on that soap and some episodes were even shot with the set in its installation home. Deitch obviously has great admiration for Franco. Ultimately, demystifying something as iconic to this town as Rebel Without a Cause was too intriguing not to explore.
Upon taking the mic, Franco began humbly by saying he shouldn’t be up there, the other artists should – then he went on for a VERY LONG time…Fortunately, he was interesting as he set up the concept for the piece. As it was explained in the program notes, it likely began ruminating from his playing James Dean in a biopic years ago. Once he’d worked through a number of issues surrounding that, he became interested in exploring it more deeply with other artists. At first, there was a plan to do a film about the making of Rebel Without a Cause, particularly surrounding legendary tales of Sal Mineo, James Dean and Natalie Wood during a weekend at a Bungalow, but it was abandoned. It was thought a project like that would still be too close to the source and, ultimately too “precious” and restrictive.
Paul McCarthy shared the process of reconstructing the Bungalow for filming video loop. That set will be going up somewhere else as an exhibit at a later time. At one point, after it had been abandoned to storage, McCarthy imagined it like a skull as its exterior, but the full two story recreation of the interior within. Given what had allegedly occurred that weekend between the Rebel actors, it was evocative to me of a kind of surrender to death. That’s what we do when we break taboos, in large part, just to break them.
I was both delighted by and terrified for Harmony Korine, as he spoke of what led him to the project. This is a guy who, for an artistic film exercise, had planned to have a feature length documentary of himself provoking various random people into full fledged fist fights. He had been in the hospital, he had been arrested, he was thought to be mentally unstable…The fact that James Franco would ask him to revisit this frightening time in the young man’s artistic life for the sake of this project, made me question Franco as a friend; but perhaps, he only requested Korine revisit the spirit.
Korine couldn’t go back there. His healing had something to do, I think, with some female ex-gang members turned nudists. He laughed at himself. That was comforting and a relief.
Listening to each artist talk of the process, I was moved by their contributions and reasons for getting involved. They have dove into the way things are, in order to understand fully why they shouldn’t be the way they are. Yet, there is some lacking vulnerability in the work for me. The artists, especially Franco, ultimately dehumanize themselves to understand the victim. It is almost heroic, if it were not for the fact, it is yet self destructive, or has not quite reached a state of maturity where the work moves fully through that emotional journey.
Couching this violent deconstruction of Hollywood Masculine Paradigms, was a lot of lush vegetation, clean set facingss and conspicuous Fresnels on metal stands with no effort to hide projectors. We were in Deconstruction Land, complete with both one regularly hung and one inverted Hollywood sign. Fortunately, we were only getting started.
The piece argues effectively that out of control male sexuality arises from deep insecurity. That is by no means an original revelation, but the violence and provocative way in which the theme is explored did give it a visceral urgency that the issue has lacked in awhile
James Dean’s death. The risks he took in his life. The self loathing. His confused sexuality. Trying to find a true connection with another human being was so impossible within the plastic comfort of the 1950s and the out of control world of Hollywood, the expectation of masculinity and limitations of society, that it wouldn’t occur to Dean to consciously bother. It would manifest itself in the physical.
Images of Dean’s classic motorcycle were featured, of course. Bicycles were strewn throughout – perhaps the mountain bike is the modern version of the motorcycle – the rugged terrain, adventure athlete. Instead of a high performance engine, man must power the vehicle with his own sweat and muscle. And we have our first adventures as children on bicycles. I was reminded, briefly, of Elliott and the boys saving ET. Bikes are an early right of freedom. Then imagination, losing its innocence, turned ego driven, turned fantasy driven…
There was A LOT of looped video. Several were long, up to 188 minutes. They are each described in the program and I found a couple of them pretty compelling i.e. the cattle being roped next to the poster of Giant.
Catching an image here and there, as sudden jolt of mood thrust into the room, was more satisfactory as far as taking in the material. I generally find the viewing of looped video tedious, so it may be that the medium itself is unappealing to my sensibilities.
Speaking of violated sensibilities…
The cartoon El Gato featured Jim Stark (Dean’s Rebel character) with a duck’s bill and Judy (Wood) as the obvious title character. Fast driving while masturbating culminated in sexualities so confused, Judy grows a penis that is sucked by Plato (Mineo), while Jim fucks him in the ass. Afterwards, they clung together in a post coital intimacy that was touching.
The commentary on our societies’ sexual imbalance was riveting. The male cock (or ego) thrust into our faces, the catering to the cock in its explicit and dehumanizing treatment of women until – the entitlement men feel, particularly attractive and successful men – to have their cocks worshipped. It is a horrible distortion of male humanity that dehumanizes the feminine, as well as the masculine – especially as a sexual beings. But it is not as though women lack complicite…
With modern notions of sexuality much more relaxed (we’re not enlightened or even healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but much more accepting of homosexuality than in 1950s) – a man in drag may not be quite as evocative as it once was. James Franco still makes a beautiful woman. There is a more modern freedom to explore opposing gender roles, at the same time, the images mine sexual confusion.
The piece, overall, didn’t really delve into the complexities of feminine sexuality. It is fucked up how men perceive female sexuality and we got that. Still, it is heartening to witness such self examination and questioning of accepted Hollywood Paradigms, that seem to endure no matter how much else of the business changes.
The way Wood is dehumanized by Franco’s commentary in the program notes and the casualness of Dennis Hopper’s statements about her, is almost offensive. But, since I know I am supposed to be offended, I don’t mind. She is this thing that Hopper and Nick Ray (Rebel director) both stuck their cocks into and it cost Hopper screen time. The sexual experience with her is lost. She is lost. I didn’t catch much of the Death of Natalie Wood, which was one of the loops running, so I am not sure where Franco went with it, but those were my initial feelings moving through the work as I did.
Surrounded by typical Tinsel Town comfort, inside a Jacuzzi lay a rusted motorcycle. Endless anger from the confused, ego driven male thrust into the sanitized womb of the passive, unreleased femine and left to rot, ultimately memorializing this negative aspect of modern male existence, all the while making the womb non functional, yet because of the chemicals in the treated water, remains beautiful on a purely superficial, aesthetic level. Wow! Did I just shove my head up my ass or what?!?
Strangely, all this irreverence Franco wanted and all this not being “precious” gives Rebel a kind of reverence, because it infuses the source material with modern relevance. Though I think it may be a spiritually and emotionally incomplete journey, it is well threaded to the constructs of Rebel Without a Cause and fucked up, though long enduring, constructs of masculinity. I feel privy to a portion of an ongoing quest that will eventually hold more wisdom and peace for its pilgrims. In the meantime, I hope our anti-heroes do not destroy themselves.
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