I’ll freely admit that I knew positively wiener about James Dean before getting my mittens on these documentaries. I mean, I knew that he was from my lovely home state of Indiana; I’ve even driven through his hometown of Fairmount on the way to a festive night of debauchery at Purdue University. I knew that he was like, this famous actor and shit. I knew that he died young and was only in three feature films. However, I never really understood the hoopla surrounding Dean’s mythic cultural status. How much of an impact can one guy make in a measly three flicks to warrant the kind of legacy that Dean has fostered? The two documentaries I’ll take a look at in this review, while lacking in their own rights, combine to paint a pretty compelling picture of a guy that effortlessly wielded a once-in-a-generation combination of swagger, presence and ambiguity.
While I’ll wait to convert to the Church of Dean until after I’ve given the Holy Trinity of East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant a fair look, I’m at the very least convinced that James Byron Dean was indeed “the balls”.
The only thing rivaling Dean’s passion for cars and acting was his love of sweet, unpasteurized goat milk.
James Dean: Forever Young, directed by Michael J. Sheridan and narrated by President Josiah “Martin Sheen” Bartlett, was debuted at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. I have no idea what kind of reception it received there, but it’s a really nice little overview of The Dean’s ouerve, providing a swift Quantum Leap through his 24 years of existence in the mortal coil. From his humble Indiana roots to being accepted as the youngest member of the Actor’s Studio in NYC and culminating with his meteoric rise to stardom in Hollywood, the documentary hits all the major blips in the Dean timeline.
Driven forward with a comfortable cadence by Sheen’s narration, the film bombards the viewer with a relentless salvo of rare footage of old Dean screen tests, film clips, TV spots and photography. We see Dean pay his early dues, lighting up hilariously tacky Pepsi ads, religious specials and a myriad of bit parts alongside the likes of Rock Hudson and Humphrey Bogart. We see Dean schmoozing with a young Marty Landau in New York and dabbling in painting, poetry and bongo-drumming. We see Dean’s evolution from his Broadway debut in “See the Jaguar” to snagging his first big-time role as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden. We see an emerging Dean tackle roles as diverse as a shifty ex-con, a hilljack angel, a shifty ex-con, a psychotic janitor and even a shifty ex-con (Seriously, that role seemed to comprise 50% of his fledgling resume). The documentary paces Dean’s tale superbly, making for a highly-watchable, educational experience in the eyes of a Dean Newbie such as myself. Is a hardcore Dean Zealot who owns vials of Dean’s blood going to get as much out of it as I did? Probably not. I’d imagine Forever Young would be more of a remedial exercise for the experienced Dean fan, but I’d also think that the sheer bounty of neat old-school Dean footage and apparently rare photographs would be enough to keep them engaged. The only problem with the pace and scope of this film is that it leaves open large holes where you want to learn more, which is a problem ironically addressed by…
Edie was overcome with horror as she discovered that not even James Dean was safe from the shit-weasels.
…James Dean: Sense Memories. Sense Memories is a part of the PBS American Masters series, the same line which gave us Martin Scorsese’s absolutely phenomenal Bob Dylan documentary earlier this year. Whereas Forever Young’s modus operandi is to inundate the viewer with as much Dean media as possible, Sense Memories focuses stringently on the 1955, the year which established the actor as the icon he is today. This, of course, is also the year that Dean merged his Porsche 550 Spyder with Donald Turnupseed’s Ford coupe on Highway 46.
The main aspect that Sense Memories brings to the table that is noticeably bereft from Forever Young is the interview. While Forever Young liberally mentions names such as Landau, photographer Dennis Stock and Corey Allen, this film actually sits these men down to provide their respective insights into the Dean mythos. We also get to hear from director Mark Rydell, actor Eli “Tuco” Wallach, actress Lois Smith, extraterrestrial Eartha Kitt, and directors Nicholas Ray and Kazan via audio and video clips. Where Forever Young sketches the outline of Dean’s experiences, Sense Memories comes in with a fine-point pencil and adds painstaking, enlightening detail. One of the disc’s highlights is hearing from Bob Hinkle, Dean’s “Texas Dialogue Coach” on Giant, describe the genesis of the famous Jett Rink Rope Trick of Scene-Stealing +18. By putting people directly involved with Dean on camera, Sense Memories conjures a much more involving perspective than the James Dean 101 approach of the other film. Conversely, Sense Memories’ sharp and limited focus renders it almost supplemental, as we miss out altogether on the interesting aspects of Dean’s early career.
Ultimately, somebody with interest in Dean is going to want to watch both of these films in order to get a full sense of the story, as each leaves too much to the imagination when taken separately. Together, the films work like Stockton and Malone.
Forever Young: 8.5 out of 10
Sense Memories: 8.8 out of 10
Together: 9.2 out of 10
Bill had no problem discussing being typecast due to his gargantuan stature.
They’re documentaries, and one was made for TV. They’re crisp and clear and presented in “matted” widescreen, so I can’t really complain.
Both: 7 out of 10
Again, these films aren’t going to convince your neighbor to buy a 5.1 system, although Forever Young might convince him to buy The Complete James Dean Collection on DVD with the $10 off coupon insert included with the flick! Forever Young literally uses “Forever Young” by Rod Steward over its opening credits, immediately docking it two points.
Forever Young: 5 out of 10
Sense Memories: 7 out of 10
Nothing. Not that I expected anything, but I digress. Scene selections and languages on both. Period.
Both: 0 out of 10
Each dvd features an iconic shot of The Dean with some text draped on top of it. Blacks, blues and sepiatones seem to be the official color palette of James Dean. They’re clean and inoffensive, but far from eye-catching.
Both: 6 out of 10
A print from Dennis Stock’s influential "Hollow Man Series".
Forever Young: 7 out of 10
Sense Memories: 7.5 out of 10