›› Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean
a film by Matthew Mishory.
2012 | 93 mins | US.
principal players: James Preston / James Dean, Dan Glenn / The Roommate, Dalilah Rain / Violet, Edward Singletary Jr / Roger, Erin Daniels / The Roommate's Mother, Robert Gant / The Famous Director, Nick Heyman / The Boy on the Beach, David Pevsner / The Acting Teacher, Rafael Morais / John and KC Morgan as Biff, The Man in the Stairwell.
Adapted Synopsis: "In this vignette styled exploration of James Dean's complicated sexuality; JOSHUA TREE, 1951 redefines the boy behind the image, as we encounter Dean during two key periods in his life; that of his UCLA days and formative relationships, to the film's present tense of 1951 and a drive to the desert of Joshua Tree, California with his roommate and perhaps, his one true love."
The life of Hollywood icon James Dean has forever been courted in controversy, not least over the precise nature of his sexuality and the means to an end, over his rise to stardom. In this striking and overtly homoerotic feature, writer and director Matthew Mishory thankfully does not hold back in delving into both aspects of his being. Yet for all of the pros of this work, including the lush high-contrast black and white cinematography of Michael Marius Pessah, many I dare say will find its non-linear presentation off-putting, with Mishory forever flipping between times frames, in the process selecting moments in Dean's life, rather than detailing the full picture; chronological fashion.
What we do see is however beautiful, with James Preston giving a remarkable portrait of Dean, wonderfully capturing his classic facial expressions and mannerisms. Only it is the more subtle performance by Dan Glenn as Dean's straight acting roommate where the homosexual heart of the feature lies. For theirs is the pivotal relationship of this work, with Mishory adding many a poignant line that critically defines the true nature of their bond and of a man who knowingly scarified love, to court fame. For unlike many a film that credits Dean having "somewhat reluctantly" gone with influential men as a means to advance his career, here Mishory intercuts his piece with scenes that graphically show Dean's bisexual nature and of an appetite for manflesh of both the top and bottom variety, complete with a bit of cigarette burning thrown in for S&M styled pleasure.
James Dean, as I lay dying in Joshua Tree, 1951.
Yet in a film that has a lot to say between scenes of narrative silence, this feature speaks volumes on the studio system itself. For it is here that Mishory cuts to the used and abused heart of the Hollywood, that was. From poolside parties of the "no trunks required" variety, to the "payment for services rendered" setup of the period, the reality of a profession in which talent alone wasn't good enough to secure your name in lights, is shown with blistering frankness. And whilst the character names are in the main fictitious, those knowledgeable of Dean's career will soon be able to put specific identities to key roles, with the recollections of William Bast all but the film's foundation stone.
The man, as opposed to the legend in Joshua Tree, 1951.
For this is Dean stripped bare, with his inner vulnerability achingly shown battling with an all-consuming zeal for fame, being prepared to do "whatever it takes" to succeed in the business, even if that be as the "older homosexual's toy-boy" . Laced with choice literary references throughout, including an opening scene quoting the words of poet Arthur Rimbaud and with splendid support from Edward Singletary Jr and Dalilah Rain as a pair all too knowledgeable of how the Hollywood machine works; albeit from different perspectives, what comes through strong is the human side of the story, namely the lasting impression of a man discovering his sexual self, his art and along the way finding love itself, only to realize that he's just one of many a pretty boy in a city filled with broken dreams. For and in spite of a number of biographical omissions, this is probably the defining work on James Dean; certainly from a sexual angle, stunningly showcasing the man, as opposed to the legend he became.
Gay Visibility - overt.
Nudity - the artistic monty
/ if mainly bare-arsed cheek.
Overall - file under ... 3+ stars.