I Go With the Kids
Leo Goldsmith on Rebel Without a Cause and Bully

“There is a great deal in this picture that does reflect the attitudes of certain teen-age elements, particularly in their bullying braggadocio and their mania for pointless violence. But the insistence with which the scriptwriter and director address sympathy to the youngsters at the expense of their parents and others who represent authority … renders this picture’s influence upon real youngsters with emotional disturbance questionable.” – Bosley Crowther on Rebel Without a Cause, The New York Times, 30 October 1955

“Near-porn masquerading as social commentary … a truly repulsive piece of trash that says far more about the absence of values from contemporary filmmaking than the waywardness of teens” – Lou Lumenick on Bully, New York Post, 13 July 2001

Bosley Crowther’s and Lou Lumenick’s appraisals of Rebel Without a Cause and Bully, respectively, could easily be interchanged. Both reviewers take similar exception to their subjects’ opportunistic portrayals of youth culture, as both hot-button issue and pointless titillation. Both films are lurid extrapolations of real-life tales of the modern at-risk youth: Nicholas Ray’s iconic melodrama drawing from a sociological study, Larry Clark’s sultry provocation from Jim Schutze’s sensational true-crime potboiler. And each film also feeds upon the controversies of its day—Ray had Senator Estes Kefauver’s subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency, Clark the Columbine shootings—which transformed adult society’s sense of shock, confusion, and disappointment with youth culture into a condemnation of the media that both draws upon and inspires it. While Kefauver’s 1955 Senate hearings on violence among the youth of the 1950s implicated the lusty, exploitative power of B-movies, comic books, and pornographic literature, the aftermath of Columbine saw a similar reaction to video games, TV violence, hip hop, and internet culture.

Several years after its release, Larry Clark’s Bully continues to be seen as just another in a long list of titles from a perceived smut and exploitation peddler, while Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause remains an acknowledged classic for its star-making performances by James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. But each aggressively, some say opportunistically, depicts contemporary youth at its most extreme: drinking and drugging, courting sex and death in hopes of thrills and attention. Each addresses a teenage subculture that some do not believe exists or else do not wish to acknowledge, and the motivations of each filmmaker were brought under suspicion as a result. But whatever their inflammatory nature, each film also appeals to a surprisingly conservative ethic of parental responsibility, a strange double-emphasis that paradoxically makes them both sensationalist and moralistic.

Ray’s film famously tracks a trio of at-risk teens in a single, 24-hour period, as they try to find acceptance and a sense of belonging with their parents and with each other. Clark’s film, conversely, follows a group of teenagers whose actions—which include the murder of their mutual tormentor—remain deliberately beyond their parents’ purview. But if they differ on this point, both films nonetheless share an assumption that upbringing and the influences of home-life drive their young characters’ actions and determine their fate. Notwithstanding this somewhat conservative sociology, both Bully and Rebel Without a Cause are nonetheless notable for their attempts (however questionable) to address and appraise teenagers at their own level without condescension, forestalling the simplistic headshaking enacted by the press and general public.

Through the character of Jim Stark, Ray draws the spectator into the furtive mentality of the new kid in town, and his awkward attempts to fit in, coupled with the antagonism that he encounters, feel far more dramatic than the material might merit in the hands of a lesser dramatist. Meanwhile, Clark sticks close (some would say, too close) to his characters, seeing their small Floridian world through their own skewed perspectives and taking in even their most banal and dimwitted discussions. Until its last moments, Bully, recreating with childish glee the gratuitous sex, low humor, and bad trips of adolescence, ultimately feels like it was made by one of its protagonists.

Most critics of these films have reacted with simple incredulity, in spite of their much-advertised basis in reality, and both Ray and Clark have been dismissed at different times as sensationalists and dirty old men: Ray with his application of melodrama and Cinemascope; Clark with his crotch-cam and his sympathetic, but uniformly thickheaded heroes. Clark’s loving and seemingly gratuitous attention to his young stars’ bodies has prompted some bizarre accusations that he is a child pornographer, though none of his principal actors were minors. One might compare the infamous proximity of Clark’s camera to Bijou Phillips’s crotch in one scene of Bully to Ray’s own notorious relationship with his actress, the then-16 year-old Natalie Wood, some twenty-seven years his junior. This proximity that both directors have to their subjects is realized in the cameos they make in their respective films: Ray as an indifferent planetarium attendant in his film’s final crane shot; Clark as the rather clueless, baseball bat-wielding father of a teenage “hit man.”

Plausibility aside, it has always seemed difficult for some critics to take teen angst seriously. One is reminded of the reaction of Jim Stark’s father to all his son’s petty youthful concerns in Ray’s film:

Dad: You’re at a wonderful age. In ten years, you’ll look back on this and wish—
Jim: Ten years? I want an answer now. I need one.
Dad: Listen, Jimbo, I’m just trying to show you how foolish you are. When you’re older, you’ll look back at this and you’ll laugh at yourself for thinking that this is so important. It’s not as if you were alone. This has happened to every boy. It happened to me when I was your age, maybe a year older.

Of course, while his father hunts for pen and paper to make a thorough checklist of his son’s worries, Jim sprints out of the house and later sends a car over a cliff. Indeed, if anything, much of the “foolishness” in Rebel Without a Cause was toned down, not exaggerated. Ray’s original treatment for the film began with a man aflame, two cars full of kids in a head-on collision, and a girl stripped to the waist, being whipped by three teenagers. And while Clark’s story is sufficiently explicit, many specifics are left sketchy, like the relationship between Bobby, the titular bully, and Marty, his best friend and principal victim. For all of the juicy detail in Bully, the film most vividly captures its characters’ delirium and ignorance.

The critical postmortems written for James Dean on the occasion of his death stressed that the problem of youth is one of an insufficient appetite for hard work, reflecting the adults’ condescending sense of youth’s promise squandered or unrealized. Writing in the Washington Post in October 1957, Richard Coe hypothesizes that Dean’s “fatal flaw was the lack of self-discipline,” while the incipient cult of James Dean insists that the actor “was loved because he was so like his contemporaries who, thus, are insidiously advised that glory can come from the dreaming of want and not the labor of doing.” This echoes the adult comparisons of Bobby and Marty in Clark’s film: Bobby is the smart, enterprising one, and Marty is the dimwitted, loser surfer, a layabout without promise. Indeed, Larry Clark more forcefully positions his film as a critique of the American Dream at the level of its youthful initiates. Bobby’s bullying appears as the natural precursor to prosperity in business, the very quality necessary to get ahead in the world. And as if to presage Bobby’s status as a future leader of America, the young man has already coerced his friend Marty into employment in his gay porn racket.

In interviews, Clark has identified the problems his film addresses as distinctly American and bourgeois: “There’s that thing in this country where we just want our kids to be happy, and there’s the tendency to avoid confrontation…. In America, it’s all about the kids. In other countries it’s not about that—it’s all about struggle, and putting food on the table. Only in the wealth of this country do you have the opportunity to lay around and smoke pot all day, go surfing, hang out and so forth.” An early version of Ray’s screenplay suggested more class division, with Mexican immigrants in the opening police station scene and a more working-class background for that film’s bully, Buzz Gundersen. But the final film, like Bully, exclusively focuses on teenagers of the middle class, with their disposable cash, their cars, and their lack of employment ambitions. Larry Clark’s protagonists have jobs at fast-food restaurants and do a bit of yard work— the most enterprising among them are Bobby, with his schemes for exploiting Florida’s gay club scene, and Derek, the teenage “hit man” and would-be gang leader ultimately enlisted to dispatch the bully—but they’re more interested in sex, drugs, surfing, and video games.

Of course, any correlations between the two films will no doubt illuminate the great distinctions between the teenage worlds they present. Rebel Without a Cause finds its teens laboring under an oppressive ideal of domesticity characteristic of the 1950s, and under Ray’s dissecting eye, the suburban home itself becomes a battleground where parent and child must scream over each other to be heard. Jim, Judy, and Plato flee their homes and peers in order to establish a new, alternative domestic space in an abandoned mansion. But such a dream—soon tragically quashed—reinforces rather than supersedes the moral values of home and family of its day. It is an ideal that longs for a restoration and reconciliation of the patriarchal order, with Jim’s father promising his son strength and understanding.

Bully, on the other hand, emphasizes a total lack of dialogue between parents and children. Here, the very bedrooms become places in which to hide, as do cars, beaches, and shopping malls. The suburban kids of modern America readily retreat to their own worlds of drugs, sex, internet, and cable television right under the distracted noses of their parents, who watch their own televisions and blithely offer some cash for a night out. And while these temporary havens of independence offer the illusion of unity and friendship, the end of the film finds the young conspirators divided by accusations and mutual suspicions. Once captured and prosecuted, none will claim agency in the murder and each blames the other for their participation in the crime. Here, there is no parental promise forthcoming, only endless headshaking and concern, with blame liberally meted out to the teenagers and, by extension, their remote parents. Like Rebel, Bully offers clear moral responses to adult questions about juvenile delinquency in its own milieu, perhaps inevitably inflaming those very same teenage passions that they purported to critique. With their willingness for provocation and exaggeration, Rebeland Bully courted a particularly hyperbolic critical discourse. Their significance as films and as cultural artifacts lies in their distinctly paradoxical nature as both moralistic critiques and sensationalist reflections of youth culture at the times of their making.