Roughly ten years ago, I submitted an entry for the second season of “Project Greenlight”. Participants were required to judge other’s work and I remember receiving a script that stood out for all the wrong reasons. The story was about a lonely housewife who somehow meets up with a thinly-veiled Eminem and a fiery relationship begins. And I mean fiery. This thing was like a Harlequin romance novel… albeit written by a seventeen year-old learning English as a second language. It was awful, but telling. This was clearly the author’s fantasy, even if there wasn’t much of a story to hold it together. In some ways, “A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951″ reminds me of this. The film, coming to DVD June 4th from Wolfe Video, blends fact and fiction to tell the tale of a pre-fame, bi-sexual James Dean – though you have to wonder how much is just the product of a fantasizing screenwriter.
As the title suggests, the film is set in 1951. James Dean (James Preston) is a young actor in Hollywood and the “kept man” of a wealthy older benefactor. A series of vignettes follow the young soon-to-be icon as he shares romantic candlelit evenings with his male Roommate (Dan Glenn), attends an acting class at UCLA, beds starlets and whores himself out to directors. At one point Dean, The Roomate (due to the speculative nature of the film many of the characters simply lack names) and Violet (Delilah Rain), a struggling actress/studio call girl, travel out to California’s Joshua Tree Park where Violet gives Dean indispensable advice that will change his life and launch one of the brightest flashes ever to see the Hollywood pan.
Written and Directed by Matthew Mishory, “A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951″ plays out more like a chapter from Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” than any sort of biopic. Dean’s willingness to sleep with anyone who crosses his path is focused on far more than his talent as an artist. There are the scenes where he attends his acting class, in which he stares intensely at his professor as if soaking up every word and he’s often seen reading poetry and reciting Rimbaud, but these attempts to show Dean’s intellect feels more pretentious than anything. That is not to say that they aren’t entertaining. When The Acting Teacher (David Pevsner) drastically improves the performance of a student pretending to wait at a train station by having her sing “The Star Spangled Banner” in her head, it’s one of those “a-ha” moments where Dean’s fascination with his chosen profession seems to just click. After all, what is an actor but someone projecting an image – and even then Dean was all image.
But what was he protecting? Sure, Dean’s sexuality has been debated for decades and it’s not surprising that he socialized with many homosexuals in Hollywood, but was he gay? Straight? Bi? Nobody really knows for sure except for Mr. Dean and his lovers. But Mishory’s fantasy depicts the actor as being pretty much full-on gay and I mean full on. I think he sleeps with one female, likely thrown in just to cloud the water a bit, but for the duration of the film, he’s swinging from one man to the next. The sex scenes are graphic and intense – like “Monster’s Ball” sex- which might have straight viewers squirming awkwardly in their seats, especially since they seem to be a real centerpiece to the picture.
The acting performances are decent for what certainly looks to be a low-budget picture. The real risk to a movie like this is that your actor might not have the magnetism of the subject. James Preston is good enough. He’s not great and he’s not terrible. There are moments, in the right lighting and at the right angles where he looks A LOT like James Dean, however he mostly looks like the spawn of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. He never really nails the voice either, so even when he has the look, his speaking throws it off.
The real saving grace of the film is Michael Marius Pessah’s cinematography. Shot in gorgeous 35mm black and white, “A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951″ is a sight to see. Light is used to far better effect than any color could be. Profiles are silhouetted through darkness and candles flicker like stars in the infinite universe of a shared room giving a dreamy and romantic quality to a film that already recalls a dreamy and romantic period. During the trip to Joshua Tree, Pessah uses color Super 16 to show us what the characters are filming. It’s a surreal approach: is the image of Dean as recorded by the Roommate the REAL man?
The DVD has a clean, clear picture which is almost a disservice as it’s maybe too clean for a movie shot on B&W film. I’d have liked to see a little more film grain so it would feel closer to a movie from the time it was set in. That said, it’s still beautiful. The jazzy soundtrack bounces all over the place on a 5.1 Surround Sound track, but this isn’t a movie that needs to utilize any sort of “sonic depth” – for the most part, you’re going to be listening to center channel dialogue. Aside from the theatrical trailer and obligatory film ads, the only extra is a pretentious film school-y short film titled “Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman”. Lots of portraits being painted on this DVD.
“A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951″ gets 1 1/2 out of 4 stars. While visually stunning, I don’t feel like I know any more about James Dean then when I started. The story is thin and exploitative – like the world’s most stylish, gay Skinamax movie. It will pass the time, but ultimately leave you unfulfilled- not unlike the random trysts of the main character.