Peter Trachtenberg

You’re Tearing Me Apart!

James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause: “You’re Tearing Me Apart Scene” (1955)

The United States is an adolescent nation. I remember feeling offended when I first read this, probably back in the 1960s in one of my parents’ news magazines, LIFE or Time or Newsweek.

But of course we’re adolescent. We’re less than 250 years old. At 250, England didn’t even speak English yet.

And, really, what’s wrong with being adolescent? Adolescents are cool. Adolescents are vital and sexy. They can run the 100-yard in 11.5 and have an orgasm in 20 seconds and be ready to have another one 20 seconds later. They look great in Abercrombie.

They look great in mall Goth gear, even if they’re a little fat.

But adolescents are adolescent. They’re immature. They won’t do their homework. They can’t postpone gratification. They need a national health plan, they want a defensive missile system. But the missile system doesn’t work, you tell them. Fuck that, you just got to mess with the carburetor.

The worst thing about adolescents is that they’re labile. Their moods zigzag. One minute they’re washing the Suburban without your even asking, the next they’ve totaled it and their blood level is .35. For all their belligerent claims of independence, they’re herd animals, their servility disguised by the way they keep jumping herds.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. saw itself as Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” It identified with his embattled decency and courage, with the allegiance to principle that made him willing to risk not just his life but his marriage to a Quaker hottie thirty years his junior.

Fred Zinnemann, “High Noon: Trailer” (1952)

In the movie trailer, Marshall Will Kane is identified as “a man too proud to run.” That was us. It was how George Bush sold us on invading Iraq. We were too proud to run, certainly not from Sadaam. (“Have you forgotten what he is? Have you forgotten what he’s done to people? Have you forgotten that he’s crazy?”) Let the French run.

But at key moments, the country slipped role models and became more like James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” a tormented outcast, as sensitive as an eyeball, thrashing around him for a moment of true feeling. He can’t make friends except with other outcasts. Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood) might be early versions of the Coalition of the Willing, with the twitchy, molten-eyed Mineo a stand-in for valiant little El Salvador. Hoods taunt him, and he has to stand up to them. In that respect, he’s still like Gary Cooper. “It was a matter of honor. I had to do something. They called me chicken. You know, chicken? I had to go.”

Jim Stark is saying this to his father. Their relationship might be a prevision of the one some thirty years later between Bushes Junior and Senior, the disheveled fuckup son and the grey-coiffed father, pompously suave in a dinner jacket and homburg, who collecting the kid from the drunk tank, chuckles, “Oh, I cut loose pretty good in my day, too.”

But the relationship also suggests the lurching tug-of-war between the United States and Old Europe during the lead-up to Iraq. One wants war, the other wants peace. One prizes realness, the other clings to convention. One is manly enough to go one-on-one in a knife fight, the other prisses around the house in his wife’s apron. In the scene in which a disgusted Jim Stark watches his father crawling on the floor to pick up a broken plate, then hoists him up by a frilled apron-strap, you see how the former president saw Jacques Chirac. Mission civilizatrice, my ass.

Nicholas Ray, “Rebel Without a Cause: Disappointing Parents” (1955)

The power of James Dean’s performance in “Rebel” lies in its mercurial shifts between loathing and longing, abandon and awareness. You can see them highlighted in this homage by the aptly-named Bombshell Mashup. Oddly, the sharpest pivot occurs during an exchange between Jim Stark and a surrogate father, the no-bullshit cop who has the balls to do what Jim’s real father can’t: rough him up.

(But even real men eventually run low on testosterone. Ed Platt, who played the cop, would later appear on TV as the Chief on “Get Smart,” where week after week he demonstrated the impotence of common sense against a really determined idiot.)

Alone with the cop, Jim pleads, “Please lock me up, I’m gonna hit somebody, I’m gonna do something!” He reaches blindly forward, his hand grazes the other man’s leg, then, in a sudden convulsion, he flails at the desk with his feet and fists. Maybe he’s recoiling from his own desire, which he only just then recognized, a boy’s eroticized longing for a man he could stand to become.

Or maybe he has a queasy intimation of what else he might become, once he gets tired of being an anguished suburban rebel. Jim Stark was basically a good kid. He just wanted a little direction from a father who didn’t get smashed at parties and wear an apron at home. But at the time I’m speaking of, the U.S. didn’t kill one kid in a game of chicken, and it didn’t turn itself into the cops. It killed some 100,000 Iraqis and 4,000 of its own young people and it left its wounded to languish amid rats and mold in a remote ward of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Its highest officials hinted in a hand-rubbing way about nuking Iran. A candidate for the presidency sang about it.

This isn’t Jim Stark. It’s Eric Harris, a teenager who also felt unloved—or, maybe worse, unrecognized. He used to post on the Web under the name “REB,” for Rebel.

You can find footage of the Columbine shootings on YouTube. I’d feel weird about using it, so I’ve made do with a montage from Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.”

riaboukine, “Elephant: Mad World” (2008)

There is such a thing as reality, and some kinds of it shouldn’t be aestheticized.

Under Barack Obama, the U.S. has reinvented itself once more and is now an upright, civic-minded youngster who gets good grades, sits on the student council, and tutors the disadvantaged on weekends.

Grownups love him. They say, okay, the kid’s finally growing up. And maybe he has. Maybe this was who we were along. On the other hand, we may not have lost our fascination with Eric Harris. Kids like that are still there, fuming in the hall beside their lockers, grumbling about birth certificates and communists. Sometimes they have guns.

– Peter Trachtenberg

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Peter Trachtenberg's essays have also appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, A Public Space, and The New York Times Travel Magazine. He is the author of "Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons," "Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh," and "The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning," a book that combines reportage, memoir, and moral philosophy to explore suffering and its narratives; it won the Phi Beta Kappa Society's 2009 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award.