Thursday, April 17, 2014

James Dean and the Birth of Modern Masculinity

James Dean. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesA life mesmerizingly truncated, James Dean left behind only three films, and the gaping absence of the career that might have been.

Even though he only made three films, James Dean introduced Hollywood to a new kind of man: Photo above: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

by India Ross

New Statesman

17 April, 2014 - In Rebel Without A Cause, from 1955, a 24-year old James Dean, red-jacketed and tight-jeaned, climbs behind the wheel of an old black Mercury. To his right, the opponent he will race to the edge of a cliff hangs out of his driver-side window for a last slug of bravado: “Hey Toreador!”, he jeers. “First man who jumps is a chicken.” Re-inserting a trademark cigarette, Dean flicks on his headlights and hits the gas, and the two cars accelerate towards the brink. Frames from the edge, Dean glances right, grabs for the door and rolls out onto the turf. His adversary, jacket sleeve caught on his door handle and jammed into his driver’s seat, slips wrenchingly over the edge with his car.

Less than a year later, the real life James Dean, whose legacy is the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the BFI, was to die in an echoing event, flipping a race-car on a bend on a California highway. A life mesmerisingly truncated, he left behind only three films, and the gaping absence of the career that might have been. It was a sequence of events morbidly inkeeping with the themes of doomed youth his characters embodied.

The word “iconic” is tossed around ad nauseum, but if ever it were to apply, in the sense of an individual and a star whose off-screen persona outshines the sum of their roles, who bends the fabric of the society in which they live, Dean would surely qualify. In life, and even more so in death, the bee-stung darling of early Technicolor has held the awe of the movie-going public.

But facial anatomy and excellent hair were not the traits for which Dean was influential. Hollywood does not suffer a shortage of cheekbones. He slotted into a blurry interlude following the second world war but before the flowering of the Beat movement, in which the role of a man in society was under sudden and unsuspected dispute. A generation primed for combat found itself at a loss of purpose, and gender roles that were without meaning overnight began to merge and reconfigure themselves.


Dean was a new kind of man. His characters cried and struggled and screamed in frustration at the blurry world they had to live in. They were awkward and uncertain, grappling with sexuality and the disappointment in older men around them. “What can you do when you have to be a man?”, screams Jim, the tortured hero of Rebel Without A Cause, at his impotent father.

The cut of the male star was formerly more robust: Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable – these were men’s men, manoeuvring from the Alexandrian chariot to the Western Front with a raised eyebrow in place. But the type of machismo with which Hollywood used to cash cheques, which slipped so easily into the rhythm of day-saving and woman-placating, is now all but redundant. George Clooney is perhaps the only contemporary relic of that 1940s flavour of heterosexuality. With a Cary Grant jawline and non-threatening cool, Clooney lingers as a housewives’ favourite, occasionally modernising his brand with political activism and dips into independent pictures. He banks on a nostalgia for the screen heroes that preceded him.

But the successors to James Dean are in evidence everywhere. From the contemplative Ryan Gosling to the part-time poet James Franco, the Emotional Man is now a marketable asset. Matthew McConaughey, 2014’s case in point, has lived an entire spectrum of masculinity, latterly dropping frat-boy kilos to become a thoughtful shadow of himself – a feminised brand that has been remunerated well beyond his Oscar.

In Hollywood today, a “male icon” is a contradiction in terms. Where fame has become all but genderless, a new batch of androgynous stars has fumbled its way to the surface. From Michael Cera to Jesse Eisenberg, the cinema is synonymous with a group of loping, hobbit-haired boys so divorced from masculinity that their characters actively mock the idea of sexual power. A swelling interest in superheroes, as an object of ironic admiration by the tech generation, is not coincidental, as fanboys reflect on a lost type of man, so distant from themselves.

James Dean opened a door for the re-imagining of the male star. An awkward icon, he gave early shape to a model that would take decades to take hold. A man not just uncomfortable in himself but in the very idea of what a man represents, alongside Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash he broke a cycle of sexual dogma, laying the tracks for a half-century of flexible, sensitive masculinity. From the Beatles to The Graduate, The Smiths to Superbad, another type of man entirely was to dominate a soft, new horizon.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

‘Lost Writings of SDS’ Reviewed…

Revolutionary Youth & the New Working Class: The Praxis Papers, the Port Authority Statement, the RYM Documents and Other Lost Writings of SDS (Carl Davidson, Editor, Pittsburgh: Changemaker Publications, 2011)


By George Fish

Socialism and Democracy

Revolutionary Youth & the New Working Class is an important collection of documents from a crucial period, 1967-1970, in the history of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. It is of both historical and present political interest. Carl Davidson, himself an old SDSer who has remained politically active on the left up to the present, is to be congratulated for his perspicacity in compiling it. As he notes in his Foreword, only one of the reprinted documents – the original manifesto of what went on to become Weatherman, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows” – is readily available; he collected the others in order, as he says, “to keep an important piece of the history of the 1960s New Left from going down the memory hole.” His instinct at preservation is unerring: the collection will become an essential reference. Although the analyses presented in these documents are of uneven quality, they all have some usefulness. That holds for even the least of them, Noel Ignatin’s “Without a Science of Navigation We Cannot Sail the Stormy Seas,” which is an able discussion despite its overall stilted and dogmatic 1930s Communist Party USA approach (Ignatin is a former CPUSAer who became a Maoist, so he is at least being “true to his heritage”).

It is important to remember that these documents were written 42-45 years ago, during a time of capitalist prosperity. So it is not surprising that some of the politics and analyses will seem remote from present-day concerns. On the whole, though, the analyses hold up much better than might be expected. Other changes since they were written include: the decline of US power and influence first brought about by the defeat in Vietnam, and continuing with the economic ascendancy of China and the openly left electoral victories in Latin America; the decline of the “affluent worker” in advanced capitalism as wages have stagnated or declined for the last 40 years, and unions have weakened; new militancy of workers joining that of other social strata beginning in the US in the 1970s and continuing today in the anti-austerity movements in Europe and worker protests in China; the at-least-formally-given death knell to Meany-Kirkland guns-and-butter trade unionism by the election of John Sweeney and later Richard Trumka to head the AFL-CIO, and by the active presence of left activists now in many unions; and the partial victories of the civil rights movement which, while not doing much to alleviate the poverty and desperation of the African American working class, have opened doors of opportunity previously nonexistent, and have created a larger black middle class and even, ironically, a layer of prominent black conservatives such as Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and others who oppose many of the civil rights movement’s gains. Many of these changes could not have been anticipated—which only enhances the political value and perspicacity of the analyses contained in this collection.

The centerpiece of the volume is clearly the long paper, “Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority Statement’,” a rigorous attempt by SDS activist scholars David Gilbert, Robert Gottlieb and Gerry Tenney to present a New Left analysis of capitalism and US empire, and to posit a political direction for young activists of that time. This is an impressive work, no matter how much one might question its New Working Class thesis of a displaced traditional proletariat, its seeing the locus of power for social change in the underclass, or its view that capitalist “post-scarcity” could essentially go on forever. The Port Authority Statement is worthwhile reading even today, and should join with the much better known and available Port Huron Statement as powerful manifestos that articulate the New Left viewpoint.

Also of value, though less so, is the 1968 statement of early feminism written by Naomi Jaffe and Bernardine Dohrn, “The Look Is You: Rising Feminism vs. Mass Media.” This paper offers a strong critique of the exploitation of women through consumption, although its then-fashionable implication (associated with the philosopher Herbert Marcuse) of an all-pervasive social control and domination was given the lie precisely by the vibrant movements of the 1960s, including that of the feminists themselves. In this same vein of articulating strategies that subvert control and domination is the last article in this volume, Carl Davidson’s 1970 “Toward a Critical University: Counter-Hegemony in Education.” Furthermore, and very much to its credit, this collection presents the entirety of Noel Ignatin’s and Ted Allen’s long-unavailable collection of essays on white supremacy, “White Blindspot.” The white supremacy thesis was one of the most significant ideological developments within the New Left milieu, although my own experience leads me to question the idea that the racism of white workers reflects any actual privilege as distinct from (to use the older left expression) misguided white chauvinism.

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Reviewed by George Fish
writer, poet, stand-up comic
Indianapolis, Indiana

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