RIP Cinema: On James Dean’s Disappearance and French New Wave Legacy

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This creative essay was inspired by a real philosophy podcast and an illogical dream. What if James Dean lived into the ‘60s and worked primarily with French New Wave directors?

Decades from now, international film critics will philosophize about James Dean’s “First Four.”  And why not, given the directorial and cultural prestige of films like “East of Eden” (1955), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “Giant” (1956) and certainly Dean’s influential portrayal of boxer Rocky Graziano in Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning black and white picture “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), co-starring Dean’s Italian wife, Pier Angeli. Few other male actors have affected American movie culture during like Dean, but he’ll always be remembered not as an American Rebel, but as the unlikely French New Wave icon who bridged the gap between European cinephiles and American movie buffs; the architect of the international societal movement known as RIP Culture.

Inspired by Louis Malle’s 1957 New Wave classic “Let It Rip (Déchirure),” written by French film critic and noted script doctor Jean-Luc Godard, RIP Culture promotes professional proactivity, cultural diversity and personal creativity through casual meditation. Nowadays, even the most ignorant moviegoers understand the cultural connotations of “Let It Rip,” an improvised line, courtesy of Dean, that sparked genuine conversations about race, gender and art amongst moviegoers and powerful global influencers. Portraying Roger Seitz—an American in Paris—Dean’s now-famous speech to his jazz-happy pub crawl partners precedes one of cinema’s most revelatory and moving discussions about cultural divides.

And, of course, “Let It Rip” introduced the world to Dean’s inimitable co-stars—Miles Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, Jeanne Moreau and Claudia Cardinale—all of whom used their national prestige to further advance international RIP Culture, or “Strappa La Cultura” as Cardinale famously evoked at the 1958 Oscars. Once a promising Method actor from New York City via the American midwest, Dean evolved into a cinematic prophet who trumped the Aww-Shucks mentality that made U.S. teenagers so temperamental and unpredictable during the late ‘50s. “Let It Rip” offered come clarity and balance, thanks to Dean’s mainstream appeal and the New Wave’s rising European influence. From that point forward, Dean’s collaborations with French New Wave directors became known as FRIP productions.

While “Let It Rip” inspired a global movement, Claude Chabrol’s 1958 film “Handsome Serge” represents the connecting tissue for international audiences. Already a noted film critic and Alfred Hitchcock devotee, Chabrol brilliantly utilized his relationship with Dean, via Godard, to secure FRIP Culture funding for his debut feature, based on a self-funded short film produced on location in Sardent, France. Opposite French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, Dean further establishes himself as a New Wave hero, thus “paying it back,” as the Cahiers du Cinéma FRIP directors unquestionably appreciated American auteurs. With Dean portraying the savvy American cousin Eugene Tallerico, “Handsome Serge” paved the way for François Truffaut’s 1959 FRIP film “Breathless,” in which Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” co-star Natalie Wood stars opposite the “French James Dean,” Gerard Blain; a fusion of cultural philosophies that further strengthened international RIP Culture. While Dean only makes a cameo in “Breathless,” as his “Rebel Without a Cause” character Jim Stark, his mere presence strengthens the cultural connection, with Truffaut’s affinity for a-day-in-the-life conflict inspiring the American to fully maximize his screen time with careful improvisation. As for “Handsome Serge,” Chabrol managed to minimize Dean’s Method-inspired maniacal movements, resulting in a more natural and relatable character portrayal.

After Elvis Presley’s tragic street mob death in 1960, Dean not only grabbed the torch as America’s leading pop culture voice, but also spread a universal message of creative camaraderie via Jacques Demy’s “The Soldiers of Cerbere” (1960)—a FRIP musical about love and war in the southwest corner of France. By this time, rumors had surfaced about Dean after a split from Angeli, and certainly after his reported romance with Cardinale during “Let It Rip”’s production. Given Godard’s reported admiration for the latter Italian actress, the media reports essentially killed a proposed FRIP trilogy, and the unspoken tension fully negated RIP Culture ideals. 

Visually, “The Soldiers of Cerbere” highlights Dean’s chemistry with Danish actress Anna Karina (in her first feature role), but the film is anything but subtle with the character subtext between Dean and co-star Jean-Claude Brialy, both of whom portray masculine men in search of a familial bliss, but clearly interested in personal freedom. As Francis Franco, an opinionated wine connoisseur, Dean occasionally stumbles while attempting to sell “Pinot drunk,” but he does, in fact, appear charming and verbally succinct during the film’s street scenes, many of which were improvised by the male leads. While most European audiences were skeptical of Dean’s “too-giddy” song-and-dance numbers, Americans clamored at the box office and fully recovered from Elvis Fatigue.

While Dean’s FRIP productions weren’t a point of contention with La Nouvelle Vague as a whole, the growing professional bonds undoubtedly stung on a personal level for some. But then Dean return to America, and didn’t make another Parisian-set film for another six years.

That’s not to say that Dean entirely stopped working with New Wave directors. In 1962, Stanley Kubrick enlisted America’s artistic rebel for “The Idiot,” an existentialist adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, written by FRIP director Jacques Rivette. As Pyotr Myshkin, a skeptical outcast living in New York City, Dean represents a sympathetic and cinematic version of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, with the performance guiding American audiences into a more self-aware era. Less than seven years after starring in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean essentially landed a haymaker on the American psyche once again, this time punctuating the movement’s core aesthetic concepts with his staccato manner of speech and harrowing train monologues. To this day, the “It’s me, Pyotr, and I’m crying” scene is the go-to for many aspiring performers in American casting rooms. Back then, Dean’s RIP interpretation of The Idiot appealed to quasi-conservatives with its surface level religious concepts, all the while providing RIP intellectuals with a healthy dose of philosophical material to break down at dinner parties.

During the mid-‘60s, Dean’s “RIP for America” campaign with President John F. Kennedy had a polarizing effect on RIP loyalists. On one level, Agnès Varda’s complementary documentary showcases the ins and outs of Dean’s quest for artistic education and enlightenment, but it’s the rumored “lost footage” that partially damaged the RIPPER’s reputation at the time. While many RIP loyalists blamed the Hollywood elite, it’s been reported that the so-called “Savage Detectives” Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima—the leaders of the Visceral Realism movement—were the instigators via a word-of-mouth smear campaign. Some have even argued that Mexican-American icon Ritchie Valens and tour-mate Buddy Holly were corrupted during the southwest leg of the tour, shortly before recording the movement’s chart-topping theme song. And when Dean returned to Manhattan to teach RIP Culture Performance at the Actor’s Studio, rumors spread that Brando himself had played a role in the fiasco. Unsurprisingly, those on the fringe of RIP Culture questioned the core ideals and distanced themselves from Dean—“rebels with a cause,” as the Visceral Realists would later call them.

In 1964, Dean reunited with FRIP filmmakers Chabrol and Truffaut to write “Theory of Forms,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The RIPPERS’ fresh narrative take on the master’s suspense formula allowed the director himself to “break on through,” as poet Jim Morrison famously wrote in American RIPPER, but it also afforded Dean some extra comfort during the most challenging and intimate scenes with co-star Sophia Loren. Mainstream American audiences weren’t used to such blatant sensuality, and the characters’ borderline mean-spirited dialogue challenged the very essence of RIP Culture by almost going “too far,” as American film critic Peter Bogdanovich wrote in RIP Cinema upon the film’s release.

When Dean returned to Europe for Alain Resnais’ “The Bullfighter” (1965), he organically transformed into a self-assured artist. In the Madrid-based FRIP film, loosely inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Dean begins strong—like a Raging Bull—by communicating intensity, passion and ultimately heartbreak, as “El Destripador” recounts the life and death of his bride-to-be. By immediately shredding the character of all masculinity, Resnais allows Dean to channel the vulnerability of his early characters. Many critics perceived “The Bullfighter” to be some type of creative response to the Visceral Realists, when it actually seems to be a nostalgic reflection on Dean’s mid-‘50s naïveté.

Before production commenced for “The Bullfighter,” Dean invited filmmaker and FRIP comrade Varda to document the experience, resulting in one of cinema’s most poignant behind-the-scenes portraits of an icon coming into his own, “Spanish Caravan” (1966). By now, Dean had fully dismissed the Method technique—“egotistical and stiff,” as he called it—and embraced outline scripts that allowed him to, well, “RIP.” Once upon a time, Godard and Malle helped Dean innovate while connecting with various demographics. Then, in the early ‘60s, Demy and Dean expanded the international RIP Culture family. Finally, Chabrol inspired Dean to pay special attention to American affairs, thus “bringing it all back home,” as midwest folk singer Robert Zimmerman exclaimed. “The Bullfighter” features Dean at top form.

For “Let It Rip”’s unofficial 10-year anniversary, Dean teamed up with Jean-Pierre Melville for “Culture Vulture,” resulting in Dean’s most shocking performance of the decade. Set in Paris, and written by FRIP outlier Alain Robbe-Grillet, the subversive heist thriller shows Dean satirizing a new school of radical performers; an unapologetic culture attack on the Mexico-based Visceral Realists. As thief Johnny Golightly, Dean literally and figuratively rips off French culture, aided by Brando’s Ace McCracken. The unlikely pairing itself guaranteed box office success, and with the deliberately non-sexualized appearances of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, “Culture Vulture” wildly succeeded by systemically picking apart the Savage Detectives’ questionable methods.

In a way, “Culture Vulture” established a sub-genre of film, along with hybrid approach for second wave of FRIP performers. Filled with fourth wall commentaries via reflected mirrors—later seen in Éric Rohmer’s instant RIP classic “The Prince” (1969) and especially in Jean-Luc Godard’s “American Ripper” (1969), Melville’s societal commentary bluntly addresses the rift between FRIP filmmakers and Visceral Realists. 

Rohmer’s “The Prince” represents a “Culture Vulture” companion piece; a fitting conclusion to the FRIP director’s exploration of morals. The Florence-set Machiavellian tale of breakfast and ethics reunited Dean with “Let It Rip” co-star Cardinale and further cemented each as powerful multi-lingual orators in their native countries. Most importantly, “The Prince” clarified vague concepts from “Culture Vulture,” such as the melding of Method and Rip acting approaches.

If the Visceral Realists had gained momentum by late 1969, Dean and Godard calmed the storm by releasing the FRIP documentary “American RIPPER,” an insightful look at JFK’s final months in office, Martin Luther King’s European tour and the systematic deconstruction of the Che Guevara myth, after the Argentine-Cuban rebel was captured in Bolivia and questioned stateside about about the rising tensions between RIP radicals and rogue Visceral Realists.

With the impending release of Dean’s directorial debut “East of Fairmount,” along with Louis Malle’s road trip FRIP film “Easy Rebel,” one could argue that RIP Culture won’t soon fade away. But given Dean’s disappearance from the public eye, immediately after brashly criticizing the Visceral Realists’ political beliefs, one must wonder if the King of RIP is finally ready for a creative break. Or maybe, he’s simply preparing for Martin Scorsese’s loose interpretation of the mid-‘60s Kennedy-Guevara summit, in which he’s reportedly set to portray Chicago mobster Sam Giancana opposite Brando as President Robert F. Kennedy.

In RIP Cinema Vol. 1, Dean said “To RIP is to capitalize on the moment, and to RISE is to learn something valuable from the experience.” To paraphrase his famous call to action: RIP & RISE, James Dean. We’re waiting.

Vincent Quinn
RIP Cinema
Vol. 161, May 1971

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