Riots and Ineloquence

In Nicholas Ray’s 1955 Rebel without a cause1 we follow the prot­ag­onist Jim Stark (James Dean) into de­lin­quency. In this film, Nicholas Ray and the scriptwriter, Stewart Stern, set out to por­tray the life of the con­tem­porary American teen­ager. The story is or­gan­ized around Jim, re­cently ar­rived with his par­ents in a Los Angeles suburb in the hope that their son will con­form and lose his re­bel­lious streak and take ‘a right step in the right dir­ec­tion’. But Jim man­ages to get into trouble quickly. After being chal­lenged by Buzz, the pop­ular Kid in town, to a ‘chickie run’ (two drivers of stolen vehicles drive to­ward a cliff; the one that jumps out first is con­sidered to be a chicken i.e., a coward and not a man), Jim finds him­self sur­viving, while Buzz plunges off the cliff and dies. Against his par­ents’ ad­vice, Jim goes to the po­lice to re­port the event, but, not finding Ray, the sym­path­etic of­ficer he knows, he leaves. At the same time, Buzz’s friends fear that Jim has re­ported the event to the po­lice and pursue him. Jim hides in a deserted man­sion with Judy (Natalie Wood) –– who has been Buzz’s girl, but couples with Jim after the chickie run –– and Plato (Sal Mineo), a younger mar­gin­al­ized teen. Running to­ward the safe haven turns out badly. When Buzz’s friends and the po­lice dis­cover the three, Plato shoots and in­jures one of Buzz’s friends be­fore run­ning to the plan­et­arium to hide, fearing that the po­lice will shoot him. Jim and Judy run after him, and the po­lice sur­round the plan­et­arium. Jim con­vinces Plato to walk out and also ne­go­ti­ates with the po­lice for a peaceful ‘ar­rest’ of his friend Plato. Despite this, Plato panics and, holding his bul­let­less gun, runs out and is shot dead by the po­lice. The film ends with Jim and his par­ents mourning this loss and re­con­ciling their differences.

Why am I re­mem­bering this film as I watch and hear the news re­porting on youth riots in London, Liverpool, Manchester and the West-​Midlands, you may ask? After all, as I ar­gued else­where (Loizidou, 2005:191 – 208), this film is not about a group re­bel­lion. Rebel without a cause is a study in the sub­jective ex­per­i­ence of one youth, the af­fluent youth Jim Stark, who grows up in an af­fluent Post-​World War II US, who wages re­bel­lion against ‘the suf­foc­ating web of family ties, school, sub­urban re­spect­ab­ility and la­bour dis­cip­line that the new “mass so­ciety” im­posed’2 and his des­perate at­tempt to com­mu­nicate his need for love and sup­port from his par­ents rather than the good ma­terial life that they were of­fering him. The scenes below cap­ture this point aptly, and I en­courage you to watch them:



At the time of the making of the film, the US saw a rise in youth gangs and dis­con­tent. Nicholas Ray, in­flu­enced by Albert Camus’ The Rebel (2001) and wanting to cap­ture the psyche of youth dis­con­tent in the US, along with Stewart Stern, the scriptwriter, provide us with a por­trayal of re­bel­lion that goes beyond the usual crim­in­o­lo­gical de­pic­tions of the kids that rep­res­ented de­lin­quency: as either a re­sponse to a system that could not provide them with ma­terial re­cog­ni­tion (Shaw and McKay, 1941) or as a re­ac­tion against status form­a­tion that res­ults in the form­a­tion of youth gangs (Cohen, 1955). The film­maker and scriptwriter provide us with a dif­ferent gateway: Jim Stark’s ac­tions are an in­elo­quent per­haps and counter-​normative at­tempt to pro­ject to his sur­round­ings, family, friends, the State (rep­res­ented by the po­lice and the school) his own de­sires and un­der­standing of how he wants his world to be shaped. It is a de­mand for youth cit­izen­ship to be re­cog­nized by pre­vailing so­cial and polit­ical structures.

So why does this film keep coming back to me? As an ex­ample, is it somehow in­com­pat­ible with our con­tem­porary con­di­tions? As William Wall ar­gues, we are living in neo­lib­eral times, in which struc­tural in­equal­ities are at their highest since the 19th Century, and we should begin to ar­tic­u­late these riots in this con­text; as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out ‘these are riots of de­fective and dis­qual­i­fied con­sumers’; or as Laurie Penny aptly ar­gues, they are about grasping some power or re­bal­an­cing the bal­ance of power. These are all thoughtful re­flec­tions to ar­tic­u­late the riots. They are all com­mend­able, as are the videos of the Hackney Afro-​Caribbean woman and the Darcus Howe in­ter­view. I am cer­tain that, in times of dis­con­tent, we all gather our know­ledge and ex­per­i­ence to ad­dress the present, and ex­pertise is not ne­ces­sarily a re­quired skill.

We have all heard strangers on the tube or the bus opening up to each other, trying to share their ex­per­i­ences and un­der­standing of these days. All of these could be an at­tempt to grasp our reality, to share our vul­ner­ab­ility, con­cerns and hope – an at­tempt to ad­dress and share the present. I haven’t got the ex­per­i­ence and his­tor­ical know­ledge of the UK that Howe has or, Penny’s on the ground journ­al­istic facti­city, or Bauman’s the­or­et­ical know­ledge, but I have a moving image playing on my mind and the in­ter­view with that woman from Ealing given to the Sky re­porter yes­terday morning to go by. Let’s see what I can make of them. Let’s just turn to the woman from Ealing first.

Here is an ap­prox­im­a­tion of the story. The woman from Ealing was telling the Sky re­porter that a group of ri­oters, three or four, she could not be pre­cise on either the number or their gender as they were wearing black masks and hoodies, broke into the front room of her house. Her voice was shaking when she was re­it­er­ating the story. As they were standing around looking into the house, she somehow asked them ‘What do you want?’, to which they did not reply. They just said to each other ‘let’s go’. ‘What do you want?’ ‘Let’s go’. What can we make of these ut­ter­ances? Could the rush to leave be a sign that these ri­oters, pro­spective looters, did not know what they wanted? Could it be that the ad­dressor of the ques­tion, the woman from Ealing with the shaking ques­tion, gave them what they wanted? Gave them a ques­tion and along with that the pos­sib­ility of re­cog­ni­tion and the space for ar­tic­u­la­tion, the space to even say ‘Let’s go’? Both of these scen­arios are pos­sible, as well as the more cyn­ical ac­count that the ‘Let’s go’ ar­tic­u­lated a savvy sur­veil­lance of the house where nothing was worth taking. I must admit I did not look care­fully and I don’t re­call the décor of the house. I can’t say much about the cyn­ical pos­sib­ility. If we or if I, though, look into these sen­tences that are now well en­graved in my memory, I see Rebel without a Cause and its les­sons played out in the Sky in­ter­view. I see the riots as an at­tempt by a gen­er­a­tion of kids to ar­tic­u­late and com­mu­nicate, no matter how in­elo­quently, what they want. They may not even know what they want, they may find it along the way, on their ri­oting spree, or they may never find out what they want

Show 2 foot­notes

  1. Nicholas Ray read The Rebel (2001) by Albert Camus when it first came out in 1954. He was deeply in­flu­enced by the book and it prompted him to make Rebel without a cause. For more, see Eisenschitz (1993).
  2. Pountain, D. and Robins, D. (2000:70)

  2 comments for “Riots and Ineloquence

  1. 11 August 2011 at 6:12 am

    You don’t en­ter­tain a 3rd scen­ario, that they de­cided to with­draw and leave her in peace?

  2. Wagma Marej
    11 August 2011 at 6:40 pm

    An ex­cel­lent piece of writing! I started reading this and I just love it!

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