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