Matthew Mishory’s A Portrait of James Dean – Joshua Tree 1951 takes the myth of James Dean (James Preston) and re-writes it with a convincing queer slant. Shot in a penetrating black and white style, with interjections of colour 8mm, this is a carefully crafted and unashamedly art house homage to Dean’s gay history. Only occasionally does Mishory’s impulse for cool European style overtake substance.
The film revolves around the desert of Joshua Tree, California. James Dean is in the process of becoming an actor, studying drama at the University of California and is intent on staying true to his own instincts rather than being molded by the Hollywood machine. With Dean in the desert is a character known purely as The Roommate (played by Dan Glenn, presumably based on William Bast) and actress Violet (Dalilah Rain) who represents a victim of the Hollywood machine.
The scenes in the desert are central to the film’s portrayl of Dean (an intense, barren, yet open character sexually and otherwise), yet the dramatic material is slight. Lead actor James Preston immediately makes his mark portraying Dean with boyish looks and a smoldering intensity. Scenes with Violet also communicate how easy it is to become lost when following the dream of fame.
Yet the film is not restricted to the desert. It actually begins at the desk of French writer Rimbaud in the eighteen hundreds. Rimbaud represents a philosophical signpost for Dean, as he attempts to transform himself into a poet. Preston carries this off convincingly, particularly during the captivating acting lesson scenes, where he watches his fellow students with enormous zeal.
For its impressionistic style, the film is fairly frank in its portrayal of sexuality. Dean is shown to have intercourse with several men and women. While a homosexual (or bisexual) understanding of Dean is clearly a key consideration, it does not distract from the actor’s other interesting facets. Talking about a bullfight, Dean asks a male lover to “explain it exactly as you saw it.” It is this piercing attention to detail that clearly drew Mishory to Dean, for it is something they both seem to share.
One of the film’s most memorably constructed sequences sets a montage of slo-mo poolside shots of naked sunbathers to a shimmering guitar. Mishory’s use of music takes on greater relevance throughout the film, most apparent in the Chet Baker-esque performance of I Fall In Love Too Easily. The lyrics to the song resonates fittingly with the film, capturing Dean’s style, his tempestuous personality and his fleeting relationships with men and women.
Though the film may prove much more contemplative than the films in which Dean actually acted, A Portrait of James Dean – Joshua Tree 1951 is a fitting portrait to the Hollywood legend. The film is a multifaceted view of James Dean: bisexual, intense, studious, talented, troubled and mythic. In fleeting moments it also provoked me to wonder, had Dean ever collaborated with a European master such as Fassbinder, what would the results have looked like?