When John Lennon met Elvis Presley his famous utterance was “before you there was nothing.” Fans of rhythm and blues, rockabilly and a host of other musical genres from which Elvis seasoned his musical stew would beg to differ, but Lennon was right, because such was his influence that Elvis obliterated all that preceded him in the popular imagination. Same with Marilyn who made you think she invented sex, and James Dean, who 50 years after his death expresses that no-one-understands-me-ness better than anyone.
Film Forum is screening his only three films in restored prints starting June 10 (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant) It’s no coincidence that Dean forged his legacy in that same era. After scrounging their way through WWII and the lean postwar era, the 1950’s belonged to a swelling middle-class teenage population with disposable income, free time and presumably limitless possibilities in fulfilling the chrome-plated American Dream. The idea of youth in the popular imagination was a blank canvas upon which James Dean sketched his persona. Less dangerous than Brando, edgier than Clift, he stood in that exact spot where every teenager has stood upon crossing the threshold of middle-class adulthood — youthful idealism experiencing the first pangs of disillusionment, wondering “is that all there is?”
This month, in addition to preview screenings of Jia Zhangke’s new The World at B.A.M. and Moving Image, and the latter’s screening of his previous Unknown Pleasures, MoMA will show his debut feature, Xiao Wu. Using nonprofessional cast and gradually rewarding long takes reminiscent of Ho Hsiao-Hsien, Jia depicts a changing Chinese society that hasn’t yet figured out where within its new landscape everybody fits. Xiao Wu’s pickpocket protagonist begins and ends the movie waiting on the side of the road; at one point he walks away from a conversation mid-sentence, while the camera follows at distance waiting for something, anything, to happen.
In its naturalism and its position at the forefront of a new national cinema, Xiao Wu is a contemporary answer to Bicycle Thieves. But then, there was nothing in De Sica’s neo-realist landmark that can match the moment in Xiao Wu when the reticent hero, who previously had stubbornly refused a karaoke girl’s exhortations to sing for her, sits naked and alone in a stone bath house and starts to belt out a tune at the top of his lungs, as the camera floats upwards with the rising steam and finds sunlight streaming through the open window.