Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean: Film Review

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean - film still
Iconoclastic Features
Atmospheric imagery lends an alluringly slick sheen to otherwise undistinguished speculative biopic. 

Writer-director Matthew W. Mishory's debut feature focuses on the ill-fated Hollywood icon pre-fame and presents him as a a soulful, poetically-inclined bisexual.

CLUJ, ROMANIA - Pivotal moments from the pre-fame life of an ill-fated Hollywood icon are fancifully and clunkily dramatized in Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, a notably good-looking but disappointingly inert biopic which places a opportunistic, salacious emphasis on between-the-sheets shenanigans.

Presenting Rebel Without a Cause pinup Dean - killed in a car-smash in 1955, age 24 - as a soulful, poetically-inclined bisexual, writer-director Matthew W. Mishory's debut feature foregrounds the enduringly cultish actor's much-rumored gay liaisons and relationships in a frank, adults-only manner that seems deliberately designed to court - even stoke - controversy. This will no doubt translate to plentiful festival attention from LGBT-themed events and yield eventual specialized DVD sales, but theatrical prospects are dim for this self-consciously stylish, low-budget indie.

Given the evident financial limitations, however, the mood-enhancing contributions of cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah are all the more commendable. Mainly using monochrome 35mm with brief sections in 8mm color, (Cluj showed the film from digital; prints will reportedly be available later) Pessah pays subtle homage to various creative forebears. These include classic cinema of the 1950/1 period during which the bulk of the action takes place; Dennis Stock's 1955 images of Dean at home in small-town Fairmount, Indiana; and Anton Corbijn's famed 1986 photo-shoot for the U2 album The Joshua Tree.

Just before heading to New York, where his stage experiences would pave the way for his brief but spectacular Hollywood career, Dean (Dean Preston) travels to the bleakly picturesque Joshua Tree area of the south-eastern California desert. Along for the ride are his never-named 'Roommate' (Dan Glenn), with whom he is having a clandestine romantic relationship, and Violet (Dalilah Rain), a struggling, jaded actress who dispenses hard-won advice to the ambitious brooder.

Originally intended as a short film entirely composed of the Joshua Tree material, the Portrait is awkwardly expanded via episodic vignettes which present Dean's cozily domestic Los Angeles homelife with his Roommate (who we're coyly informed "eventually achieved success in Hollywood"), flashbacks to smoky UCLA acting-lessons, and brightly-lit sequences set around the beefcake-populated Beverly Hills poolside of well-connected showbiz player 'Roger' (producer Edward Singletary).

The latter is a thinly-veiled representation of real-life radio director Rogers Brackett, who opened several Hollywood doors for Dean - shown here as eager if not entirely willing to exploit his considerable sex-appeal to get ahead. "We all get help, somewhere along the line," he's told, "that's the way it's done."

Necessarily speculative, this aspect of Dean's ascent to stardom takes precedence in Mishory's screenplay over whatever thespian skills he may have possessed. There's not much indication of the star's phenomenal screen presence, for example - nor of the way he, along with the likes of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, managed to breathe vital new life into the art of cinema acting.

Sometime Bruce Weber model Preston makes for a passable Dean, facially more closely resembling a cross between Jonny Lee Miller and Kevin Zegers, and never getting far beneath this skin of a character whose complexity and sensitivity are much discussed but only very intermittently conveyed. It doesn't help that the actors are saddled with such on-the-nose dialogue ("there'll always be a hole in his heart." / "... And he'll always be alone") as the picture lurches somewhat arbitrarily between locations and time-frames. Mention of a "catch-22 situation" is particularly sloppy, a full decade before the expression entered the language via Joseph Heller's 1961 novel.

The title of Mishory's picture, meanwhile, suggests that something happened at the specified particular time and place which played a crucial part in Dean's emergence from the general run of aspiring Hollywood dreamboats. But leaving aside his heart-to-hearts with the embittered Violet ("Hollywood will never change"), it's hard to identify any particular catalyst or indicator of what was just around the corner. The result is that Dean's posthumous status as enduringly unfathomable enigma is perpetuated by Joshua Tree, 1951, rather than satisfactorily explored or analyzed - a missed opportunity, with the 60th anniversary of his demise looming so fast over the horizon.

Bottom line: Atmospheric imagery lends an alluringly slick sheen to otherwise undistinguished speculative biopic.

Venue: Transilvania International Film Festival, Jun. 10, 2012.
Production company: Iconoclastic Features
Cast: James Preston, Dan Glenn, Dalilah Rain, Edward Singletary, Robert Fand
Director / Screenwriter: Matthew W Mishory
Producers: Edward Singletary, Randall Walk, Robert Zimmer Jr.
Director of photography: Michael Marius Pessah
Production designer: Samuel Perone
Costume designer: Rob Saduski
Music: Steven Severin, 'Arban'
Editor: Chris Kirkpatrick
Sales Agent: Iconoclastic Features, Los Angeles
No rating, 92 minutes.