Dogtooth (2009) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Angeliki Papoulia, Christos Stergioglou, Mary Tsoni.

Dir. Nicholas Ray. Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo.

I don’t think anyone besides crusty parents and out-of-touch principals ever denies that growing up is difficult, and even then those people only exist in the pictures. Certainly this is the premise of Rebel Without a Cause, a movie that throws caution to the winds and looses its tongue on everything it touches. How weak Frank “Big McLargehuge” Stark (Jim Backus) must appear to Jim when he appears in a flowered apron, cleaning food off the carpet. How shrewish Carol Stark (Ann Doran) seems to him, out of touch and always ready to run away from whatever destabilizes her. The thought of waiting ten years to put one’s problems in perspective is wise enough, and yet it feels like a guide to burying oneself to Jim. He’s not articulate enough to problematize his father’s advice, able to do little more than grunt as he puts on his skintight white tee; if he had the language, he might approach it in one of several ways. What if one carried that thought to its conclusion, always putting off feeling for a decade at a time? What if avoiding the “chicky run” would change him so much as a person that ten years on he’d be totally unlike himself anymore? Could that advice apply to Plato (Mineo), gay and shrimpy and essentially orphaned? Adulthood does not fix people, which is the corollary to “growing up is difficult.” One looks at Frank and Carol and knows that to be true.

There’s a sensational freedom for Jim and Plato and Judy (Wood) in Rebel. They stay out all night every night. They wear what they want, from the red jacket that Dean may as well have been buried in to the ’50s-racy look that Judy leans into. They have names; Plato is John’s inexplicable nickname, and Jim runs into a different nickname every fifteen minutes. The only limits on their language are that of the censors. (I’m not a cultural anthropologist, but I cannot imagine a past in which “chicken” has the same force as a different c-word on teenage boys.) There is no freedom that the siblings—the eldest, the son, and the youngest—of Dogtooth have, not in their language or their dress or their excursions. “Excursion,” they learn while sitting in their loose and casual gym clothes, is a type of extremely durable flooring. Endurance is the name of the game for the siblings. The youngest (Tsoni) suggests a game in which they hold their fingers under a scalding hot faucet as long as they can: the one who lasts longest is the winner. The father (Stergioglou) runs competitions in which each of them go underwater and hold their breath as long as they can. At the end of one such contest, he scolds his children: they each did better last week. “No more need be said,” he tells them gravely. The children, who range from their early thirties to their late twenties, are purposely ignorant of everything outside the house. The father tells the kids that soon, their mother will give birth “to two children and a dog.” This is accepted without question, although the idea of sharing a room with these siblings is met with unanimous disapproval.  A cat gets over their wall somehow, and an enormously panicked son (Christos Passalis) manages to impale it on a handy pair of garden shears. The father, upon returning from work, puts the family through their paces to protect themselves from cats. Some nights later—”time” is as much a nonsense word as “zombie” or “telephone” in Dogtooth—the parents are awoken with an enormous pained cry from their son’s room. Their youngest daughter is there. A cat with a hammer jumped in through the window, hit his leg, and ran out! she tells her father. The father slaps his son. Are you so careless? Didn’t you take the appropriate precautions?

No one mentions religion in either movie, although both feel like they take significant influence from the concept. Rebel does so less interestingly, simply placing its characters in a milieu where no other religious faith would be tolerated. What motivates Jim to go to the police (without much success) concerning the violent death of another teenager is a sense of fairness. Buzz (Corey Allen), even though he slashed Jim’s tires earlier and slashed Jim’s torso three more times, doesn’t seem to have any real problem with the new kid in town. It’s a way of testing Jim’s mettle, not a way of inflicting cruelty, and before the run the two of them make nice. Not realizing that Buzz’s car has gone over the edge, Jim crawls over chuckling, looking for the guy he’s just shared Teenage St. Crispin’s Day with. Going to the police has a little Jesus in it: “Greater love hath no man,” and all that. The religion in Dogtooth recalls the physical retribution of The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which the children say the law ritualistically at dinner and are beaten for breaking the law. The eldest (Papadoulia) gets her hands on some movies, thanks to the libidinous trade-offs made by a woman who’s brought in by the dad to sate his son. (At least, that’s the reason one assumes. There’s no evidence that the son has asked for this woman.) When a videocassette is bartered for by the eldest, who reenacts Rocky and Jaws, the father discovers it, tapes the tape to his hand and beats her over the head with it. More important than the Old Testament discipline meted out for any infractions of the law is the opaque, arbitrary nature of the law itself. The will of God is as inscrutable as the father’s reasons for keeping his children inside his property for their whole lives. When no explanation is given in the first ten minutes or so for this state of affairs, one gives up on finding one. (This is only Lanthimos’ second feature, and I can just imagine people in 2009 waiting for him to give a reason, bless ’em.) All that matters is that the rules are the rules, and the machines God is expelled from this movie include a symbolic obedience school, a can of red paint, a stray cat. If there is a hint, it’s when the father scolds the woman he’s made a prostitute for his son: I hope your children grow up with bad influences.

The worst part of Rebel Without a Cause is everything that isn’t the color or James Dean, and while one gets the sense that Mineo and Wood are doing their best, the writing of their characters lets them down. Judy’s character is the least thought out of the bunch; she is spiraling out of control because her dad won’t pay attention to her, but she appears absolutely clueless about how best to do that. She is a list of conversation starters away from being normaled out of the movie. Plato is much more sympathetic, having been abandoned by his father in his infancy and then abandoned by his mother as a boy; the closest person he has to a parent is the maid (Marietta Canty), who at least tries to look out for him. He’s also homosexual in a time when that was enough to blacklist you for life, even in Los Angeles. The end result is that he wants Jim to be his dad and his boyfriend all at once, which makes him act like someone six or seven years younger than he is. Nothing makes less sense in this movie than what I suppose we’d call a nervous breakdown in the final act, in which Plato takes his mom’s handgun and shoots at everyone. These are the actions of someone who is either deeply disturbed or totally immature, and the movie’s entire play for sympathy would evaporate if the former were the case. Plato may look like a ten-year-old, but the fact that he acts like one does not make his death any more sad; the saddest part of it is James Dean yelling that he has the bullets, and that Plato ran out of the planetarium with an empty gun.

On the other hand, the arrested development of the children in Dogtooth is perhaps its most disturbing element. Using the childlike logic that one can leave the house once a “dogtooth” has come out, the eldest decides to take matters into her own hands in one of those scenes you regret watching before you even watch it the first time. Having found out the power of “licking,” the youngest begins to associate gift-giving with licking, going so far as to lick other people whenever she wants something. (We won’t talk about the incest angle, but believe that the awkward and unpleasant ignorance onscreen is nothing compared to the “No no nope uh-uh no thanks nope” internal monologue one has.) The mother and father, knowing that they cannot possibly keep their children away from the knowledge of airplanes, will promise the kids they can have the plane when it falls out of the sky; one such plane “does,” and the scuffle over a toy plane in the backyard is both fierce and taken directly from elementary school. In the end, the most pressing question about Dogtooth is hardly why the parents institute the system they do, but how it’s taken thirty years for their oldest daughter to hit age twelve.

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