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With ’Joshua Tree, 1951’, Director Matthew Mishory Re-imagines James Dean

by Bill Biss
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Aug 7, 2013

For someone who only had the opportunity to act in three motion pictures ["East of Eden," "Rebel without a Cause" and "Giant"], James Dean seemed to make every moment on film count. Still his life was cut short just as the truer acknowledgment for his work began to be realized.

Filmmaker Matthew Mishory isn't interested in dissecting of the stardom granted Dean because of his tragic death (in a 1955 automobile accident). Rather he is more interested in the star's often anguished personality, sexual frustration and abstract ideology. With "Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean," Mishory has created an almost dreamlike portrayal of the actor's transition from stage to screen and his trajectory in life from New York to the Hollywood of the early 1950s. It is this quality of subtext with which Mishory paints a dreamy, at times harsh, and mysteriously brilliant portrait of a young artist searching to define himself.

EDGE spoke to Mishory about his unique homage to this iconic Hollywood star - a brilliant, complicated and mercurial talent whose premature death granted him fame that continues to this day.

A different rhythm

EDGE: I can’t exactly describe the gut feeling after seeing your film, but it seems like you romanticized a period of his life. And it came across as very real. Perhaps ’romanticized’ is too delicate a word. One of the most admirable traits in your film is the ability to show gay sexuality in such a realistic and dignified light.

Matthew Mishory: Oh, thank you! I think that’s a wonderful compliment.

EDGE: The film addresses several aspects of Dean’s life in a short period of time in an non-conventional manner...

Matthew Mishory: Our film has a different rhythm and a different take. It makes many different stylistic choices than a lot of contemporary cinema and especially, biographical cinema. That’s why we always say it’s not a ’bio’ pic. It’s not really a traditionally biographical film. It’s a portrait of James Dean and - as the title suggests - all the possible forms of portraiture.

But it’s always a quandary when you’re making a film at a time when a lot of people watch movies on their iPads in short bursts. I think that can be an enjoyable way of seeing a film, but we always say that it’s a movie that people should see on a big screen.

A life in one-act

EDGE: Is that why you shot the film in 35 millimeter?

Matthew Mishory: I prefer to shoot my features on film. We endeavor to keep doing it. It’s always a balancing act to finance, especially making admittedly strange films.

EDGE: Tell me more about your choice of the word ’portrait’ in the title?

Matthew Mishory: The word suggests painting or photography more than it does a very trite, tired or hackneyed three-act narrative structure of a life, which to me is not only boring as a form, it just doesn’t fit the life of James Dean. His life was really one-act and a very short one at that, told in these sorts of bursts of creativity and rebellion. Also, he had very, very complicated inter-personal relationships. He was somebody who had a completely new vision for what acting could be.

I think he shared that with Arthur Rimbaud [the 19th Century French poet who influenced the Surrealism movement]. He shared this sort of belief that living life in the extreme... that extremities could be the basis for some great art. Dean’s life didn’t follow a traditional three-act structure, it was a struggle. We wanted to tell the story in a very different way and that’s been controversial. I think the film’s form is not to all tastes.

For this movie, I really didn’t care as I thought James Dean was too important, too interesting and too extraordinary to make a very ordinary movie about him.

Period detail

EDGE: The short time capsule of his life was also a glimpse at Hollywood and New York in the early 1950s and the cultural and realistic reverberations.

Matthew Mishory: One of the interesting and very healthy contradictions is that the period both fascinates and has sort of a romantic connotation. But at the same time, we’re making a film that in many ways demystifies the way people think of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

EDGE: The reality of that time period is that the so-called ’glamour’ of the industry wasn’t very glamorous at all.

Matthew Mishory: I think that’s an interesting way of putting it. From even our choice of materials you know, materials from which the film is made, we were trying to work through this cognitive difference between the glamour of the era and what lies beneath. For me, it was always a black and white film because I think that for most of us (who weren’t around and that’s most of us)... we think of that time period through the movies, and we think of it in "black and white." We think of it as sort of the history of the silver screen. That’s how we imagine those years.

The starting point and the visual references were more from still photography of the era, but then we made sure to integrate some revisionist modern touches as well. Just as in the story, we hopefully succeeded in both paying tribute to and also revising the history of the era. So, from a technical perspective, we often would use this very striking hard lighting of the period but would integrate lenses - macro lenses and long-zoom lenses and technical implements - that simply didn’t exist at that time.

A 1950s bombshell

EDGE: Yes, I remember the drops of water and the close-ups of the cigarette burns as an example.

Matthew Mishory: Yes, exactly. None of these techniques would have been used at the time. We were always trying to be cognizant in part, paying tribute to, but also revising the preconceived notions of the era.

EDGE: The actress Dalilah Rain as ’Violet’ [Dean’s friend and talent broker] is wonderful at capturing the hardened glamour of the era.

Matthew Mishory: I think Dalilah really does that in her performance. She’s both a bombshell of the 1950s and delivers a performance with a hard edge.

Great chemistry

EDGE: James Preston as ’Dean’ and Dan Glenn as Dean’s roommate have a remarkable chemistry together in the film.

Matthew Mishory: Yeah, I think so too. It was their first time working together. Dan was on the project from the very beginning and helped bring some of the pieces together. James Preston was cast in the most traditional way. He came to us through the casting process. He was one of hundreds and hundreds of actors who were submitted for the role. I think what was remarkable was that they had so few days together on the set.

One of the unfortunate realities of working on a very modest budget is that you have very few days to shoot the movie. Their relationship is truly the story of the film, and it has many ups and downs... mostly ’downs’ I suppose. To build the chemistry that they built, I think they did it very movingly and convincingly to portray a relationship where one person is not destined to be great, to love another who is and that holding on to this love was impossible. I think to capture that with so few days on set is remarkable.

EDGE: It comes through on screen. Thank you, Matthew and "thank you" for elevating the art of gay cinema as ’Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean’ definitely does.

Matthew Mishory: Thank you. I think we often sometimes hesitate to sometimes categorize the film, as a queer film because unfortunately the genre seems to have been redefined as cheap rom-com. For me, the new queer cinema of the late 80s and early 90s was seminal so if in any way, we succeeded in harkening back to that period that would be a great accomplishment.

"Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean" is currently available on DVD at wolfevideo.com or digitally at wolfeondemand.com

Watch the trailer to Joshua Tree, 1951:


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