It's not very often that a film has me and has me with moist eyes not two minutes into its running time--on first viewing. But, that was the case with James Bridges' September 30, 1955 (aka 9/30/55), an autobiographical tale that might be one of the most authentic and most perceptive portrayals of cinema obsession that I've seen captured in a narrative film, particularly one produced by a major studio. Bridges' surrogate, Jimmy J. (Richard Thomas), a young college student in Arkansas is crazy about James Dean and his starring debut, East of Eden. His friends, including his girlfriend, humor him, but don't really understand the connection he feels to Dean, how important his acting and persona are to the fatherless Jimmy J., and how losing one's personal hero can cut so deeply, even if one didn't really know him in the traditional sense. When Dean is killed, Jimmy J. is devastated. He and his former girlfriend Billie Jean (the late Lisa Blount), who feels the same way about Dean, lead the other kids in a night of seances and tributes in an effort to communicate with the spirit of Dean...with tragic results.
Bridges is the author of one my other favorite unsung films, Mike's Murder, and on the strength of these two pictures, along with his most popular titles (Urban Cowboy, The China Syndrome, The Paper Chase), the filmmaker who died prematurely at 57, possesses one of the more impressive, albeit small, directorial oeuvres that seemingly no one talks about. Almost no one...Peter Tonguette did recently write a book on Bridges, and he and I agree that Mike's Murder and September 30, 1955, Bridges' most personal films, "are among the best movies of their era." I read a comment on a Netflix customer review that aptly describes this film as "nailing the '50s like Dazed and Confused nailed the '70s" and I think that's a pretty good, accurate compliment.
I'm a little sorry it took me so long to get to September 30, 1955, as it spoke to me in a way that few films do and it most certainly would have had particularly strong meaning to me had I seen it when I was Jimmy J.'s age. Having said that, I suspect this is a film that is very much one that will either be a revelation, as it was for me, or extremely tedious. Jimmy J. watches and connects with movies and movie people in the way that cinephiles do and can identify in fellow cinephiles, but which normal folks shrug their shoulders at, or, worse, call "sick," as one character labels Jimmy J. He's a dreamer, an obsessive, and borderline delusional, but I'm drawn to him in a way that I've been to other characters of similar ill repute such as The Swimmer's Ned Merrill. Having grown up in a place where I had a very difficult time connecting with peers who shared my movie love and then dealing with the ensuing isolation, which was exacerbated by the premature loss of my father, I felt for Jimmy J. in a way that doesn't happen all the time and this rarity, in part, makes such instances all the more satisfying and powerful.
Bridges has made a picture, which might deceptively be labeled a "small film," but which portrays the pleasures of cinephilia, the fragility of youth, and loss with a sensitivity and certain kind of grandeur that is difficult to achieve. Its evocation of '50s small town Americana is haunting and dreamlike, but not in a way that distracts or calls attention to itself. Even with the use of certain dramatic devices and qualities that might seem counter to it, the film retains a subtlety and ambiguity that aligns it with the best films of its era.
|September 30, 1955 opens with a glorious night shot of the marquee of the Conway Theater in downtown Conway, Arkansas, where the featured show is Kazan's East of Eden. The Universal film than cuts to actual footage of the finale of Warner Bros.' East of Eden (although September 30, 1955 gives no credit or thanks to WB for the use of its footage).|
|Bridges' main character Jimmy J. (played magnificently by Thomas) watches the film by himself (for, what we later find out, is the 4th time) and Bridges and Gordon Willis' camera lingers on Jimmy as he intently watches the film, transfixed, sometimes smiling and laughing, and ultimately crying. It's a beautiful opening to the film--and maybe its high point. Perhaps because of my own, many, experiences alone in a movie house transported away from my real life by the world inside the screen, having that special experience of being one with the film, I found myself misty as I watched Jimmy getting choked up while watching his onscreen hero break down in the film within the film.|