Monday, April 1, 2013

Driven to Tears: September 30, 1955

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.
After the film, while the other patrons (mostly young couples) exit the theater, Jimmy, whose tears have dried, stops to admire and study the one-sheet for the film before he leaves the theater area entirely.  It's a very true, lovely little moment, which I can certainly relate to, and which I'm glad Bridges thought to include.  The one-sheet is a reminder, a representation, and a record of the film, particularly at a time (1955) when there would be no home video or downloadable iteration of the film to hold onto and collect, nor a mechanism to record a television broadcast, a broadcast which probably wouldn't happen for several more years.
Following a credits sequence that introduces the basic visuals of the small town Arkansas community where the film is set, the action moves to the campus of Arkansas State Teachers College (Bridges' real-life alma mater) where Jimmy J., in football uniform hears of the tragic death of his hero via radio broadcast.  From there, Jimmy is almost literally on the run, in his quest to not only memorialize his hero through ritual seances, but also through becoming more like him.  As Jimmy tells several people, he may not have known Dean personally, but the star's death has changed his life irrevocably.  Thomas,  again, as in the first scene in the movie theater, brilliantly conveys Jimmy J.'s sense of loss, confusion, and disbelief upon hearing of Dean's death.  Thomas really impresses with his ability to make you feel his character's inner tumult through facial expressions and body language.
Going to a liquor shop to attempt to pick up some drinks for his friends gives Jimmy a free moment to pore over the scant initial details of Dean's car accident in the local paper.  When he's refused service because he's underage, Jimmy J. steals the liquor, an act meant as much to benefit and impress his friends as it is for him to be more like his "rebel" hero.  While the script gives indications that Jimmy is sensitive and prone to unpredictable behavior prior to Dean's death, it isn't explicit about whether he previously engaged in criminal or rebellious behavior such as the theft of the liquor. In the course of the film Jimmy J. will tell both his girlfriends (Deborah Benson and Lisa Blount) of how similar he and Dean were, in terms of both Dean's actual biographical details, as well as those of the characters he played.
Proto-goth girl Billie Jean (Lisa Blount) is the only other person in their small town who understands Jimmy J.'s deep-seated connection to Dean and the only one who goes further than him in her devotion to the star, something that makes the rest of his friends dislike and feel threatened by her.  She helps push Jimmy J. to act out his obsession to her eventual, tragic detriment and possibly his own future tragedy.
"If only I felt like I belonged someplace."  Visiting the bedridden, burned Billie Jean, Jimmy J. has completed his transformation and is caught up in his story of seeing Rebel Without a Cause three times in Memphis so that he could properly remember all the details when the time came to tell her about it, stealing a lobby card for her,  and obtaining a new motorcycle and Dean wardrobe, complete with Rebel red jacket.

At the homecoming game, Jimmy J. finds himself on the other side of the fence in a different uniform than he had on at the start of the film.  Bridges and Jimmy J. seem ambiguous as to whether Jimmy J.'s self-imposed exile from his hometown and journey to Hollywood is a good thing.

We return to where it all started.  Dean has been squeezed out of the Conway marquee by Monroe and he's leaving Conway.  Is this how Bridges made his journey to Hollywood?
Bridges wisely hired Leonard Rosenman to score his film and the composer masterfully incorporated his still beautiful themes from East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause to fit Jimmy J.'s narrative and character arc.  It's a great device because I assume I am probably not the only one who has found myself, at times, subconsciously scoring my life with the music of those films that live deep within my psyche.


Her, Suzanne76 said...

Lovely sentiments. Looks like a film ill have to see. Great piece.

Ned Merrill said...

Thank you for the kind words. I hope you enjoy it.