The disillusioned teenager in me never died. James Dean called and I answered; that is to say, his brutally realistic portrayal of troubled teen Jim Stark reminded me of myself all those years ago—I think 15 is the average age at which one sheds their childhood coil—when, along with my peers, it became more apparent than ever to us that pain and suffering are inevitable, as is death.
The angst was real and it was raw. For the hypersensitive ones who felt and thought about everything deeply and personally, creative expression offered a healthy and much needed outlet, as well as a means to understand ourselves, others, and the world at large be it humankind’s past, present, or future. The same can be said about the creative expressions of others, through film, writing, and music. At a time when we felt no-one understood us, young actors, YA authors, and punk rockers offered their condolences through poignant stories and songs about feeling lost, depressed, and misunderstood.
I have just had the pleasure of watching James Deans’ most celebrated film and realised that our teenaged selves never die: they simply mature and evolve as we learn how to function as independent adults capable of coping with hardship. I am almost 25 and Jim punching the desk of his bewildered, middle-aged psychologist to relieve all that pent up rage and restlessness still resonates—I saw myself the way 15-year-old me saw herself in Holden Caulfield. The disenchantment never went away, I simply learnt to see the good, the bad, and the in-between, a more balanced version of my younger self’s dangerously impassioned monochromic worldview. What my English teacher said about characters being grey made more and more sense as I morphed from emo teen to pessimistic twentysomething (optimism is not within my nature), a rite of passage from which many of my peers graduated.
Happy people and happy scenes fill my heart with joy, but it is depictions of deep emotional pain and personal struggle that resonate with me, and the artists behind that expression become my heroes. There is now a James Dean poster-sized empty space on my wall and you bet I will fill it, or so help the real spiritual void I’m still trying to fill in so doing.