The avatar of death

James Dean taught us to shrug at dy­ing, to take it to the limit, to flirt with the edge.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - Jaime O’Neill Jaime O’Neill is a writer in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

James Dean died 55 years ago to­day, killed in a dra­matic car wreck east of Paso Robles that be­came the stuff of leg­end. He was 24 when he died, and he in­ad­ver­tently man­aged to take a lot of my gen­er­a­tion with him, cre­at­ing a cul­tural tem­plate for the risks we should take with our own lives. Had he lived, he’d be 80 in Fe­bru­ary.

was 13 when I first saw him in the movies, and his films of­fered me an in­tro­duc­tory course in how to be a teenage boy in the 1950s. I saw “Rebel With­out a Cause” half a dozen times, mostly be­cause I was study­ing James Dean — his moves, his pos­ture, his way of speak­ing. I be­gan filch­ing cig­a­rettes from my mother’s purse, prac­tic­ing how to flip the butt away when I’d smoked it down to a nub, a ca­su­ally smooth ges­ture that was, for me and for le­gions of other as­pir­ing punks, the essence of cool.

So com­pletely did I in­cor­po­rate what I bor­rowed from Dean that even now, edg­ing to­ward my own more nat­u­ral ren­dezvous with death, I oc­ca­sion­ally catch my­self in a ges­ture of his ex­pro­pri­ated more than half a cen­tury ago.

Dean also taught me, and lots of guys like me, that death was cool. We were a fairly death-soaked gen­er­a­tion from the getgo, war ba­bies and Cold War chil­dren with an em­blem­atic nu­clear mush­room cloud­ing our fu­tures. We were div­ing un­der our desks from first grade on, and we be­came con­sumers of the apoc­a­lypse, fright­en­ing our­selves with tales of what might lie ahead in movies like “On the Beach,” or those cheesy sci-fi flicks that pop­u­lated our dreams with mon­strous mu­tants formed in the fall­out from open-air nu­clear test­ing. And there were books too, dooms­day sce­nar­ios like “A Can­ti­cle for Lei­bowitz” or “Alas, Baby­lon,” that posited post-apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sions we read as pre­views of what was to come.

But Dean made dy­ing a lit­tle more palat­able. We weren’t the first or the last gen­er­a­tion to be “half in love with ease­ful Death,” but we worked that idea hard and long, with an ar­ray of stylis­tic re­fine­ments on the theme that are still sprin­kled through­out our cul­tural iconog­ra­phy.

It was no ac­ci­dent that a raft of rock bands emerg­ing af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Kennedy took death as their logo, from the Grate­ful Dead on­ward, of­fer­ing fey and weary salutes to the reaper in mu­sic stores fes­tooned with pho­tos of Dean and even Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe — two of the prime young sac­ri­fices on death’s ex­alted al­tar. And there would soon be more, be­cause not long af­ter the Who sang “I hope I die be­fore I get old,” Jim Mor­ri­son, Ja­nis Jo­plin, and Jimi Hen­drix chalked them­selves up on death’s score­board, acolytes in Dean’s min­istry.

The pa­rade didn’t stop there. The shadow of James Dean has fallen across all of the gen­er­a­tions since the 1950s, with dorm rooms still adorned with his im­age and pop bands still ex­tolling the virtues of death, bang­ing the drum slowly across the gen­res. Spring­steen sang “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight.” Sid Vi­cious over­dosed and left be­hind anote: “Please bury me next to my baby in my leather jacket, jeans and mo­tor­cy­cle boots.” Michael Jack­son, the King of Pop, danced with the dead in his biggest hit. The cur­rent crop of young peo­ple is ob­sessed with zom­bies and vam­pires in movies and books. And so it goes.

Dean’s own death was surely a good ca­reer move, al­low­ing him to es­cape the fate of sell­ing re­verse mort­gages or di­a­betes treat­ments to his fel­low ge­ri­atrics; al­low­ing him, in our minds at least, to ful­fill one of the mantras of my youth: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-look­ing corpse.

It was all bravado in the face of fear. James Dean died for our sins of life-de­nial. In “Rebel With­out a Cause,” he gave us the tem­plate for flam­ing out. Though his char­ac­ter sur­vived, the cen­tral mes­sage most of us devo­tees took from it was that we should take it to the limit and flirt with the edge.

In the fa­mous “chickie run” scene, Jim Stark, the char­ac­ter Dean plays, races to­ward a cliff, div­ing from the car just be­fore it plunges to the rocks be­low. The kid he was run­ning against didn’t get out of his car in time, and so he died. Bum­mer.

We learned that it was cool to shrug at death, and passed it along. And that may be why the im­age of James Dean, young and doomed, is ev­ery­where, from Wal­Mart to the Smith­so­nian, for­ever en­cased in youth. It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine Dean at 80, or even at 50. He is, for­ever and ever amen, a trou­bled teen in a red jacket, col­lar up and shoul­ders hunched, per­fect in his re­bel­lion. Against death, against our fear of it.

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