Inside Out 2012: ‘Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean’; or if Fellini made a Dolce & Gabbana commercial instead of La Dolce Vita

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean

Written and directed by Matthew Mishory

USA, 2012

Let’s posit a hypothetical – what if the iconic James Dean was gay? Well, let’s answer one hypothetical question with another – what if Fellini made a Dolce & Gabbana commercial instead of La Dolce Vita?

What does one have to do with the other? Absolutely nothing, but that seems to be all that happens in Matthew Mishory’s Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. A film with plenty of flare but a shocking lack of form, Joshua Tree is all pomp and no circumstance.

Set in his early career, the film follows the life of James Dean (James Preston), from his acting classes in university, to his emergence as an up-and-coming Hollywood prospect. With sequences inspired by sexual speculation, the film interweaves a series of libidinous sketches to form a sensuous, and definitively homoerotic, portrait of Jimmy Dean.

Shot in crisp, glossy black and white, and framed with adroit delicacy, Joshua Tree is an undeniable visual tour de force. With a painstakingly detailed mise en scène‬ and a dazzlingly urbane film noir sensibility, the film never ceases in perfectly capturing the Classic Hollywood aesthetic. In a technical sense, the picture is a delight to watch, but this statement houses a contradictory duality.

Like with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film starts off with a slick, wickedly chic montage that visually stimulates with its elegant style. But what lasts for only two minutes in Tattoo last for 93 in Joshua, inundating the experience with a nonstop deluge of overwhelming imagery. This desensitizes the viewer to the film’s only appeal, betraying the one attraction that it has.

What’s left is the film’s ‘story’, or lack thereof. With no cohesive or apparent plot, and a stunning lack of narrative direction, the film is a meandering mess of abstract images and dialogue. Almost every single word that’s uttered is meant as an affectation, using quotes from Rimbaud and pontifications about Hemingway as substitutions for substantive meaning. Pseudo-intellectual and pretentious to an alarming degree, Joshua Tree may bore more than it frustrates, feeling every bit as haphazard and ill-conceived as the 1996 dreck, Mad Dog Time.

To compare Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean to a suave underwear commercial is not as facetious as it might seem. With outstanding cinematography, and an astoundingly high production value, the picture certainly provides a lavish buffet of eye candy. But as sleek as everything looks, the film, like a commercial, only functions to sell an image, and judging by the glaring dearth of gravitas, it must be selling emperors clothing.

Preston, as Dean, lacks the required quiet charisma, but that’s okay, because, like everything else in the film, he looks splendid. As he should; he used to be an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Surprise, surprise.

– Justin Li

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