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SIFF: Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF: Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean
Directing: C
Acting: C+
Writing: C-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B

Well, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean has some very striking black and white photography. Rarely is a film this pretty to look at. The thing is, the visuals do nothing to dampen the pretension.

Joshua Tree is also completely enamored with its own artistry. Writer-director Matthew Mishory, here working on his first feature film -- having its world premiere, incidentally, at this festival screening I attended -- self-consciously stylizes every shot. Everything appears deliberate, but in a way that seems to be trying a bit too hard. None of the dialogue flows naturally, because it's all so clearly intended to be a part of this meticulous "portrait."

It didn't help that most of Mishory's introductory comments before the film consisted of him reading a "poetic" definition of what a "portrait" is. Like an idiot, even at this point I was thinking I was about to see a documentary on James Dean. Clearly I don't pay attention very well. The opening credits came up with the words "starring" and I realized my mistake. But then . . . well, let's just say these actors won't be winning any awards any time soon.

There's a bit of an irony with the scenes involving James Dean (James Preston, doing a passable imitation) attending an acting class. We see other students, trying to learn the art of acting; we see the teacher, waxing philosophical about the art of acting. And in both cases, the actors portraying them aren't that great. You actually have to be a pretty good actor to convincingly portray a bad actor. Here we just see so-so actors doing a so-so job at being so-so.

You'd think the amount of skin in this movie might qualify as a redeeming quality. A couple of scenes of James Dean fucking another guy were explicit enough that at least two people got up and left the screening. (I've seen way worse, to be fair; I assumed these people just didn't realize what they were walking into.) If I weren't committed to seeing the entire film so I could review it, I'd have gotten up and left out of boredom. Even though the movie is chock full of hot young men.

The film was preceded by a trailer for Guy Maddin's latest movie, also showing at the festival. This hardly seems an accident. If there's any one filmmaker out there from whom Matthew Mishory gets his inspiration, it's Guy Maddin. Both of them shoot in black and white, stylize their shots and performances, and lay it on thick with the dreamy ambiance. Maddin's movies don't often really do it for me either, but at least he seems to have a fully formed voice.

There's not a whole lot in the way of plot here. Hence "A Portrait," I suppose. It's a portrait of James Dean's time in L.A. before moving to New York to become a Broadway Star -- and thus before his cinema fame and subsequent death. There's really nothing here about the tragedy of his life. This explores his beginnings -- in essence, the 1950s gay version of sleeping his way to the top. He seems to attract older men who sort of serve as sugar daddies. This period includes a longtime "roommate" (Dan Glenn, a bit stiff) and the closest thing to a same-sex relationship that could be had at that time. If this movie is to be believed, James Dean was more gay then straight, but bisexual to a degree -- he happily fucks at least one woman, anyway. He's perhaps a Kinsey 4.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if the sex he's having is meant to be taken literally or as a metaphor. Actually much of the movie is this way. There's just a lot of sex and a fair amount of naked men, none of which make the movie any more compelling. It rarely even comes close to being erotic. There are many scenes at a clothing-optional private swimming pool, where many of the guests apparently lounge in the pool either partially or fully nude, all day. They seem to exist only to illustrate the open looseness of the atmosphere at this place, owned by an older man of whom James is a guest. Joshua Tree, California is evidently where this house is located.

Joshua Tree is all implication and nothing concrete, a collection of performances delivered without conviction, and a failure to bring to life what was dead on the page. It has moments of captivation, of cinematic mood that could have been transporting if it had a more solid foundation. Its only truly redeeming quality is the cinematography. One can imagine pressing "pause" during countless scenes and then, once the dialogue is muted, finally seeing a true work of art. Alas, the camera rolls, and it just goes on and on. It's a very long 93 minutes.

James Preston is a passable James Dean in JOSHUA TREE, 1951: A PORTRAIT OF JAMES DEAN

Overall: C+
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