«1 James Dean In Saigon (or The True Story of the Clods) By Richard Turner Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved Presented by: Silverfox Company – ...»
James Dean In Saigon
(or The True Story of the Clods)
By Richard Turner
Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved
Presented by: Silverfox Company – Publishers – eBooks – Digital Products
Saigon Kids and American Community School
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James Dean in Saigon (or The True Story of the Clods) by Richard Turner “Philosophers search the heavens and stand amazed at how the stars are still there moving through their ancient rhythms. The familiar constellations that illuminate our night seem as they have always seemed, eternal, unchanged, and little moved by the shortness of time between our planet’s birth and its demise…they will still exist long after we have gone. And while the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light years into distance, has not yet been seen by planets deep within the other galaxies, we will disappear deep into the blackness of the space from which we came, destroyed as we began in a burst of gas and fire… The heavens are still and cold once more. In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed, and man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence.” Astronomer’s soliloquy, planetarium scene, Rebel Without A Cause “This is the time I like Saigon best,” Larry says to no one in particular as he gestures with his beer bottle, toasting the passing parade and the setting sun.
“Twilight in the Paris of the Orient – the boulevard, the women, the cyclos, the scooters and our favorite dirty pic vendor, what more could we want. The evening awaits us. What will it be, homework, shantytown, the Olympic, another movie?” “How can you even suggest another movie when we’ve just seen the film of the decade, the definitive portrayal of everything we aspire to be.” “Alright, alright, maybe we do need time for reverential reflection. But we could continue this later at the Olympic. Deaner wouldn’t object to us downing a few cold ones in his memory.” We’re sitting on the terrace of the Continental Palace across the boulevard from the Passage Eden where we had been watching Rebel. Larry, Joe, Dick, Roy, Paul and myself, the sleeves flat rolled on our white t-shirts, faded jeans, black loafers or motorcycle boots, combing our hair and lighting cigarettes.
“It’s not as good in French as it is in English, is it?” “No, but what’s it matter when you’ve seen it as often as we have?” Stateside I’d spent years of afternoons in my Michigan bedroom studying stills from the film in fan magazines – The Real James Dean Story, James Dean Speaks from Beyond, The Star They Will Never Forget, Elvis and Jimmy – while listening to the soundtrack album from the film – Opening Theme, The Planetarium, Plato’s Theme, Chicken Run, End Theme. Seeing Rebel here again was like watching a series of still pictures brought to life. A sequence of poses that the cast settles into and moves out of one after another, Dean leading with a grace of measured violence from scene to scene, still to still. Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper and the rest following his lead. The moments preserved in the fan magazine photographs are the iconography of the myth. They are with me like bible verses memorized in Sunday school and theorems from math class, but potent and charged, not empty.
“Still, it’s distracting to hear Jimmy speaking French…and those Vietnamese subtitles jiggling across the bottom of the screen don’t help anything.” Sunk into the green enameled wicker chairs grouped around the wrought iron and glass tables on the Continental terrace, we order beers, iced coffee and a citron presse. Still under the spell of the film, our gestures are studied. Larry’s toast to the lovely women passing in the street, some of them momentarily backlit by the setting sun so that their legs show through their silk trousers, is a slight tip of his uplifted bottle toward the flow of traffic accompanied by raised eyebrows, a nod and a brief smile. Joe signals for the waiter with a similar nod of his head and orders for us in idiomatic French, perfectly accented. Paul lights his cigarette cupping his hand around the match and lowering his head to the flame as he has seen Dean do. I re-roll the sleeves of my white t-shirt and run my fingers through my hair before taking a sip from my iced coffee.
“I wonder who dubbed Jimmy’s voice? What is he like?” “Do you suppose there’s a French James Dean? That would be cool, to meet the French James Dean. Do you think he would look like Jimmy?” How Dean-like would he be? Would he move like Jimmy? Would he run his hands along the edge of the desk like he was sighting a gun? Would he flop, sprawl and slide over a couch, feet kicked up on the back, head lolling over the seat cushions. What about his lips on the overlarge cigarette as he stares through the window of the ’49 Mercury? In the chicken run, what about his tucked roll from the car door onto the dusty earth? Dean was comfortable with objects, not with people. Would the French James Dean be like that? People touch him, he doesn’t touch them except tentatively, reluctantly. When women hold him he responds to their embrace with a diffident anguish as if he had a body fever and wanted to be comforted but couldn’t bear to be touched. When he’s held he submits. He doesn’t kiss he lets himself be kissed. When he gives his jacket to Sal Mineo it’s his hands and fingers and the fabric and drape of the jacket, not Sal Mineo that he touches. It’s only when Mineo’s character, Plato, is killed in the last scene and is lying dead on the asphalt in front of the planetarium, the searchlights of the cop cars raking his body that Dean can love him, when he’s a corpse, an object. Dean drags his grieving body around Plato’s still form as if the force of his own sorrow had broken his legs. Is that what the French James Dean would be like?
“Was he sitting in a dubbing studio in Paris dressed in a red windbreaker, white t-shirt and blue jeans, boots, slip-on sunglasses, smoking a Camel or Pall Mall?” “Maybe he was just some hack who happened to have the right voice for the part.” “Impossible. Only a true believer could have done the part.” After the show we stood in a tight knot studying the lobby cards in the display case as we had studied our fan magazines. The film reverted once again to a series of stills and we changed from audience to actors, combing our hair, lighting cigarettes, watching the dreaming flow of the crowd leaving the theater lobby. Vietnamese girls who had probably skipped their last classes at the lycee to come to the matinee, holding hands, twittering to each other, touching their foreheads and cheeks with wisps of linen handkerchiefs. French guys on their way to a bar or café or a swim before dinner at the Circle Sportif, kakhi shorts and white sport shirts open at the neck. Tai baos, Vietnamese “cowboys” with slicked back Elvis hair heading towards their Lambrettas and Vespas to cruise the twilight boulevards.
“What about the Vietnamese James Dean. Do you think that the guy who did the subtitles is the Vietnamese James Dean?” “Now there’s someone we could actually meet, the guy who did the subs. Tran or Pham could probably find out about him for us. I’ll bet they’d be interested in that. I know they’ve both seen Rebel. We’ve talked about it before. In fact Tran is probably the closest thing to James Dean of anyone I’ve met here.” But we are the only true custodians of Dean’s legend. Our dress, our mannered gestures, our hesitant speech, our loneliness is his. He is our Jimmy Dean, not theirs. His broken body, his crumpled Porsche, the blood soaked t-shirt, the impact of the crash, the dusty roadside and rolling hills, the setting sun, his grave in Fairmount, his walks through Times Square winter twilight, his eccentricities, his boorish behavior, even in a way, his ambiguous sexuality. It’s ours. Bernard and Jean Claude may possess Rimbaud and hold Camus to their hearts, but Dean is ours. Pham and Tran may be lighting candles before framed photos of Dean for all we know, but their altars are at the back of the chapel. We are in the front pews, at the graveside, the immediate family.
“I’ll bet that the guy who did the subs for Rebel is some famous Vietnamese poet or novelist. That would be fitting.” “He would have to know English pretty well to do a good job on the translation. Maybe he’s been to the States.” “Or maybe he teaches English at one of the lycees or works for U.S.I.S. in the library or showing films.” “I wonder what Dean is saying in Vietnamese? Like in that scene where he fights with his dad, Jim Backus. No Vietnamese kid would dare trash his father like that. I’ll bet he says something a lot more polite than what Jimmy is screaming, like ‘Honorable father I humbly request that you regard my plea for love with understanding.’” “Sure, sure, that’s real likely.” “Maybe the guy can get away with a more exact translation because it’s an American who’s showing the disrespect for his father, not a Vietnamese. This might never happen in a Vietnamese movie but it’s OK if a decadent Westerner is doing it.” “How would you know? You’ve never seen a Vietnamese film in your life.” “Well, have you, has anyone? Are there such things as Vietnamese movies?” “Of course there are, I asked Tran about them but he said he just goes to French and American films.” “Maybe we could go see one just for the hell of it sometime. It’s not like we don’t have the time here.” “Not unless we get extra credit for it.” “Extra credit from a correspondence school? Are you kidding? Can you imagine the University of Maryland Extension Program giving us extra credit for a report about a Vietnamese film? They barely acknowledge what little work we do as it is. Grades come back six weeks after we’ve taken our tests. A few cursory scribbles in red ink on our essays. Those assholes could care less. Talk about hacks. I wonder if they’re even real teachers.” “Maybe our work is being corrected by poets and authors who are doing it just to get by, like Faulkner, worked as a night shift guard in some factory while he wrote The Sound and the Fury.” “Yeah, maybe Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are going over our essays. That’s why it takes so long for them to come back. The American Community School mails them to the University of Maryland, the University of Maryland sends them to New York or San Francisco or Tangiers or Paris, some famous beat author corrects them while drinking red wine or smoking pot and sends them back. The government supports the arts and we are unknowingly enrolled in the equivalent of the Famous Writers School. Everybody’s happy.” “Kerouac or Ginsberg would give us extra credit for a review of a Vietnamese film if that were the case. Let’s try it. We can get Pham to take us sometime.” “Rebel, we’re talking about Rebel here. You know, I think that the scene in the planetarium where the astronomer talks about the vast and indifferent universe would translate pretty well into Vietnamese. Remember the Vietnamese poetry Mrs. Duthie read us in lit class that day. It was sort of cosmic – that line about ‘Sooner or later we all must die’ and the poem about the moon over the ruined city.” “That’s so, but it was Camus who wrote about the ‘vast and indifferent universe’ not the astronomer in Rebel.” “Alright, so it was The Stranger and not the astronomer. What’s the difference? James Dean was a teenaged existentialist if there ever was one. If they made a movie of The Stranger, Dean would be the guy to play the lead role.” “Maybe if it were set in Corpus Christi, instead of Algeria.” “You know, if you look at the romance in Rebel, Dean and Natalie Wood, it’s sort of Vietnamese too.” “Pretty tame stuff, hardly any kissing, some meaningful looks, talk about raising a family. I imagine that would all translate into Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese James Dean wouldn’t have any trouble with that.” “But the very idea of a rebel without a cause wouldn’t make any sense to a Vietnamese.
All the rebels in Vietnam had causes, so in a sense they weren’t rebels. They were dissidents, critics, nationalists, but not rebels. James Dean would have no place in traditional Vietnam.” “So what. He’s got no place in traditional America.” “Yes he does, we’re a land of rebels.” “Land of the Rebels starring James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac, coming soon to a screen near you!” “Pham and Tran would dig that. Their entire lives are without a cause. They seem to have nothing to do but go to parties, cut classes, chase around on their scooters and go to bars.” “Like us?” “Mmm.” “They’re prime material for a Dean cult. No wonder they were in the audience today.
We should have asked them to come along with us for a drink.” “Nah, their English isn’t good enough.” “Nah, your Vietnamese isn’t good enough.” “They speak French. Joe could translate.” “Some other time, like when we get the French James Dean and the Vietnamese James Dean and the American James Dean together for a party here in Saigon.” I lean forward to sip my iced coffee. Paul lights another cigarette and, exhaling the
smoke, sinks back into the deep wicker chair. We look out over the tamarind shaded boulevard: