Los Angeles

Nobody Acts Sincere

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

James Dean and Natalie Wood on the set of Rebel Without a Cause.

A 29-nine-year-old man in a Mercedes Benz led cops on a high-speed chase a week ago, traveling across four L.A. freeways and ending up on surface streets. He hit three cars and injured five people, including himself and a three-year-old boy who had been a passenger in an SUV. The reckless driver apologized “from the bottom of my heart” for hurting the boy. “I would never disrespect no one’s child,” he reportedly said. He said other things too as cops cuffed him. In video footage from Fox 11, he declares, “I am Vardan Aslanyan and I got swag.” His eyes are wide and concerned, and he’s wearing a perfectly white t-shirt, that, in the intense lights flashing from cameras, headlights and police cars, makes him glow. “Why did you lead cops on this chase?” asks a reporter. “Because I’ve got swag and I wanted to make it look good,” Aslanyan answers with the intense sort of sincerity you might employ if saying, “I had to. There was no other way.”

“Are you on drugs,” the same reporter wants to know. “No, sir,” says Aslanyan. The reporter tries again: “Do you take drugs or alcohol?”  “What is drugs?” asks Aslanyan, and he still has that serious, wide-eyed look. He must be on something, or maybe he’s newly off something. Either way, his delusion has completely engulfed him, and this makes him compelling to watch, despite the fact that he’s just done something egregious.

Harmony Korine, Caput, 2011, still with James Franco at the center.

The scenes from Aslanyan’s arrest reminded me of James Franco’s recent art world contribution, Rebel, a show backed by MOCA and held offsite in a Hollywood building owned by furniture dealer JF Chen. The show features work by Paul McCarthy, Aaron Young, Harmony Korine, and others, including Franco, and was inspired by the 1955 Nicolas Ray film, Rebel Without a Cause. That film stars James Dean, of course, and has a high-speed race in it, which ends with the death of a too-cool-for-school kid named Buzz. Dean himself died at high speeds, and a ruined replica of the car his car hit stands erect at the entrance to the MOCA show.

But I think it was Aslanyan’s white t-shirt that triggered the comparison. Franco wears one in the film Harmony Korine directed for Rebel, though Franco’s t-shirt has a black and white head of James Dean on the front. In Korine’s film — and a number of other works in the show — Franco appears as James Dean, or as Franco-as-James-Dean, since this show revels in everything “meta.” He and an army of women on bmx bikes are about to take on the gang of Sal Mineo (Mineo played “Plato” in Rebel without a Cause), also all female. The women get naked and wield machetes, murdering each other as blood accumulates. The men face off, too, and Franco beheads his rival.

It was all shot in a downtown L.A. parking lot, but at JF Chen’s space, it plays inside a bungalow like those at the Chateau Marmont, where director Nicolas Ray stayed while filming the original Rebel. Ray and Natalie Wood (Dean’s costar in Rebel without a Cause) are rumored to have had an affair in this bungalow, and Franco’s exhibition is full of sleekly fabricated, replicated bungalow. Videos, including one where Paul McCarthy gives a Natalie Wood look-alike a bath in goo, screen in most. When the show opened on May 14, the bungalows had clean facades. But as of June 5th, the exhibition had been “vandalized,” blood red pigment splattered all over, obscenities painted over doorways and blow-up sex dolls scattered around the pool area (which the show has to make its site really resemble a hotel) and the landscaping. There’s a lot of red splatter.

Installation view of Rebel, post vandalism.

This kind of vandalism feels like a privileged, adolescent attempt at rebellion, like the kid who rebels by destroying his own expensive toys. These artists have a great space, and a budget. But while they’ve scraped the surface of the covert relationships and weirdness that lurk beneath an iconic, cinematic idea of rebellion, they can’t get much deeper because there’s so little subtlety in their tool box, and there might not be much sincerity either. No one involved in the Rebel show can possibly believe red paint that looks like blood taps into the psychological aimlessness and angst that made James Dean’s rebel iconic, can they?

Remember that scene where Dean and Wood are sitting under a tree and Wood tells Dean he shouldn’t believe what she says when she’s with the rest of the kids? “Nobody acts sincere,” she says, and then Dean kisses her on the forehead, a gesture that reminds us the rebellion Dean, Wood and Sal Mineo channeled in 1955 wasn’t actually “without cause.” The characters didn’t feel they belonged to the world they saw around them and so were hiding out from that world’s insincerity with each other.

While the Rebel show at JF Chen closes tomorrow night, those of you in L.A. can see a better, subtler extension of it, Rebel Dabble Babble, at the Box LA in Little Tokyo through June 7.