We are headed quickly for a cinematic reckoning and it's all thanks to a Vietnam-era-war movie called Finding Jack starring James Dean.
By now you've likely already seen the reactions flooding the internet to the news that CGI will be used to resurrect the golden-era star for the 21st century.
Dean died in 1955 at age 24 in a car accident, and as such an undeniable talent was lost from the world. But does that mean we should resurrect that talent?
The obvious answer is no. Tampering with anyone's image posthumously is the subject of great debates. Biopics have been lauded and panned for this very thing - bringing a long-dead person back to life in a way they cannot consent to, nor defend themselves from.
Many people, both within the industry and outside of it, have criticised the decision.
I’m sure he’d be thrilled 🙄— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) November 6, 2019
This is awful.
Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes.
The complete lack of understanding here is shameful. https://t.co/hkwXyTR4pu
NOPE. this shouldn’t be a thing. https://t.co/RH7jWY5cAG— Elijah Wood (@elijahwood) November 6, 2019
There is literally a James Dean Festival held every year in Indiana where they have a look-alike contest so like if you really needed someone it's not that hard to find them.....— Michelle Buchman (@michelledeidre) November 6, 2019
What does the resurrected, image-bastardized ghost of James Dean, rudely ripped from the spirit world and forced to perform for our callous amusement and delight via images he never would have wanted to be used as a substitute for an actual performance, think of Marvel movies?— David Fear (@davidlfear) November 6, 2019
"We couldn't find a non-dead actor for the role of a white guy in a Vietnam war movie" is truly an amazing take https://t.co/oOoN1BDkA6— andi zeisler (@andizeisler) November 6, 2019
I have talked to friends about this for YEARS and no one ever believed me that the industry would stoop this low once tech got better. Publicity stunt or not, this is puppeteering the dead for their ‘clout’ alone and it sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance. https://t.co/elS1BrbDGv— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) November 6, 2019
In Finding Jack, Dean's likeness will be used for a secondary-lead character named Rogan. This all begs the question: why?
According to director Anton Ernst: "We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extremely complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.
"We feel very honoured that his family supports us and will take every precaution to ensure that his legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact. The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make. We do not intend to let his fans down." (Via The Hollywood Reporter).
There are so many layers of this statement to unpack.
All we know about Rogan - based on the 'casting' of Dean - is he's a mid-20-year-old white male. Vietnam-era is also short-hand for a certain kind of masculine aesthetic. Somehow both rugged, but dreamy, chiselled but sensitive, a man of few words who feels... but not too much.
These tropes solidify this kind of toxic masculinity in our society: that men are meant to keep their feelings down, and that to be vulnerable is to be feminine, and therefore weak.
It can be boiled down to a look - strong jaws, deep eyes: Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and James Dean.
None of these men should be cast because they're all dead.
But putting that aside, there are contemporary actors who fit this 'aesthetic' (read: handsome white men near their 20s). Zac Effron, Nicholas Hoult, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Robert Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe and Alden Ehrenreich... They're alive. Cast them!
Not to mention there are countless roles like this - we're inundated with movies about white soldiers. We have 1917 and Midway both coming, and in recent years there's been Hacksaw Ridge, Dunkirk, Journey's End, American Sniper and more.
These are all good movies, and movies about wars should continue to be made because it's one of the ways that we can prevent history from repeating itself.
But why continue to show the same view? Why not show what it was like for African-American soldiers during Vietnam? Or the Indian army during World War II?
Ernst's statement also references James Dean's family. Having the support of a deceased star's family is important, but it also reinforces the 'why' question. Is there a fear that Dean has faded from the pop-culture zeitgeist? A cynic would go as far as to wonder what the profits on this kind of exercise would be.
We like to believe there is a more altruistic motivation behind his estate's approval. But even so, is it up to the family to bring Dean back to the forefront of cinematic culture? A place from which many would argue he's never left.
CMG worldwide's CEO added: "This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us." CMG represents Dean’s family as well as Burt Reynolds, Christopher Reeve, Ingrid Bergman, Neil Armstrong, Bette Davis, and Jack Lemmon.
We're already asking if we need another Superman - do we need another Superman with a CGI resurrected Christopher Reeve? Reeve is undeniably iconic and iconic as Superman! Yet we found plenty of actors to take his place as the Man of Steel.
Another perfect foil for this argument is the casting of Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Fisher died suddenly in 2016, but her character of General Leia was meant to be the 'last Jedi', the focus of the final Skywalker saga film.
JJ Abrams and the rest of Lucasfilm had to figure out a way around this - they didn't have Fisher anymore. In the end, they decided against CGI and instead used unreleased footage of her from other Star Wars movies to give Leia the arc she deserves, and Fisher the respect she deserves.
In this case, the character of Leia is so synonymous with Carrie Fisher it would be almost impossible to recast. So they did what they could, with everyone's wishes taken into account - friends, fans, family, and legacy.
If Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause were necessary for Finding Jack, there would be more weight for the argument of using a CGI resurrection.
But Rogan is a wholly imagined new character. What is it that Dean has (had) that not a single, white, mid-20-year-old actor has?
Competition in any creative field is intense, in acting gaps exist in so many arenas: from race to gender to socioeconomic class. What happens to those actors competing for the few roles specifically outlined for them, like young men of colour, older women, trans folks, and others?
And what about the roles with flexibility, not defined by their gender or race, that the Western world default-views as 'white, cis-gendered'? Where flexibility did exist, now a casting agent has a whole pool of 'greats' to pull from that even further box out contemporary talent already facing bigger hurdles.
There's no doubt that actors nowadays will have heard of James Dean. Many likely laud him. Regular people love him, after all. His talent was great and devastatingly cut short by his death. But that is life.
An economist will tell you that as supply increases, demand decreases, as does value. What does it mean when we can take a likeness and reconstruct it, reuse it, repopulate the world with it? What will remain sacred and nostalgic?
Death is a sharp reminder of the fragility of life. It reminds us that we are all impermanent and our marks on this world will fade. But does that mean we should go to any length necessary to re-ink the stamp?
This is not to diminish James Dean's talent, but to merely state the obvious: the king is dead, long live the king.
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