In November 2019, a Los Angeles-based production studio called Magic City Films announced that it would collaborate with visual effects studios in Canada and South Africa in order to manifest a resurrection. The resurrection of one of the greatest screen and stage actors who ever lived: James Dean, who died nearly 65 years ago.
The premise is that the production companies — with the apparent blessing of the James Dean Estate (Dean’s surviving relatives) — will utilize pre-existing video and photos of the actor to create computer-generated video. Then this new CGI “performance” will be overdubbed with the voice of a living actor who will supply additional movement upon which the video capture will be modeled. Pre-production is scheduled to begin this month, with casting of the voice actor to take place soon.
The digital Dean has been cast as “Rogan” in “Finding Jack”, an adaptation of Gareth Crocker’s novel of the same name. The story involves over 10,000 canine units who were abandoned during the Vietnam War. The filmmakers describe it as “a film of friendship and love under desperate circumstances that will grab your heart and won’t let go.”
Allow me to quickly unpack: The filmmakers and Dean’s family believe that the best use of his image in the 21st Century is to toss it into a sappy war story about finding a dog, and the events of the film takes place more than a decade after Dean passed away in a horrific car accident at the age of 24.
They envision this fate for the same actor who, in addition to television and stage performances, delivered three masterful turns in films that have long been considered cinematic classics. Performances that inspired generations of actors. In films that explored the complexities of family dynamics, of coming of age, of finding one’s place in the world… and of… well, not finding a dog.
It’s wonderful that James Dean has not been forgotten. He died nearly two decades before my birth and he still remains one of my personal favorites. I’ve seen REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, EAST OF EDEN, and GIANT more times than I can count. I still remain transfixed and moved by every frame in which he appears, and every line which he speaks.
That’s because Dean was more than a pretty face and more than an actor. He was an artist. An extremely mature artist, even at such a young age. He was deep.
You can unwrap new elements of those performances with every viewing. There’s complex layers. Nuance. You can practically see his thoughts form. You can derive various meanings through the inflection of his voice.
It does no good to remember a creative soul who possessed such skill if basic facts are forgotten in pursuit of cash and/or the novelty of it all:
What makes an artist an artist — and not just merely a person who does a creative thing — lies specifically in their choices.
Their essence. How their brain works. The world lensed through their eyes. Some call it the window into the artist’s soul.
An artist cannot exist without representation of their uniquely deliberate choices.
This is true for all art forms that ever were and ever will be. All of them.
The individual and deliberate choices of an artist are the magic that fuels the work. It is the difference between what is viewed as “just another thing”… and the things that stay with you for more than a fleeting moment.
A thing that mesmerizes you. A thing that turns the dials on your emotions. A thing that provokes meaningful thought and action. A thing you can’t stop thinking about. A thing you feel compelled to revisit, in practice or in memory.
It is a thing that makes you do more than react. It is a thing that will have taught you something about yourself and/or the world. Even if you are not yet fortunate to realize that it has so gripped you and to what extent.
This is the power of artistry.
Artistry is not about simply showing up, being visible, or being heard. We live in a world where millions are seen and heard every second of each day. But most are interchangeable and disposable. Some may be distinguished by caricature or a viral moment in time, but will not remain with the audience beyond that.
The artist, however, remains an artist even when there are no eyes or ears upon them at all. An artist is driven to do what they do by nature. Neither environment nor audience has any bearing. An artist will create with nothing and for no one simply to explore possibilities and for the challenge of growth and learning. For the cause of exploration.
Until neural networking can capture a person’s actual process, thought patterns, and the nuances of movement and voice that make us uniquely us, there is no application of technology which can capture the essence of an artist.
The CGI James Dean, and the others which will undoubtedly follow in its wake, will have not given us new, masterful performances. Projects such as “Finding Jack”, even if from a place of good intent, will yield nothing more than empty reminders of our collective loss as a global audience.
It is somewhat pessimistic, also.
The filmmakers claim that they could think of no better actor to portray the “extreme character arcs” of “Rogan”. Yet, they will embark on a search for and eventually cast an actor to portray James Dean as “Rogan”. It stands to reason, then, that this living actor is the actor who possesses the entirety of qualities needed for the role. Except for the fact that he won’t physically resemble James Dean enough for the filmmakers to value him for his artistry, or trust that audiences can or will.
Sadly, it also stands to reason that they do have a valid reason for this grim and depressing outlook.
Artistry is, indeed, devalued in our modern society. We now measure value of a creators by how many people have clicked one or more code-generated buttons under their names and images. And we measure whether it’s worth clicking by how many people before us clicked and, often, by what we imagine the uploader to represent. Not what by who they actually are, what they are capable of, or the actual value and usefulness of their contributions.
We collectively prefer mirages to the tangible and accessible. Pure escapism, projection, and hierarchies are preferable to that which we can not only touch but be immersed within; discover ourselves to be in equitable positions and learn from.
James Byron Dean became James Dean precisely because his essence was firmly rooted in the latter. He wanted to be and served as a mirror for ourselves. He was a Method actor. His mission was about putting himself in the audience’s shoes and granting the audience the opportunity to step into his. He wanted us to identify, as human beings, with the plights of his characters.
He was extremely handsome but there was no vanity in his work. He was extremely young but there was no naivete. Dean committed to the characters and gave service to the stories so that we would believe him.
And we did. We still do, 65 years after his short career and life came to an end.
This is why James Dean was always so much significantly more than a movie star. And more than an actor. He was an artist.
With every pause, stutter, expression, and movement of his body, James Dean made deliberate choices that rendered his characters multi-dimensional. Universal in their humanity.
It is an intricate complex process that cannot be reconstructed or imitated by any form of technology we have, no matter the cost or how many skilled programmers are tasked with the mission. At least not yet.
What “Finding Jack” will give to the world is a neat trick. A cartoon caricature. And an expensive exercise just to announce to the world that the presence of a talented guy is still missed because no one exactly like him ever existed before or came along since. There’s always been equally talented actors but this particular one struck nerves in the specific way that that only he could. Just as every other true artist manages to do in their own manner and time.
The best possible tribute to Dean, in the scenario of “Finding Jack”, would be to simply hire a young actor who happens to also be an artist. And then give that young man a genuine opportunity — not just to be seen and heard but to be felt and understood, and to serve as a reflection of the world.
Let the new rebel have a cause. And let him do it with as many pauses as he needs for us to see ourselves on the screen, as he captures all those moments in life for which we don’t always have words.