Story by Al McKee

As Neo, the online hacker turned savior of humanity in the Matrix movies, Keanu Reeves projects the chilled charisma of a digitally animated James Dean. Interrogated by cops he wrongly assumes to be ordinary (they are, in fact, computer-generated super-cops), he rebuffs their sell-out offer with a cool that only exists in the movies—or perhaps in the daydreams of a video gamer. “That sounds like a really good deal,” he says, “but I think I’ve got a better one. How about I give you the finger, and you give me my phone call?”

This, of course, is one reason we go to the movies—to see our fantasies of mouthing off to the cops made real. “Please lock me up,” James Dean begged his juvenile officer at the start of Rebel Without a Cause. “I’m gonna hit somebody or I’m gonna do something.” He then kicked and pummeled the officer’s desk. Unlike Keanu Reeves, Dean was simultaneously cool and hot—cool behind the wheel of a stolen car in the movie’s famous game of chicken, hot in confrontation with his screwed-up 1950’s family. Whatever their temperature onscreen, however, both actors, in their signature films, shared a common discontent. For Dean, it was seeing his father wearing his mother’s frilly apron. For Reeves, it was the plug in the back of his head. Each character suspected—with ample reason—that something about the world was seriously out of whack, which is why, for all their differences in scale and style and content, the trajectory from Rebel to Matrix is as easy to follow as a slow-motion bullet.

There has always been a connection between movies and the counterculture’s view of itself. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s recent film The Dreamers, three young pleasure-seekers lock themselves in a Paris apartment to play sex games and mind games while the 1968 student rebellion rages in the streets outside. Not until a brick crashing through a window shatters their self-absorption do they throw on some clothes and join the protest—by which time it has escalated into a full-scale riot. Like great European films of the past, this one features lots of skin, lots of talk and lots of soulful smoking, but it suffers from a failing its makers could not have foreseen: The young pleasure seekers, even stark naked, are less interesting than the clips of old movies and snatches of vintage rock ’n’ roll with which the director punctuates their story. When Janis Joplin comes on the soundtrack, you want the movie to let her rip. When a scene pops up from the French classic Breathless, you want to switch to that picture. Bertolucci’s homages evoke a period when movies—including Bertolucci’s own—meant more than they mean today, when movie stars were not just celebrities but symbols of a revolution. That’s one detail The Dreamers gets right: how important it all seemed in 1968. How important it all was.

Back in the 60’s, the posters in Haight-Ashbury pads were of Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix, sure—but also of James Dean. Young tribes of dissent carried Hollywood prototypes into battle the way primitive warriors carried totems of their protective gods. At that moment out on the protest line when you faced the police or the National Guard and drew upon your own uncertain reserves of courage, it was helpful to have an ally the size of a movie screen. What would Marlon Brando do? What would Jack Nicholson do?

The careers of Hollywood’s outlaw heroes form an unofficial history of American social unrest. Pick any decade, and you will find a rebel actor particular to its troubles. In 1934, FBI agents staked out the Biograph Theater in Chicago, awaiting the emergence of bank robber and tabloid celebrity John Dillinger. He was inside watching Clark Gable as Blackie Gallagher, the dashing urban outlaw of Manhattan Melodrama. At a time when millions were out of work, out of luck, lining up for soup and a hunk of bread, movie gangsters offered a fantasy revenge on the establishment forces that had brought Americans (and their country) to ruin. Even real gangsters craved this mythology. Dillinger stepped into the summer night with who knows what warm feelings of fulfillment, only to face a hornet swarm of very real (and lethal) bullets.

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