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Resurrecting James Dean

Resurrecting an icon like James Dean, who died so young, with so much promise, would be fascinating.  

With AI, the future is here, the future is now. 

Upon seeing a digital twin of some icon brought back to life, well, it’s astonishing. But capturing one’s essence to direct for today’s new media raises questions. Will it work for everyone, or most? 

One exception, perhaps, is James Dean. That may not prove to be so easy: directing James Dean in creating the new digital DNA base asset — the digital vault. You can create a digital twin, for the great externals, which naturally is a large part of the appeal. Women, especially, can see a two dimensional image, a photo, and respond by wanting to either mother him, or have sex. But the true persona for someone as elusive as James Dean, what made him tick, it may not be possible to fully “direct” him.

The problem with directing James Dean, is that you’d have to be James Dean, to get at that persona content creation. In studying the life of James Dean, what he did, how he behaved, and what he said, it’s not so easy to use to get at, and create, and maybe see a little of what’s beneath the surface of who James Dean was, and what he might “be” in today’s world. He once made an eerie comment perhaps foreshadowing today’s AI. These are the words of James Dean:

“When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn’t acting,” he said. “It’s following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that. So the director’s task is just that, to direct, to point the way. Then the actor must take over. And he must be allowed the space, the freedom to express himself in the role. Without that space an actor is no more than an unthinking robot with a chest full of push buttons.”

Dean was after what he called “real moments.” That’s what he lived for, that’s what he tried to do in movies. Unthinking robots do not have real moments. Even Dean didn’t know what they would be, until he had them, until he created them, spontaneously. That’s a huge part of what made him special. You can’t program that. You can’t bottle that. You can’t put that in any kind of vault.

In REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) Dean’s character tries so hard to say something, to connect on some level, to get something across, only he doesn’t know what it is. He doesn’t, that’s the point of the film. He doesn’t know. If he did, if he knew, we would lose our interest in figuring it out, and consequently our fascination for Dean’s character. It’s what the title of the film tells us.

In other words, as soon as you could define what it is, if that’s even possible — because Dean’s character doesn’t know — the attraction vanishes.

That’s why James Dean is such an outcast, so unpredictable, so unreliable. so unprofessional, so confounding, so confused, so restless, so dangerous, so moody, so intense, so egocentric, so ironical, so screwed up … and it’s why everyone still chases him. To find out what he had, to get what he had, in order to be like him, to be who he was. But the point is that no one can define James Dean. He couldn’t, himself. How do you put that in a digital vault? I don’t think, therefore, that you can easily capture who and what he was. Even he didn’t know, which was the subtext of his appeal beyond the visual externals.

“Dream as if you’ll live forever….Live as if you’ll die today.” How does one create “thought process” for a philosophy of life that manifests itself in such complete and utter chaos?

How does anyone figure him out? How does anyone, e.g., connect James Dean with the Beatles? But John Lennon said, “The Beatles wouldn’t have existed without him.”

Final thought. To understand the impact of Brando, Dean, and Presley, I think, one had to be there. Today we have a completely different world. James Dean died in 1955. It was the same year “Marty McFly was transported back in time for the great, truly great film BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985). They were completely different worlds. Completely different. Conversely, if you took someone from 1955 and transported him directly to 2023 … what would you have? How would that work?

I don’t have the answers, but these are the questions.