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The Frankenstein Trope: On Brinksmanship and Rebel Without a Cause
In this audio essay from his KUCI fm radio broadcast, The SoCal Byte, Nathan looks at how a cinematic totem of teen angst in the suburbs, provided philosopher Bertrand Russell with a plot device to explain the insanity of the Cold War.


The film Rebel Without a Cause gave posthumous cultural icon status to James Dean for his role as the troubled teen Jim Stark. A month before its release, Dean gave the film an unexpected boast in its marketing campaign by becoming a fatality after stacking his Porshe 550 Spyder in a head-on accident at the intersection of California state highways 41 and 46 in San Luis Obispo County. As the promo said, “J. D. — Juvenile Delinquent... Just Dynamite... James Dean!” Warner Brothers had a hit.

One memorable scene in Rebel Without a Cause connected Hollywood’s new hot rod culture to the world of international politics. With it, director Nicholas Ray’s 1955 generation gap border-line B movie not only became the cinematic totem of teen angst in the suburbs, but provided philosopher Bertrand Russell with a plot device to explain the insanity of the Cold War. The scene and the device are called “Chicken.”

Here’s the movie setup. While trying to blend in with new friends at his high school, Jim Stark has a clash with a boneheaded bully named Buzz Gunderson. To sort out the rumpus, Buzz and his bonehead friends challenge Jim to play "Chicken" with Buzz.

Chicken is a zero sum game. Two contestants race stolen cars towards an abyss — in this case the edge of a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. As the cars speed toward oblivion, the first contestant who jumps to safety loses and is deemed a "chicken." This makes a winner, for what it’s worth, out of the contestant who waits the longest.

The pacing of this scene in Rebel Without a Cause is 1950s solid gold. Dean takes a drag on his cigarette. Buzz slicks his hair back. All the high school hipsters are there to scope it out: Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, the usual suspects. They line up their cars to form a vanishing point corridor that leads to the end game.

Natalie Wood, who plays Buzz’s squeeze (but is longing for a turn at James Dean’s character) is chosen as the starter. She seems to have done this sort of thing before and gleefully barks to the corridor of cars to turn on their headlights. It is a Leni Riefenstahl Olympia-Fritz Lang Metropolis moment.

And they’re off.

The cars race toward the cliff: cut to Dean glancing at Buzz; cut to Buzz glancing back. Dean flicks his cigarette. Buzz is cool. Then unexpectedly, Bonehead Buzz gets a strap on the sleeve of his leather jacket tangled in the car’s inside door handle. Buzz can’t open the door. Dean jumps. Both cars go over the cliff plunging into the rocky shoreline in flames — Buzz along for the ride.

Chicken soon became such a popular scene in low-budget "juvenile delinquent" movies that by 1959, the Nobel prize-winning British philosopher Bertrand Russell saw in the game a metaphor for US-Soviet nuclear brinksmanship — starring John Foster Dulles as United States Secretary of State.

“Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent,” Russell wrote in his book Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, “the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls "brinkmanship. This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practiced by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called ‘Chicken!’” Russell continues. “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible. This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game. The game may be played without misfortune a few times, but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation. The moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side. When that moment is come,” Russell concluded, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.’

Since Russell’s pronouncement, chicken has been played in a number of endtime scenarios: In the Cuban Missile Crisis; in the Yom Kippur War; with the Silent Spring; with greenhouse gasses, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima. But what is usually missing in discussions about brinksmanship (or Chicken) is the presence of a third player: The means to the end — the car, the bomb, the technology.

Eminent statesmen will always be boneheaded. Dulles, Nixon, Khrushchev, McNamara, Powell, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama. Technology, on the other hand, is the stolen car — the machine that pays no attention to our inability to cope with it. Now, for better or worse, it is one with us — the air we breathe. Our ready made socio-political environment informs us that we will keep speeding ahead. And in doing so we create Frankensteins — creations for our own undoing — at a dizzying pace. And we jump in for the ride.

The machines we’re driving today are running exponentially faster than our understanding of them. We may be cool like Buzz. We may get our sleeve caught in the door handle. But there’s a new game of brinkmanship afoot. Who’s got the guts to jump first? Who’s not afraid to step off? Are we chicken?

— Nathan Callahan


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