Rumble Fish
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Diane Lane's 47th birthday.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage, Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, William Smith, Chris Penn, Diana Scarwid, Glenn Withrow, Tom Waits, Michael Higgins, Tracey Walter, Lance Guecia, Sofia Coppola, Herb Rice, Maybelle Wallace, Emmett Brown, S.E. Hinton. Screenplay: S.E. Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola(based on the novel by S.E. Hinton).
Twitter Capsule: S.E. Hinton's simple allegory made shimmering and strange by Coppola's uneven but beguiling conceits. Nifty score, too.

Photo © 1983 Universal Pictures/Zoetrope Studios
Nathaniel and I have confided in the past, with only a little guilt, that we get nervous when great actors have children, especially female actors, because the ones who don't skip town altogether start making movies For The Kids. Even if it doesn't happen right away, all of a sudden it kicks in. Everything is going wonderfully, you're an elated citizen of the multiplex, and then you wake up one day and Annette is gone, Julia is gone, Frances McDormand is rolling her eyes in Madeline, Diane Keaton only makes nonsense, and Emma's only leading roles are as Nanny McPhee. I'm happy for these gals and their expanding families, but I also feel a little bit like Kristen Wiig, when Maya Rudolph brandishes her engagement ring in Bridesmaids: "Yay for you!" I want to exclaim, but also, as impossible as it is to transcribe the brilliant line-reading, "What is haaap-peningggggg?"

As it turns out, directors are subject to the same syndrome, but if forced to choose, I'll take Francis Ford Coppola's case of it over a lot of other people's. Behind Door #1, little Francesca Scorsese gets excited about a kid's book, and suddenly her dad is making a sweetly intended but overly elaborate, tonally forced, and extremely erratic "children's movie" that nags us repeatedly about respecting the Magic of Méliès, even if we already do, or even if we are eight. Behind Door #2, Sofia or Roman or Gian-Carlo Coppola answers an impulse I often felt in the fifih grade and orders S.E. Hinton's rebel-teen passion plays The Outsiders and Rumble Fish from the Arrow Book Club. (I ordered Alan Dean Foster's amazing novelization of Aliens instead, and give or take The Celery Stalks at Midnight, this sated my own Arrow Book Club needs. But this isn't about me, as my father was an Army officer and not an Oscar-winning multi-hyphenate.) Sofia, Roman, and Gian-Carlo get really excited about S.E. Hinton, or their dad just thinks they do, even if they're way past it by the time he takes up the cause. He makes back-to-back adaptations in 1983, when Sofia, the youngest Coppola, is 12. Together, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish are about as long as Hugo is by itself, and Daddy, thank god, is not interested in clearing his throat at a gold-plated lectern: not to talk about early Parisian actualities, or even about how gangs might look cool, and your older brother might be a tough act to follow, but dude, you should not join a gang. This is more or less what Hinton is spouting in Rumble Fish, and I love that this Best Actress Birthday Party has taken me in two short days from Ayn Rand's philosophical positions to S.E. Hinton's. Coppola, who adapted the script with Hinton, isn't even interested in selling that plastic-capsule theme. It's not even clear he wants to entertain his kids with the aesthetic he ultimately elects, although the teenaged brothers got billing as associate producers on Rumble Fish, and one of them's in it, and Sofia has a fantastic cameo, too. Rumble Fish is like a unisex Sweet 16 gift for children whose favorite hangouts are the pool hall, the Cinématheque Française, and the rings of Saturn. But I'm all for weird, self-indulgent, and occasionally anti-gravitational over didactic, 3-D, and faux-frolicsome. So, point: Coppola, although it still seems like if you want to do something for the kids you could stay home and play games with them.

Speaking of family, I join the chorus of people who think Sofia should probably make something soon that isn't about a youngish woman or girl pining for a father figure and/or worrying that her marriage to a well-known fellow is prematurely shot. But it's hard to blame her, because her dad wasn't all that interested in weaning himself from the dramas of tortured fraternity he revisited every few years. In its emotional through-line, which at times could use a little heating up and at others a little cooling down, Rumble Fish falls along the same vector that links, say, Michael and Fredo Corleone to the two guys in Tetro. Stylistically, its position in the Coppola oeuvre is more complex. You could view it as a pivot between the hallucinogenics and the drowning masculinities of Apocalypse Now on the one hand, and the totally safe, totally depoliticized high-school pastiche of Peggy Sue Got Married. Unlike the Hinton movies, that clunky, semi-spoofy nostalgia-projection of high school exists in pursuit of Boomer laughs, Boomer wistfulness, and, at least I hope, a little bit of Boomer he's-kidding-us-with-this-shit-right? Granted, Rumble Fish traffics in its share of tired archetypes, most of them inherited from Hinton, although Coppola seems disinclined to tinker with them. But the mind and spirit and technician behind the two '83 films seems utterly contrastive with the guy who put Kathleen Turner in bangs and poodle-skirts. The world Coppola constructs around the Rumble Fish teens, hormonal and lonely, id-driven yet bashful, is itself pretty sui generis. The movie is laudably compelling for all its deficits, counting for more than a relay-point between any pair of Coppola's other films, and dissimilar from anyone else's films, even the ones it symptomatically recalls.

Maybe Rumble Fish never quite settled on an identity for itself, but it radiates conviction, like it wanted to take shape as exactly the feathered fish it is. You don't have to read more than one or two reviews to hear it described as influenced by German Expressionism, but I didn't really feel a lot of that. Yes, I clocked some canted angles, and more than that, I recognized some Pabst-style superimpositions of earthbound dilemmas onto heightened, out-of-body experiences—sometimes literally. But the black-and-white photography of Rumble Fish betrays few of the harsh contrasts and even fewer of the tense diagonals or iris-effects that make Weimar films such visually, graphically, and emotionally tense affairs. I saw more of the mercurial, silver shimmer of Luchino Visconti, plus the jealousies, the clammy sibling bonds, and the Catholic fascination with blood and skin. I spotted, too, the taut but vulnerable physiques and the occult self-mythologies of Kenneth Anger; the jangling nerves and agitated family environments of Nicholas Ray; and even the salt-air hauntings of Herk Harvey. All of that plus some raw material for that teenager-as-alien, hometown-as-enemy-planet fantasy space that would furnish Gregg Araki with so many ideas a few years down the line, and lend some rushing clouds, some nervous energy, and some subliminal sci-fi overlays to Boys Don't Cry.

Ironically, a mini-orgy of tangential comparisons like that is usually sparked by an impressively distinctive object, and Rumble Fish wins points for idiosyncrasy and gumption, even if it loses a few on clarity and emotional involvement. The basic plot has Matt Dillon's Rusty James eager to prove himself as the leader of a pack that includes Nicolas Cage and Chris Penn, though lots of folks question his preparedness to win a fight or to keep a listless batallion of hedonistic boys in order. Probably Rusty James just wants to compete with the legend of his own brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who skipped town a while ago on his magnificent bike but suddenly resurfaces, as modestly as anyone could on a three-ton Harley and amidst claps of tungsten strobe lighting. The older brother's reappearance has the double-effect of making Rusty James happy to have his hero on the scene and making him look all the punier by comparison. That said, the Motorcycle Boy seems permanently distracted, sturdier than Rusty James but undisguisedly soul-bruised, which may have to do with whether or not he's seen the boys' long-lost mother while he's been away (a whiff of East of Eden). Rusty James, wounded early on in a knife-fight and shadowed by an oddly prissy, suspiciously devoted friend (aromas twice over of Rebel without a Cause), is too in love with his older brother to be as angry as he wants to be about how little he's been told about Mom, either by the Motorcycle Boy or by their hard-drinking father (who else but Dennis Hopper?). This re-absorption in the buried family mystery transpires at an inconvenient moment for asserting primacy over his cohort. Rusty James's second-in-command stands eager to steal his post as tribal leader as well as his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane), who's annoyed at how seldom Rusty James seems to bear her in mind. Semi-secretly, she also worries about the danger he invites upon himself, despite his evident lack of the thick skin he'll need to bear up.

Dramatic stakes might present a problem here, and while Coppola's solution won't delight everyone, at least it's interesting. He frees his young actors to take all of this as seriously as their characters would, especially Matt Dillon, who works like the dickens at expressing sangfroid. Compared to Mickey Rourke's whispery, effortlessly charismatic performance as The Motorcycle Boy, Dillon appears in need of the same lesson as his character: sometimes you get farther, win more people, and make yourself heard by trying less hard. (Subsequent Dillon performances prove that he eventually took that note.) From the looks of things, Coppola was particular about his casting and then freed these kids to be as energetic or not, as impassioned or not as they wanted to be. Meanwhile, without seeming uninterested in what the actors do or say, Coppola and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum seem more enchanted by the movie they're able to coax out of these strong-featured faces, on which the camera and the editing repeatedly linger. Cage's barely contained enervation, Laurence Fishburne's ice-cold magnetism, Diana Scarwid's soulsick babydoll, Diane Lane's precocious savvy and impudent beauty, even the marvelous, toothy gawkiness of young Sofia are gifts to the lens, repaying in pure personality what neither the scenes nor the actors are quite ready to contribute in terms of dramatic heft. You sure get fully acquainted with the unique composites of chiseled planes and rounded corners that make up Dillon's and Rourke's faces, and you can see how they'd both descend from Hopper's square-cheeked, round-eyed, pointy-chinned father (although Rourke, as fits the story, probably looks more like Mom than Dad). Only Vincent Spano—charmed right off the screen by co-star Rosanna Arquette in John Sayles's Baby, It's You, a very different high-school fable from the same year—is too burdened by thatchy hair and heavy glasses and unflattering angles to really hold his shots. True, his character is also the one who has to work hardest to elbow his way into everyone else's attention, but the actor and the performance still feel a little short-changed.

Watching this portrait gallery, which drifts in and out of its own story threads, is like flipping through a black-and-white yearbook where the faces, on the whole, are prettier and stranger than the ones you graduated amongst, and yet they radiate the same blend of hyper-confidence and inchoate confusion. It's down to us to decide whether this adds up to a brilliant evocation of adolescent hang-ups or a less witting snapshot of the pride you'd feel in being cast by Coppola and the mystification you'd simultaneously feel as you saw what Rumble Fish was becoming. The dark, eccentric, synth-pop score by The Police's Stewart Copeland might be the single most interesting stylistic element of Rumble Fish, but the actors probably wouldn't have heard that till later, and I'm guessing they'd have found it cool. By contrast, the camera setups, the dailies, and the cacophonous blend of period signifiers could have easily thrown these guys for a loop. Rumble Fish feels located in a 1980s seen through a 1950s seen through a 1970s, with traces of a few other decades thrown in for good measure. Lane, for example, is a tough, present-tense girl, but when Rusty James fantasizes about her in science class, she looks a lot like Bettie Page, and when she decides to drop her distracted and faithless paramour and cruise the local soda counter for better options, she's done up like Ann Blyth's Veda Pierce. Dillon looks like Joe Dallesandro, but either he or the admittedly more contemporary-skewing Mickey Rourke could pass as someone who pulled a switchblade on Jim Stark at the Rebel observatory. But then they take a nighttime stroll on the town and pass under a marquee playing Debbie Does Dallas, which premiered in 1978. (S.E. Hinton must have been confused, too: she has a walk-on as a prostitute at exactly this juncture, and she's so visibly nervous she looks right into the camera.)

Rumble Fish is ostensibly set in Tulsa, but among the storefronts and riversides and pool-halls and chalets and gutted factories and Coney Island surrogates, the geographic coordinates are almost as scrambled and anonymous as the temporal ones. Dust Bowl winds keep blowing through the action, and we see how the magazine shops have to drape clear cellophane over their wares just to protect them. The way Coppola and Burum film these silty gusts, though, we could just as well be walking Martian terrain. A scene where Rusty James tries to cajole Patty back to his side after a humiliating indiscretion is lensed in full sunlight on an eerily foggy street, closer to Tarkovsky than The Breakfast Club. And that's before someone starts levitating.

I expect that Coppola's after some kind of emotional truth about how "all" kids think, feel, and act, in any place, in any era, no matter how blinkered or heedless that kind of hypothesis always gets. I suspect his cast thought they were flirting with vintage fashions from other eras while nonetheless playing emotions that felt totally natural and timely to them, even as the images, music, and art direction tug them toward abstraction and estrangement. The resulting tensions, which also explain the congeries of stylistic influences I mentioned before, afford a memorable sensorium, from the bright dystopia beneath an overpass to the dizzying crane shot following two kids down a dank, grubby alley they might want to stay out of. You'd imagine the big pitfall built into all this stylistic hopscotching is that Coppola would seem under-committed to his story and his cast, but if anything the bigger problem is that he seems under-committed to his own artsy conceits. Yanking Rusty James's spirit out of his briefly unconscious body for an impromptu glide over the town generates one or two unremarkable spectacles (Patty crying, Dad chagrined), but then it's over. For a while the film oscillates between extreme and barely-visible foreground/background contrasts in its shots, but these polar opposites eventually meet in a nondescript middle. The images are never unhandsome, save for a few shots that have been badly distressed to accommodate the rare dollop of primary color—in the service of a title metaphor that's both overly obvious and weirdly under-exploited. The balance of silvers, grays, whites, and blacks is steady enough throughout to make the movie a unified, dreamlike experience, even when so many other signals in story and texture would imply a schizophrenic shambles. I just wish the images were more consistently interesting, not just sleek or unusual, especially as Rumble Fish shuffles ever closer to its inevitable martyrology and obscure coda.

I doubt Coppola really sees himself in any of these characters, or prompts us to do so. Still, you don't have to reach far to align him with The Motorcycle Boy, who rides into this universe where no one's expecting him, with grandiose but defiantly offscreen achievements lodged in his recent past. Though he remains empathetic and engaged with this crowd, you can tell his mind and his heart ultimately lie elsewhere. But where? However illustrious the past, what does the future hold for The Motorcycle Boy? Coppola's subsequent career, occasionally electrifying but hard to consider satisfying, proves that you didn't have to be one of the teenagers in Rumble Fish to wonder where your life was headed. He's certainly professed great affection for this project in subsequent years, so maybe this wasn't just a sop to his kids and their friends, whose lusts and worries and driftlessness he appears to have understood, even if he couldn't help treating these as forms rather than contents. Maybe Rumble Fish truly is another "one from the heart" of its unpredictable, protean director. Some viewers will think it's the last fork in the road before Coppola fully lost his way. Fans will see another series of proud steps down a defiantly oddball path, however bizarre for an artist of his astounding stature. Maybe the problem with Rumble Fish isn't that he made it with someone else too firmly in mind, but that the made it with no one in mind but himself. Maybe that's exactly what's valuable about it. Grade: B

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Original Score: Stewart Copeland

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