Rumble Fish (1983)
Written by S.E. Hinton & Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
In March 1983, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. By October 1983, he already had another film coming out, a thematic continuation of what was going on in that first film. Rumble Fish, also based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, drew Coppola’s attention more strongly than any of her other books. He identified with the idol worship of an older brother, something he experienced with his older brother August. The director decided he would direct Rumble Fish next about halfway through production on The Outsiders and managed to keep everything in Tulsa with the same crew and many of the same cast members. However, Warner Brothers did not like an early cut of The Outsiders and passed on his next movie. Rumble Fish would become acclaimed in the film festival circuit, with a more minor release, only 296 theaters nationwide.
Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a greaser, a poor youth caught up in gang culture. A fight is brewing; one gang leader wants to go one-on-one with Rusty James. Rusty’s friends remind him that his brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), would be deeply unhappy with this. We begin to learn that something happened two months prior that drove The Motorcycle Boy out of town, something connected to the violence he was engaging in. The fight ensues but is interrupted when Rusty James’s brother suddenly returns. It’s revealed that The Motorcycle boy is colorblind, partially deaf, and seems mentally distant from his surroundings. The two boys go home to rest up, dealing with the alcoholic burnout father (Dennis Hopper) with Rusty James’s entertaining ideas of their gang resuming power in the city. The Motorcycle Boy is not interested in this, trying to convince his younger brother that the glory he believes he’ll find in the rumbles is just an illusion.
At the time of its release, some saw this as an oddity. Iconic film producer Robert Evans, who worked with Coppola throughout the 1970s, reportedly told a friend he could not understand Rumble Fish. He realized that Coppola had shifted into a place of such impressionistic art-making that they were no longer mass-marketable films. I agree with Evans but without his perspective of seeing this as a bad thing. I don’t think Coppola could match the level of acclaim he found in the 1970s, so he had to pivot dramatically. The DNA of Rumble Fish has been present in the director’s work, especially in his “newer” movies like Tetro and Twixt, both more interested in poetic depictions than literal plot-centered movies.
Not even The Godfather films feel as painfully personal as Rumble Fish does. Despite the stylization, the film never strays from focusing on the characters. The result is a picture that looks like a 1980s music video but feels so much more complex & layered. It feels unlike any Coppola film before it but is still true to the filmmaker’s spirit of creativity. I think getting away from the film production hub of Hollywood allowed Coppola to inject something new into his work. This wasn’t the harrowing experience of making Apocalypse Now; this was a type of summer camp. Coppola was the counselor and put on a show with the campers. Like The Outsiders, the emotions expressed here are super-charged with adolescent hormones & yearning to discover oneself.
A recurring motif in the movie are sped-up clouds; they whip across the sky, adding to the surreality of the picture. Their purpose is to convey how time gets away from us faster than we realize. Rusty James is at the age where he believes he will live forever, which fuels his gusto in jumping into potentially deadly fights with rival gangs. The main reason the youth is so obsessed with publicly proving himself is that he lives in the shadow of The Motorcycle Boy, much like Coppola lived in his brother August’s shadow, at least within his mind. The irony here is that this is a film about Coppola’s personal self-doubt as an artist made with the most confidence he’d exhibited in his work for years. He makes so many bold creative choices here that all pay off. In many ways, this is a redemption from the failure of One From the Heart, at least from a creative standpoint.
The movie drips with references to French New Wave and German Expressionism. Coppola screened pictures directed by F.W. Murnau to help convey some of the physicality he was looking for from his actors. The movie plays with disembodiment throughout its runtime. Rusty James’s gang slide over booth seating at their favorite diner and linger in the corners; voices seem to come from somewhere else. We eventually have a literal out-of-body experience when a character tastes death. The idea that youth is a mere step away from death always haunts the picture. We’re reminded that, at heart, Coppola is a traditional Romantic, caught up in the passion of expressing himself through his art above all else.