“I don’t think they would fight if they were in the river. If they had room to live.”
No film more perfectly captures what adolescence looks like than Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 “art film for teens” RumbleFish. And when I say that, I don’t mean the fashion or the actors--none of the male leads look all that much like teenagers, honestly, even though some of them technically were--but the surreal photography of Stephen H. Burum and the calculated exaggeration that makes Rumble Fish so distinctive. Shot in black-and-white, and featuring plenty of practical and in-camera tricks, including self-consciously composed shots, time-lapse skies, and lots and lots of smoke, there is something about the off-kilter look of Rumble Fish that echoes the off-kilter point of view of a boy struggling with puberty. Nothing looks right, and no one sees things the way I see them. I don’t understand this world, and it doesn’t understand me.
Matt Dillon (Factotum [review]) heads up the cast here as Rusty James, a restless delinquent in Tulsa. Rusty James is horny and bored, and so he spends most of his time chasing girls (including Diane Lane as his put-upon girlfriend) and causing trouble. He dreams of a recent, idyllic past when gangs ruled the streets, an era that seemingly passed when his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler [review]), took off on his bike and headed to parts unknown.
Except we do know, because The Motorcycle Boy has just returned from California, where he never saw the ocean because, as he says, the rest of the state got in the way (tell me about it). The Motorcycle Boy is a legend around town. As the graffiti informs us, he “reigns,” and as one character describes him, driving the point home, he is “royalty in exile.” His return will be everyone’s salvation. Or so they think. It’s more going to be the end of the illusion he created. The Motorcycle Boy claims to be insane, and others make the same accusation. At times you may wonder if he is even real, or a mythological creation, the Tyler Durden of Rusty James. Or maybe it’s really his world and everyone else is merely living in it. Because Rumble Fish certainly seems like Motorcycle Boy’s movie a lot of the time. Its aesthetics conform to his senses. He has hearing loss and is color blind, and by his own admission, sees the world “like a black-and-white TV with the sound turned off.” Indeed, there is no color here, except the red and blue of the titular Siamese fighting fish, and though the movie isn’t silent, the audio design is intentionally otherworldly, turned up loud and detached, almost like an intentionally bad overdub. It changes based on The Motorcycle Boy’s ears. The jazzy score by Stewart Copeland (drummer for the Police) and amplified sound effects, like the ticking of the ever-present clocks (there is one in every scene to remind us that time stops for no man, but will also eventually run out) just prove to abstract the audio even further. Coppola is bending reality to suit his purposes.
Rumble Fish is based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola. The director also adapted her novel The Outsiders the same year. As a result, Rumble Fish has always been the cool older brother to The Outsiders. It’s certainly aged better. It has none of the cornball 1950s mawkishness of the other film, even if they share similar plots (teenage boys fighting, gangs replacing a family structure, being misunderstood by authority, being turned on by Diane Lane) and a little bit of the same costume design. In my head, I had always remembered Rumble Fish being set in the 1950s, but really, it’s a movie in no precise time. The only specific pop culture reference is to the Beach Boys, and only the Pac-Man game and the new wave fashion of the rival gang give us any real hint that the movie was made in the 1980s. (Well, ignoring some of Copeland’s incongruous, synthesized orchestration, the worst of the worst signs of a 1980s movie....) Rumble Fish is designed to be like a cinematic Cure record: its adolescent desperation is renewable. All of these details are what I mean when I say Coppola has visually captured the feeling of adolescence: like an all-too-smart teen, he is calling attention to his own awkwardness as if it were a badge of honor. Rusty James is the kind of earnest bad boy many a young man dreams of being--right down to the fights choreographed like outtakes from West Side Story. Our concept of self in our teen years is often authentically inauthentic. Holden Caufield is the only one who isn’t a phony.
Adulthood is the one thing that separates the returning Motorcycle Boy from who he was before he left. Some heavy stuff happened to him in California, and he no longer buys the image everyone has created around him. I like that Coppola portrays The Motorcycle Boy as larger than life, but that Rourke plays him small, buttoned-up, barely articulate. He is elusive, like a cat--and indeed, a cat heralds his return, viewed just before the one big actual rumble in the film, a blown-up shadow, like something out of a Murnau film. Note that The Motorcycle Boy’s nemesis, the mustachioed cop Patterson (William Smith), is at one point similarly preceded by the shadow of a dog, and his brother exists the film not as an animal, but a shadow of the same size. In this flickering opera, the thug and the cop are two great opposing forces, the double-headed Janus flipping on the same coin. Symbolically, The Motorcycle Boy has not been fully reborn--or transformed to the Motorcycle Man--because he never made it to the ocean, he never found his space (water being a renewing element). Thus it is that he has to free the colorful fish and send Rusty James to the sea, it’s the only way either can escape. To stay where they are is to be trapped until you die.
Which, for all we know, is exactly how Rusty James will end up in California will do anyway. If the movie fails in any significant way, it’s that Rusty James has no hidden depth. He’s not Pony Boy, he’s not a sensitive type waiting to tell his story. He doesn’t learn much on screen. Our only hope is that by breaking away from his small town, where everyone has made up their mind about him and who he’ll turn out to be, he’ll make something else out of himself. It’s doubtful, but possible. I mean, what year did Boogie Nights take place again? He’s pretty enough, maybe SoCal can offer Rusty James a new family. He wouldn’t even have to change his name!