Francis Coppola made Rumble Fish in 1983 right after The Outsiders. That was a pretty significant movie in its own right, for a proto brat-pack cast that included Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. It was adapted, with her help, from a late 60s novel by S.E. Hinton, about disaffected mid-west youth. So was Rumble Fish, with Matt Dillon kept on in the lead, and a totally iconic Mickey Rourke as his elder brother The Motorcycle Boy. Ever wonder where Bruce Willis got his affected early half-closed-eyes cool from? Or where Hotel from the Kills got his home-made haircut? There’s a reason people have respect for Mickey Rourke, even now, and part of it was his ability to play completely still, effortless but thoughtful cool.
The movie opens with fast motion clouds and cuts to a wide angle close up of graffiti on a road arrow sign “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns.” Stylization and rebel cool are set up from the start. He’s been gone for a while and Matt Dillon as Rusty James (”don’t call me Rusty,” he says, “it makes me feel like I’m not wearing my pants”), is the dumb punk in a white wife-beater who’s got enough unthinking spunk and family street cred to be the guy people follow. The people who follow are Nick Cage (still not yet able to act), Chris Penn (who could have been given more to do) and childhood buddy Vincent Spano, in button down shirt and geek glasses, passing for Peter Bogdanovich. The cast is filled out by Dennis Hopper in restrained but effective form as the lush dad to the two boys who brings up Greek mythology; an utterly luminous Diane Lane as Rusty James’s catholic schoolgirl main squeeze (and a giant-toothed â and cheekily appealing â Sofia C. is her little sis); and Laurence Fishburn pops in and out, natty with a peacock feather hatband. All this to the accompaniment of a fantastically idiosyncratic ticking-clock score by Stuart Copeland.
Time was there were rumbles, but not any more, and these kids lack direction and definition. They’re stuck in Tulsa, in a time that has a Pacman machine, but could also be any period back to the fifties, or, by extension, any time in the (?)near future. The Motorcycle Boy rolls back into town; Rusty James wants it to be like old times. But The Motorcycle Boy prefers to look at the rumble (Siamese fighting) fish in the pet store. They are kept separate in their tank, tho he reckons if he put them in the river, if they had the space, they wouldn’t feel the uncontrollable need to fight one another. Get it?
As the clouds announce right off, and by his own admission, this is a Coppola art movie or, at least, something like an American cinema du look, inspired by the “slum-realist” photography of Larry Clark. It’s shot in black and white, except for the fish. The Motorcycle Boy is colour-blind, and so even if there’s nothing subjective about the camera, there’s a built-in justification beyond the purely aesthetic. The shadows are long, the wide-angle lens fisheyes all over the place and the smoke pots and fog machine are put to substantial use. But Coppola knows what he’s doing, how to make a movie about teenage ennui through a (smoke) screen of artiness that can render it unspecific enough to be timeless. And the one rumble, near the start, is one of the best bits of film-making you’ll see all year.
These kids have nothing but time on their hands, so there’s clocks all over the place. But there’s also Tom Waits as the proprietor and counter-monkey of the Benny’s Billiards hang-out, musing on having only 35 summers left. Like much of the film, the philosophy is slightly undercooked, but he pulls them off because he’s Tom Waits, and Coppola pulls it off because the general metaphors â the art in the art film, if you will â if not rigourous are heartfelt, and that makes it all the more endearing.
You can patronize it because it’s easy to pick holes in â when Rusty James sees a flash of color at the end, just as it looks like he might be realizing his unconvincing conviction that he will grow up to be like The Motorcycle Boy, it’s the wrong way round, but the looseness of the metaphor quite suits his inarticulate existential woes. Hinton’s novels about teenagers are written for teenagers, not for adults about teenagers, and the movie is quite right not to step back and take a superior intellectualized approach (Coppola called it “Camus for kids”, tho he’s rather closer to a freshman philosophy major than Camus). But the best things about it are that it makes you feel like it was made by a disaffected teenager sincerely striving for significance, and that it succeeds in conveying what it feels like to be a disaffected teenager. And because of the art-film trappings in the camera and lighting departments, it’s alienating enough to feel universal. It’s not the greatest film ever, but it looks gorgeous, Coppola pulls off the style with aplomb, and wearing its affectations on its sleeve, one can’t help but grow rather fond of it. I hadn’t seen it for many years until recently and you know what? It’s still actually pretty cool.
Images from flickr 1 2Â 3