In the extraordinary Rumble Fish, Francis Coppola expresses teenage disaffection both visually and stylistically. What the characters of S.E. Hinton’s book say is no less important than the world in which they move—a black-and-white one, brilliantly photographed by Stephen Burum, where the specific location cannot be pinpointed. Although the setting is actually Tulsa, Okla., any viewer unfamiliar with the novel would find it difficult to tell from
the underexposed shots of the city skyline or the underpopulation of nearly every scene. The film is swathed in fog, with clouds rolling continually behind the characters: a nowhere land where nobody seems to belong. Certainly Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) does not. “A gang meant something back then,” he announces to his cohorts as they are about to fight with the competition. Fighting is Rusty-James’s only form of entertainment, the only means he has to express his hurt and anger.
Rusty-James feels alienated from everywhere and everyone: his father (Dennis Hopper) drinks around the clock, his mother left him when he was an infant and his brother, called simply The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke),
takes off without notice on his bike for parts unknown and leaves him alone. But he adores The Motorcycle Boy, a burnt-out case who travels with the aura of a local legend about him. At 21, The Motorcycle Boy looks older, his face a map of battle scars. He is a poetic sort entranced with the ocean, but he knows that the notion of freedom which it symbolizes is merely a pipedream. He knows he can never belong to society. Reality, as he perceives it, holds no allure for him. His last mission in life is to stop Rusty-James from embracing the same, useless fate. At a pet shop he
shows Rusty-James the rumble fish (they are the only flecks of color in the film), explaining that they fight their own reflections in the aquarium glass until they die.
Hinton’s novel built to a moving conclusion, but Coppola’s movie is more nihilistic: when Rusty-James reaches the ocean on his brother’s bike, Coppola does not give the audience a happy ending, but rather suggests that it may be too late for Rusty-James as well. The style of Rumble Fish is fast and hardedged, reminiscent of tough 1950s melodramas. It is a violent style, appropriate to the world it wants to evoke, and the violent encounters between gangs (as well as a vicious mugging) have the same startling effect of certain scenes
in The Godfather movies. Most of the action is shot from ground angles to give a sense of disorientation (both the audience’s and the characters’), which the swirling mist and those rolling clouds further extend. Time, which the clouds in Rumble Fish represent, passes by much too quickly, pushing Rusty-James toward his dreaded destination: adulthood.
For all its frantic movement and pessimism, the film has odd moments of poetry that are like benedictions. The Motorcycle Boy (who, incidentally is color blind) describes California as “a beautiful wild girl on heroin” and Rourke’s creamy voice, always on the verge of a croak, seems a reservoir of regretfulness. “If you are going to talk to lead people, you’ve got to have somewhere to go,” he tells Rusty-James. Behind his words the clouds and the elegiac score act as a chorus. After RustyJames and his bookworm buddy Steve (Vincent Spano) have been mugged, there is an incredible astral-projection sequence. Rusty-James rises up from his own body and watches his life slowly seep from himself: that he smokes a cigarette when he ascends is a wonderful piece of character-delineation shorthand.
Rusty-James and The Motorcycle Boy are wired-up versions of the people David Reisman wrote about in The Lonely Crowd. What is touching in this inky ode to nothingness, which Rumble Fish essentially is, is the relationship between the two brothers, delicately drawn by Dillon and Rourke. There are, too, some sections that will not make sense to those unfamiliar with the book. Diana Scarwid’s strung-out Cassandra pops in and then drops out of the action; and Diane Lane, as the “good” girl Rusty-James pines for, is more plot device than personality. But such oversights seem little reason for the invective hurled at the film (it was booed following the press screening at the New York Film Festival). It is as though the backlash from Coppola’s two previous mistakes (The Outsiders, also from a Hinton novel, and One From The Heart) still has not lost its momentum. The real reason may be that in 1983 extreme style is a form of abrasiveness. Truly unique, dark-minded moviemaking, such as Rumble Fish, The Moon in the Gutter or even Daniel, in an era that cleaves to what is safe and innocuous, is an increasingly risky business.
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