By Jeremy Carr.
Two credits stand out on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film Rumble Fish. One is Stewart Copeland, then drummer for The Police, who provided the picture’s hypnotic, dissonant rock-jazz score. The second is Michael Smuin, choreographer and co-director of the San Francisco Ballet; he staged an early fight scene between Matt Dillon’s Rusty James and a rival gang. Though the urban skirmish is relatively brief – beautifully arranged, but brief – it and the music epitomize what Coppola infuses throughout the film. From the flickering lights and hazy staging of this coordinated clash to the way Dillon and the other male leads move with elegant tough-guy swagger, poetically bantering with a rhythmic delivery, Rumble Fish is a hyper-stylized production in every regard. It’s as musical as it is cinematic, and it’s as cinematic as it is theatrical.
But if Rumble Fish, recently released by the Criterion Collection, seems notably contemporary on this front, as an early example of the best that an MTV aesthetic had to offer, it is also a film that oozes nostalgia. This duality is why the film and its characters seem out of time and out of place: nowhere specific but wholly distinct. Wistful laments about when “gangs really meant something” build on the legendary status of Rusty James’ never-named older brother, the storied Motorcycle Boy. Played by a brooding, pensive Mickey Rourke – part Albert Camus of the past, part Bruce Willis of the future – his mythic reputation from days gone by bestows upon the elder sibling an enigmatic and venerable quality (“He looks really old,” they say, “like 25”). This eminence, and what it means for those in his shadow, particularly Rusty James, derives from nascent masculine ideals, motives, and behaviors, and expectations concerning what it takes to be a man, a man like Motorcycle Boy (though his lingering moniker suggests his own inability to mature). Insofar as it’s a coming of age tale, Rumble Fish is as much about looking back as it is looking ahead. “If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go,” says the motorcycle sage, a phrase that directly counters the aimless nature of he and his underlings.
Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city deemed so ugly by Chris Marker that the French filmmaker, enlisted by Coppola as second unit photographer, swiftly quit the project, Rumble Fish flaunts an audio-visual fusion of textures and tones. Designer Dean Tavoularis crafts a rich setting illustrated by the silvery black and white cinematography of Stephen H. Burum (supposedly corresponding to Motorcycle Boy’s colorblindness), where the streets have a paradoxically glossy grit, with liquid blacks and artificial accents like inexplicable pillars of smoke and shadows literally painted on the walls. Amplified sounds ring in and out of the soundtrack, peculiar noises that mingle in some mishmash cacophony or stand alone in focused isolation. As Rumble Fish floods beneath a wash of drugs and booze and sex, the film appears under the influence of surreal fluidity. It’s what Coppola calls “active” cinema, between poetic realism and expressionism, full of short lens distortions, dreamlike visions, and innovative video technology.
A direct plot is generally inessential to Rumble Fish. Instead, the film seems to float along, evolving from some sort of strange ether, its meandering structure kept intact by Coppola and editor Barry Malkin. As pointed out by critics and Coppola himself, the film bears hallmarks of everything from noirish disillusionment and a teen-pic’s skeptical rebuke of authority, to shades of European art cinema and even Greek mythology. Though there is a sense of forward progression, and indeed, the film’s tragic conclusion grows ever more inevitable as the picture plays out, the symbolism of Rumble Fish and its analytical stance supersedes traditional narrative. It’s a work of self-conscious self-reflection. The fish of the film’s title are literally and figuratively prominent – they are seen in color and, as they are enclosed in a tank where they are spurred on to fight each other or themselves, they are aquatic stand-ins for the embittered youth.
Meanwhile, an underused Tom Waits is Benny, the owner of a pool hall who muses on age and time and mortality, the film’s unmistakably central themes. As in S. E. Hinton’s 1975 source novel, Rumble Fish studies the recklessness of youth and the fated confluence of truth and consequence; less emphatically, it touches on gender inequity (mostly in the form of Rusty James’ mistreated girlfriend Patty, played by Diane Lane) and family strife (a boozy Dennis Hopper as dear old dad). For Coppola, the most resonant refrain is the brotherly burden felt by Rusty James – the director’s admiration for his own older brother is partly what drew him to Hinton’s text, and Rumble Fish the film is, in fact, dedicated to August Coppola (August’s son, newcomer Nicholas Cage, appears in the film donning his father’s club jacket).
Discontent to rest on the laurels of 1970s achievements, Coppola regarded Rumble Fish as an “antidote” to the safer, cleaner, and clearer Technicolor world of The Outsiders (also released in 1983 and also done in collaboration with writer Hinton). To be sure, it is a far fiercer, more esoteric, and frankly much more interesting film. So keen was Coppola to get started on the movie, he and Hinton worked Sundays on the script while The Outsiders shoot was still underway, and several members of that film’s cast and crew immediately eased into the new venture. The passion didn’t necessarily carry over to audiences, though. Coppola made Rumble Fish for existentially struggling teens, but that very crowd rejected the picture and the film largely vanished from public and critical consciousness.
Thankfully, this oversight has been recently remedied, and with the new DVD/Blu-ray release of Rumble Fish from the Criterion Collection, a wealth of material provides fresh, detailed insight into this overlooked masterpiece. In addition to a fabulous restoration – vital for a film this visually arresting – highlights include interviews with Hinton, producer Roman Coppola, Dillon, and Lane, a 1984 French television interview with Rourke, deleted scenes, a piece about the film’s score, and Coppola’s commentary track, wherein he gushes about the film’s familial relevance and declares it the favorite of his own movies. There is also a perceptive 2013 documentary, Locations: Looking for Rusty James, which reassess the film’s impact, and an essay by Glenn Kenny, in which he rightly notes Coppola’s continued (and undervalued) pursuit of originality and personal expression. “In the more than fifty years of his quest … Coppola has gone through many profound changes, but he has never reinvented himself,” writes Kenny. “Rather, he has lost and found himself over and over again.” Rumble Fish, likewise lost and now found, proves to be itself an extraordinary discovery, one worthy of renewed attention.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.