Francis Ford Coppola’s eleventh feature film went into production only two weeks after his adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel “The Outsiders” finished shooting on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Set in the same state, and featuring many of the key members of the iconic young cast and crew who had working on that previous project, “Rumble Fish”, although based on a different novel by the same author, implemented an approach that was clearly a million miles away from that which had been adopted for “The Outsiders”, despite both films dealing in very similar themes related to rebellious youth and growing up amid teen gangs in a big city setting.
While “The Outsiders” had taken a rather straight-forward, mainstream approach in adapting the novel’s coming of age travails and melodramas to the screen, this second project was another kettle of … well, fish -- entirely! Coppola has said in interviews, and again on the commentary accompanying this Blu-ray release, that he envisioned “Rumble Fish” as an art movie for teenagers, and that just about sums up his peculiar but original melding here of nostalgic ‘40s photographic stylisation and existential European art house sensibilities, which he’s then grafted onto the traditional American youth movie genre. It managed to flop magnificently at the box office, thereby consolidating the financial difficulties Coppola already found himself facing during this period in his career after his other recent big failure, “One from the Heart”. Despite that, Coppola is upfront in citing this, alongside “The Conversation”, as being one of his favourite films in his filmography.
Re-watching it now, it’s not hard to spot the appeal. This is very much a filmmaker’s (and a film buff’s) film; every single shot seems to have been crafted for maximum cinematic impact in gloriously evocative and lustrously mood-enhancing black and white by cinematographer Steve H. Burum (who gets to creatively indulge himself to his heart’s content with this movie); every scene bristles with restless imagination through elaborate composition, framing, camera movement and lighting effects, and its barrage of precision-choreographed set-pieces are set amid elaborately expressionistic production and art design. The end effect garnishes a work of great heightened theatricality, that parallels its creator’s nostalgic yearning for the golden age of Hollywood noir and romance with the idealisation of a bygone era which informs the psyche of the central character, played by the young Matt Dillon, who is pictured trying to live up to an impossible vision of imagined perfection throughout the course of the movie’s ninety-three phantasmagorical minutes of impressionistic, surrealist wonderment.
Trying to make a gnomic, creatively inventive art house flick while at the same time using mainstream teen movie conventions as the stuff of symbolism was always going to be a tough sell which was either going to take off in glorious fashion or crash and burn heroically; but in a way, the film works much better in retrospect that it did at the time, when it must have seemed to many cinemagoers merely to be a baffling, pretentious indulgence and an unnecessarily over-thought-out concatenation of abstract clever-cleverness from a director who was too big to be said no to. There is a sense in which this is a film that’s easier to admire than it is to love. The detached, alienated sense of unreality which pervades the movie through Coppola’s exaggerated use of extreme stylisation techniques (with shadows painted directly onto the sets to enhance its expressionistic, noir tone and bizarre dream-like interludes of outré Cocteau-esque fantasy, etc.) results in a maintaining of the viewer at arm’s length at all times; we remain spectators rather than participants in the characters’ emotional lives, despite the personal relevance the central relationship between the two brothers at the heart of the film had for Coppola himself (the film is dedicated to the director’s older brother, whom he idolised when he was growing up and who was the biggest influence on his own creative development).
But the wistful sense of romantic nostalgia inherent to the film’s wider themes and the sense of existential confusion which constantly informs its monochrome dreamlike atmospheres and landscapes, is given added impetus, now, by its inclusion of what came to be a classic family of actors, here caught in amber in their very early career days where they are metaphorically being mentored by Coppola’s Apocalypse Now-veterans Dennis Hopper and Larry Fishburne. The deliberate harking back to cinema’s glory days captured so expediently by the film’s highly stylised imitation of the look of the work of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles, etc., is also further enhanced by what was then merely the contemporary 1980s gloss of the period; but the fashions and hairstyles (and all that dry ice and those fluttering pigeons on stairwells, etc.) have since acquired their own nostalgic connotations for many of us catching the film again nearly thirty-years after its release: and where else can you see Dennis Hopper as a dad, whose two teenage sons are Micky Rourke and Matt Dillon? Indeed, where else could you expect to encounter a Matt Dillon whose best friends are the 18 year-old Nicolas Cage (in his first starring film role) and a fresh-faced Christopher Penn -- and whose girlfriend is a button-nosed, teenage-cute Diane Lane?! Our sense of where these one-time fledgling actors actually ended up in their lives, and the way in which a baton feels like it is being handed on from Hopper (who is brilliantly intense, here, during what must have been the height of his well-documented off-screen indulgences) to Rourke, and the similarities which can be perceived in the trajectories of their own subsequent lives and careers, brings yet more resonance to this story which makes the passing of time (and the subjectivity of perceptions of time and the past) one of its major visual symbols.
Matt Dillon plays Rusty James -- a young, handsome and rebellious teen gang leader trying to live up to the romantic image possessed by his absent older brother, the mythical ‘Motorcycle Boy’ (Micky Rourke) who left his home town years before after ending the gang ‘rumbles’ in the run-down industrial state of Oklahoma where Rusty and his pals continue to live, but who has not been seen again since -- leaving Rusty to inherent his mantle as the boy all girls love and all boys want to be. Rusty divides his days between hanging-out at the local pool joint (presided over by an ageless, monologue-spouting Tom Waits) with his close knit friends, hangers on and various acolytes (Nicholas Cage, Chris Penn, Vincent Spano, and Larry Fishburne as the white suited ‘angel’ known as Midget), visiting his teenage girlfriend (Diane Lane) at her wealthy (and disapproving) parent’s big house on the hill and getting himself and his friends into gang fights amid Tulsa’s junk-strewn concrete underpasses and deserted back alleyways. Rusty idolises what he remembers of his brother’s leadership in the romanticised days of street fighting, painting himself a mythical picture of the good old days while failing to notice that times are changing and the gang rumbles he continues to take part in in an attempt to live out a version of his brother’s legend are no longer the nostalgic tangles he remembers from childhood; as he learns to his cost when he meet Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) for a fight and the drugged-up, jittery opponent pulls a knife on him. That’s when the Motorcycle Boy finally returns, and Rusty is faced with a stark choice over his own future as he follows his brooding, insular sibling across town on an odyssey of discovery which reveals the hollowness of the heroic myths he’s conjured in his mind to evade the reality that time is fast running out for the way of life he and his friends have been hanging on to for far too long.
“Rumble Fish” is an impressionistic, deliberately paced character study which is largely devoid of plot or even any real narrative incident after its impressively stylised and tightly choreographed first act fight sequence, which takes place amid massing rolling plumes of smoke and erupting water geysers during the first quarter of an hour of the film, to leave Rusty badly injured on a piece of broken window pane. The rest of the movie thereafter then plays as though a languid fever dream that might just as well all be taking place inside Dillon’s delirious head, with Rusty James sweating and trembling with fever throughout, and even having an out-of-body experience at one point after being set upon by two thugs in a tough part of town and hit with a piece of iron piping.
Clocks and time faces appear in nearly every scene symbolising the mark of unheeded seconds ticking down and disappearing (the rhythmic metronomic qualities implicit in Stuart Copeland’s incidental score drumming home this idea) and time lapse photography is used in a succession of flowing, dreamy cutaways and reflections in store windows depicting an areal-scape of cloud formations in perpetual fast motion (images which are mirrored by the endless drifting tracking shots and steadycam sequences in which characters are being followed as they walk through billowing plumes of dry ice, which emerge from some unknown source throughout to compound the film’s hallucinatory qualities). Downtown Tulsa’s distinctive skyline becomes its very own clockwork timepiece as the Sun rises and sets in fast forward while reflected in the mirrored exteriors of city skyscrapers. For this is essentially a road movie in lost limbo or frozen stasis: where the characters are trapped by their pasts, the vivid patchwork of shadow-laced locations and the expressionistic, unrealistic way in which they are depicted inside a mirrored lantern show of short focus camera lenses which creates a distorted noir mise-en-scène, soon comes to fulfil the film’s stylish raison d'être -- providing a distinctive depiction of each character’s inability to escape their surroundings as the world around them constantly changes and ages, which Coppola ultimately symbolises with the pet store’s Siamese fighting fish (the ‘Rumble fish’ of the title): a species so vicious that each one has to be separated inside its own tank to stop it savagely attacking its neighbour.
Micky Rourke’s character, the enigmatic Motorcycle Boy, has returned after his wanderings in California in search of his and Rusty’s mother, no longer with any aim or direction in life and only aware of the illusory nature of his own myth; Rourke plays him as a sort of French intellectual, like an absent-minded Camus: an inspirational figure Dillon and his friends worship without ever being able to get close to. If Dillon appears delirious and removed from reality throughout the film, Rourke is entirely absent; deliberately so: Coppola tells in the commentary how Rourke achieved that mysterious, not-really-quite-there quality to his performance by coming to the set with a different random object in his pocket, which he would then proceed to think about for the rest of the day in an attempt to remove himself from thinking about what he was doing in the moment! Dennis Hopper is also in his own distorted world throughout the movie as the boys’ drunken dad, his brow perpetually perspiring and his hair limp and stuck to his forehead, his suit shabby and too big for his frame. Another important grown-up figure is Patterson the Cop played by William Smith, who despises everything Rourke stood and stands for and thus becomes a figure of intransigent authority for Rusty to butt against. Various other minor characters drift in and out of the loose dreamlike narrative: junky ‘fans’ of Motorcycle Boy’s and various pretenders to Rusty’s crown as gang leader, headed by Nicolas Cage, who is plotting to steal away girlfriend Patty while Rusty’s attentions are focused elsewhere after the return of his brother. Vincent Spano is an interesting character: the square, bespectacled friend seen frantically jotting notes in a pad all the way through; perhaps the whole film is his creative account of the friends he once looked up to in adolescence, and who represents Coppola himself. The striking dabs of red and blue colour which are used to highlight the rumble fish in the pet store window, and which later also mark out the film’s climactic emotional catharsis moment, symbolise freedom from the self-imposed bonds, but the film remains ambiguous on whether such freedom is truly possible, despite the coda of the final pre-end credits scene, which was added at the behest of producer Doug Claybourne: the original end shot was a close up of some aerosol graffiti bearing the legend which appears throughout the movie on road signs and placards: ‘The Motorcycle Boy Reigns’ -- suggesting that the death of old myths simply leads to the creation of new one.
The myth of “Rumble Fish” itself is certainly breathed new life by a fabulous HD transfer for the Masters of Cinema range, with fine amounts of extra detail and crisp blacks and greys discernible on this new UK Blu-ray edition throughout (which is also available with Limited Edition Steel Book packaging). This is one film which feels all the better the more detail and stability is available in the image, thanks to the extraordinary cinematography of Stephen H. Burum which it showcases to marvellous effect, so it’s particularly gratifying to see the excellent results achieved here with this transfer. The original stereo soundtrack comes across strong but there is also an excellent 5.1 Surround Sound audio track presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. And you also get an isolated music and effects track. The extras are light but significant: you get a ten minute ‘making of’ on location in Tulsa, which packs a great deal of information about Coppola’s thinking on the film and his unique approach to preparing for it. An eleven minute featurette sees Stuart Copeland talking to sound designer Richard Beggs about the imaginative and innovative percussion-heavy soundtrack devised between them for the movie, and how Copeland came to get the job after originally only being employed to play drums for Coppola’s own planned music score. You also get 22 minutes of deleted scenes, available only as poor quality video with tram lines running through the middle of the screen throughout. Finally a commentary by Francis Ford Coppola himself proves a delightful as well as informative listen as the director explains why this out of all his works, is his favourite film. Finally, but certainly not least, a marvellous 40-page booklet is included, full of poster art and production stills and two excellent pieces of writing: a revealing interview with Coppola originally conducted by David Thomson & Lucy Gray for Film Comment in 1983, and Universal’s informative production notes, which were circulated as promotional material in the weeks before the original release of the film.
“Rumble Fish” is something of a flawed masterpiece: easy to dismiss as an indulgence in many ways, but impossible not to admire as an incredibly striking and audacious piece of film art, with mesmerising performances from most of the cast (even eight-year-old Sophia Coppola acquits herself reasonably well here). It’s also host to an endlessly inventive and attention-grabbing parade of images which adorn it virtually wall-to-wall. Well worth seeking out.
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