Rumble Fish (1983)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola


Rumble Fish has really grown on me in the day or two since I’ve seen it.  It’s one of those films that at first feels a little too slow, like the methodical storytelling isn’t having the impact it’s meant to, and instead you’re just waiting for something underwhelming to happen.  In many ways it feels melodramatic, but now, after some rumination, it feels perfect, and I don’t exactly know why.  So let’s figure it out.

First, it’s a film that likely doesn’t appeal to everyone or anyone at all.  This was made in the decade after Coppola’s epics of the 70s (Godfather I, II and Apocalypse Now, as well as The Conversation), and it feels like a quieter, almost personal film.  But sometimes this career trajectory, in which a director starts personal before moving to bigger films and then returns to the “personal,” feels forced, like the “personal” is really just an unintended parody of the films the director once made as a younger man or woman.

And on the surface, Rumble Fish feels like it’s trying so hard to be both aspirational and humble with a little pretense thrown in.  It’s a quiet film for sure, but that quietness feels like the smug smile of the silent kid at a party who is only so quiet because he thinks he has so much to say and wants to hold back as if his withholding of conversation is some kind of strange power trip.

When Rumble Fish is quiet, which it often is, it feels almost cocky.  This is a story that could be told much more quickly, but Coppola takes his time, and now I’m glad he did.  This is a film much like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971).  That film, also shot in black and white, showcased a dying town dragging down the few remaining signs of life who weren’t smart enough or capable enough to leave.  It’s a somber tale of people drowning without realizing it.

Rumble Fish follows Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a foolish kid who acts princely within his dying gang of fellow students, and he aspires to be like his brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who escaped their small town.  As the film begins, Rusty iodolizes everything about his brother, but the significance of his brother’s flight from middle America is lost on him.

The Motorcycle Boy was the onetime leader of a pack of 50s era greaser gang, with their hair slicked back, cigarettes tucked into the sleeves of their shirts and ruckus that settled somewhere between innocent and dangerous.  All we know about The Motorcycle Boy is from Rusty or from a local cop who has it out for him, even if he’s not around.

But then The Motorcycle Boy suddenly returns to town, somehow quietly confident while also falling apart inside and out.  He saves Rusty from an unnecessary gang fight in which Rusty’s fellow gang members don’t join in.  Rusty, we understand, is reckless and naive and not the kind of person to inspire people to follow him.  When his brother shows up, it feels like the arrival of Batman, just in time to thwart the enemy, and thwart the enemy he does.  But as the film goes on, The Motorcycle Boy counsels Rusty to not be like him.  He points out the flaws in the way he lived and the way Rusty lives now.

The Motorcycle Boy is haunted, but we don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because of their mom who ran out on them, or the struggle to cope with their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) who is hardly a presence in their life beyond the occasional drop in.  Or maybe The Motorcycle Boy simply saw how hard it was to make it on your own wherever it was he went.

As find out that The Motorcycle Boy can’t see color, and thus the black and white style is suddenly motivated, implying that even though we think we see the world through Rusty’s eyes, we’re really seeing it as it is through his disenchanted brother’s eyes.  This implies a world we have to acquaint ourselves with before Rusty himself is ready to catch up.

Like The Last Picture Show, the audience is shown the cold, cruel reality of the world these characters live in before they do.  By the end they understand what the film has been telling us the entire time.  Because of this, the audience is constantly ahead of the protagonist, Rusty.  He is almost comical in his futility, both as a leader, a fighter, a boyfriend and ultimately as a brother.

Rusty is blind to the world around him.  He can’t see that his friends don’t want to be a part of his gang, he doesn’t understand why the girlfriend he cheats on (Diane Lane) would be upset with his behavior, and he never takes the time to wonder if and why his brother (whom he thinks did everything right) is so clearly unhappy.

In other words, Rusty has some growing up to do.  By the end of the film he loses his gang, he loses his girlfriend to one of his friends (played by Nicholas Cage), and he loses his brother when The Motorcycle Boy is killed by the cop who for so long had it out for him.  Rumble Fish is a tragedy, like a train that ran off its tracks, except in this case the train was always going to crash.

What I love about this film is the same as what I realize I love about so many films from the 70s and 80s.  These are stories that are grounded in reality, but they’re shot in such different ways to emphasize something abstract within the text.  There is so much in this film, whether it’s the visuals or the audio, that is disconnected from the observable world.  In a couple scenes there is an inexplicable smoke or fog that smothers the ground and the characters, like something out of any one of Martin Scorsese’s New York nights (Taxi DriverAfter HoursBringing Out the Dead).  It’s unclear where this smoke might be coming from.  It could be seeping up through the ground or it might be from an unstated brush fire just feet off camera.  The characters don’t even react to it, as if the world is burning and they’re too busy to notice.

In the scene where Patty, Rusty’s girlfriend, breaks up with him, she departs into a cloud of smoke, never to see him again in the same light.  She is effectively gone, vanished into thin air, and there’s nothing Rusty can do.

Later in the film, as Rusty follows his brother into wherever his brother is going, there is a tense, even frightening atmosphere created solely through the use of sound.  It’s a scene in which we don’t know where The Motorcycle Boy is headed, only that he’s trying to leave something behind.  He walks forward into darkness, and the image of Rusty following him makes it clear Rusty is blind and perhaps this is a case of the blind leading the blind.  The scene on its own might be kind of anticlimactic, but the sound roars and howls like they’re climbing the spiral steps of a burning church tower.

The point is that this is a film that you think of as taking place in the real world, but it’s shot and edited with such intention and style (whatever that means) so as to emphasize the subtext and the feeling.  If this film were made today, even by a capable, driven director, I imagine it resorting to reflecting reality more than deferring to the subtext.  If a shot is meant to show a character’s isolation, a modern movie might simply frame him up with a wide angle lens in a crowded area where the character is just separate enough from the crowd to appear alone in a big environment so that he appears small.  This would tell us how he feels but in a way that looks like the world we know.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it often feels like directors feel they owe it to the audience to make the film look as real as possible since we know that cameras have that capability now.  The world onscreen looks just like our own, only we don’t always notice how clean and well-lit it looks up on that screen.  In a film like Rumble Fish, though, such a scene emphasizing a character’s isolation might frame him up in an empty alleyway with a spotlight shining down on him and only him like in a staged play.  Watching such a scene we would know right away that this light is unreal, and maybe the worry for modern audiences is that this recognition of the unreal would take us out of the scene and the story.  Except I find that these creative choices only heighten the story and the emotion.  When you feel elated, you don’t see the world the same as you do if you’re sullen.  Films of the 70s and other time periods care more about making sure you understand the feeling of the character.  They want you inside your head whereas other modern movies might want you to feel like you’re looking at a character from the outside, like this character is someone you might come across in everyday life but not someone you could be yourself.

So I guess what I’m getting at is that it seems like the emphasis on the abstract/emotion is an indicator that someone like Coppola knows that we’ve all felt the way Rusty or The Motorcycle Boy feel.  We’re inside their heads because what they’re feeling is universal and in a sense, not special at all.  These are human emotions that humans feel, and we’re all human so we recognize and empathize with it.

Rumble Fish focuses much less on the plot and more on the stark feelings throughout the story.  It’s not about Rusty and his fall from grace as much as it is about disillusionment and growing up.  You may not agree with the worldview put forth in this film, but you might at least understand this feeling at one point in time.  Hell, Rusty leaves town and makes it to the Pacific Ocean, going where his brother pointed.  It’s up to you to decide if Rusty breaks the cycle and changes the direction of his life, but it almost doesn’t matter what the outcome is.  Whatever you expect will happen might be a reflection of your worldview in relation to grief.  But the real point is that we understand what grief feels like, and it feels something like the dusty, cold, black and white grime of Rumble Fish.

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