Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rumble Fish

Francis Coppola made Rumble Fish in 1983 back to back with 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 from a late 60s novel by S.E. Hinton (with her help), about disaffected mid-west youth. As was Rumble Fish, with Matt Dillon kept on in the lead, and an instantly 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, 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 immediately in place. 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 to follow. The people who follow are Nic 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 (suspiciously suggestive of Bogdanovich). The cast is filled out by Dennis Hopper in restrained but effective form as the lush dad to the two boys, burbling about Greek mythology; an utterly luminous Diane Lane as Rusty James’s catholic schoolgirl main squeeze (with giant-toothed and cheekily appealing Sofia C. as her little sis); and Laurence Fishburn,who 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, world-weary loner that he is. They are kept separate in their tank, though 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 cinèma du look, inspired by the “slum-realist” Tulsa 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 useful justification built-in beyond the purely aesthetic. The shadows are long, the wide-angle lens fisheyes all over the place, and the smoke pots and fog machine work overtime. But Coppola knows what he’s doing, knows how to make a movie about teenage ennui through a (smoke) screen of artiness that can render it sufficiently nonspecific as to be timeless. And the sole 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 barroom philosophy is undercooked, but he pulls it off because he’s Tom Waits, and Coppola pulls it off because the general metaphors of story and look, the art in the art film if you will, whilst not rigourous are surely heartfelt, and that makes it all the more endearing.

To be sure, as well as for the modish existential mantle the film can be patronized because there's holes to be picked: 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 about teenagers for adults, and the movie is quite right not to step back and take a superior intellectualized approach (Coppola called it “Camus for kids”, though he’s rather closer to a 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 said disaffected teenager, and that 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 terrifically made, appealingly sincere and it looks gorgeous. Coppola pulls off the style with aplomb and, with the affectations worn proudly on its sleeve, one can’t help but be rather fond of it. I hadn’t seen it for many years until a recent revisit and you know what? It’s still pretty damn cool.

d Francis Ford Coppola p Doug Claybourne, Fred Roos sc Francis Ford Coppola, S.E. Hinton ph Stephen H. Burum ed Barry Malkin pd Dean Tavoularis m Stewart Copeland cast Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Diana Scarwid, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn. Laurence Fishburn, WIlliam Smith, Tom Waits, S.E. Hinton
(1983, US, 94m, b/w & col)
posted by tom newth at

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