Rumble Fish

Rumble Fish ★★★½

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the very few filmmakers who at one point in time had it all, commercial success, critical acclaim, a place in the history of cinema. He sat on top of the world, had a bacon sandwich and proceeded to tumble down like a bag of potatoes instead of either staying where he was or gracefully descending to habitable altitudes.

He won an Oscar for writing the script for Patton and then cemented his stature by making The Godfather, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II in a span of few years. I don't even know how many accolades he received in that time. And then he embarked on a journey to adapt Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness into what we know as Apocalypse Now, arguably one of the most important works of cinema and most assuredly the definitive movie about The Vietnam War. He accomplished all that in his thirties. He made four universally-lauded masterpieces in a row, co-created the New Hollywood Movement and put a bunch of other young trailblazers on a path to glory. I think we can all agree his achievements were unparalleled. He really did have it all.

But Apocalypse Now surely must have broken him artistically because his career quite literally jumped off a cliff in the 80's. He never recovered after the emotional roller-coaster of making Apocalypse Now. His quote about the film not being about Vietnam but being Vietnam will help you draw a parallel between Coppola and the USofA; his career was never the same just as America never truly recovered from the disastrous aftermath of that war.

Rumble Fish is a great example to illustrate just how troubled Coppola must have been at that time. It is a visually ambitious project that harks back to noir, Orson Welles and even – by extension – to German expressionism with its high-contrast monochromatic palette, strategic, stylised deployment of colour and shadows that all add up to a very suggestive tone one would associate with such names as Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray.

However, what I find the most interesting about this film is its (perhaps incidental) poignancy in mirroring the turmoil in Coppola's career. I think it is not an accident he decided to take this material on because of what its two main characters represent. I think one could imagine Rusty James (Matt Dillon) and Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) as avatars for Coppola: one a young power-hungry, vicious youngster determined to climb up to the top, the other an aloof, spaced-out, cynical man who had seen the world from the top and wasn't a fan of what it looked like. It's easy to see Rusty James as a young pre-Apocalypse Now Coppola and Motorcycle Boy as a traumatised post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, a recovering artist. In a way, Rumble Fish may be seen as a form of therapy for an auteur trying to reconcile the youthful ambition that nearly killed him with the nihilism that came with the realisation that it may have all been worth nothing – the voracious appetite, the reckless endangerment, the strenuous climb...

At least that's what Rumble Fish signifies to me: a filmmaker's attempt at coping with the effects of what I can only describe as Hollywood PTSD.

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