Rumble Fish

Rumble Fish ★★★★½

33 Films x 6 Decades: 1980s

Sculpted out of Greek mythos, Francis Ford Coppola’s French New Wave and German expressionism inspired take on young rebels who play gangsters in the street is yet another example of the stellar work Coppola was churning out in the 1980s. While it is largely his work in the 1970s that earns him acclaim, films such as Rumble Fish stand as an example of why the low-profile status of his post-Apocalypse Now films is so disheartening. Turning these rough and tumble young men who fight, cut up one another, sleep around, and aim to reign supreme over the streets of Tulsa into poetic and mythical beings that come to represent far more than the street tough facade they put up, Rumble Fish is a film that can be defined as nothing less than excellent. It is masterfully shot with gorgeous time-lapse photography, a reliance on shadows, and formalistic shots that echo the French New Wave, smartly developed themes and characters, and performances that fit right into the mythical style that Coppola sought to achieve. As every piece works in harmony with one another, Rumble Fish becomes a film that highlights the way in which Coppola can make something so experimental in style into something so human.

Shot in black-and-white, the only sparks of color come via a group of “rumble fish” in the local pet store and a flash of red from a police car. The former, however, is the far more metaphorical element of this film and ties into the title. Examining the life of Rusty James (Matt Dillon), declared king of the streets, who is forced to fight for his crown on repeated occasions with friends Smokey (Nicolas Cage), Steve (Vincent Spano), B.J. (Chris Penn), and Midget (Laurence Fishburne), backing him up, Rusty tries to balance his street life with girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane). Sleeping around on her, hanging out with his friends, and celebrating the unexpected return of older brother and former king The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), Rusty James’ life is one that is pretty typical for a regular old street tough. However, through the film, Coppola shows not just his softer side, but also explores why these boys fight. Why are they constantly mugging one another or challenging each other to fights or disrespecting the women in their lives and acting a fool in school? Through the colorful “rumble fish” and dialogue given to The Motorcycle Boy regarding his belief that these fish, noted for fighting, would not fight if in the river instead of living in the pet store tank, Coppola metaphorically compares the boys to these fish. This may be a bit obvious in writing, but the film’s formalist photography creates a fish bowl look for the film, creating both a visual and a written metaphor regarding these boys being fish trapped in the bowl that is Tulsa. They are these rumble fish. The fish being the only thing of color highlights their beauty, their difference from the world around them. As The Motorcycle Boy is color-blind, he cannot see these colors but Rusty James can and, as such, it is his destiny to be able to escape this town and pave his own path in the world, rather than following in the violent footsteps of his older brother.

Creating a feeling of small-town nostalgia and cultivating this desire to get out of town throughout the film, Coppola may not be playing with exceptionally original ideas within the teen genre, but it is the film’s style that allows it to stand tall over its competitors. Though its rumble fish idea may be a bit more in the face of the audience via the script, it is the photography that really makes it a well-rounded and smartly conceived theme with Coppola using the camera as a means of subtly furthering the theme. The same can be said when it comes to time. Using time-lapse photography, Coppola often cuts to shots of clouds flying by rapidly or even shows these fast moving clouds in mirror reflections as members of this street gang speak to one another outside of a restaurant. Intended to create the feeling that time is moving faster than these boys will ever realize, Coppola also includes some dialogue for Tom Waits regarding how fast time moves that further highlights this idea. However, one of the more interesting elements of this idea of time passing by rapidly comes earlier in the film. Cut in a battle, Rusty James lies on a bed with Steve and The Motorcycle Boy helping him. Stepping away for a minute, The Motorcycle Boy leans on a wall with a tight close-up of him and the other two boys over his shoulder and slightly out-of-focus. As the boys speak about how The Motorcycle Boy is color-blind and has bad hearing, Coppola appropriately alters the sound of the film to highlight certain sounds and move others to nothing more than a hush sound. These comments by the boys quickly take to the background as Coppola highlights the ticking of the clock in the room above all other sounds. Symbolically representing The Motorcycle Boy’s intense awareness of the ticking of time, this ticking adds a great sense of urgency to the film. Though at this point his mission is unclear, it is immediately apparent that he feels as though time is running out to save his brother from some force. Having recently returned from California, it later becomes clear that, to The Motorcycle Boy, he feels as though he is irredeemable. He is incapable of making it to the ocean shore and fully escaping the fishbowl of Tulsa. He must return to free the rumble fish for the bowl he had made for them through his years of violent tyranny in the town. Above all else, he must rescue his brother before time run out - and it will run out soon. The same sound effect comes back as The Motorcycle Boy seeks to free the fish with the heightened sound of the nearby train screeching by drowns out the rest of the sound for a brief moment. This train, together with the ticking clock from earlier, brings the theme home: it is the need to get his brother away from this town that is causing this ticking with the clock representing the rush to do it before he dies and the train representing the “getting out of town” aspect.

Alongside its very formalist French New Wave techniques that seek to augment the reality of the film - all of which serve to make the film anything but realistic, constantly calling attention to the fact that it is, in fact, a film - Rumble Fish heavily utilizes German expressionism as Coppola often bathes this film in shadows. Often occurring at night - in line with the theme of time, it seems as though the world of this film moves very quickly as it is not just one night, but rather a series of nights that occur, seemingly, over a period of multiple weeks if not months - the film’s use of shadows is often nothing less than exemplary. To introduce the character of the boys’ father (Dennis Hopper), Coppola first shows us the shadow of the man. Given his status as an alcoholic, Coppola clearly intends to imbue the thematic impact that this is not really who their father is, rather just a shell of his former self. He was once a good man, as The Motorcycle Boy hints, but driven to drinking because his wife (and the boys’ mother) left him when the boys were very young. These shadows come back repeatedly, but most notably at the climax as The Motorcycle Boy runs to the river with the fish and the shadow of a cop is shown behind him, which serves to create tension for the moment as Coppola had previously established the degree to which the cops and these gangs did not see eye-to-eye, especially when dealing with The Motorcycle Boy, who was seen as the catalyst of all of this crime and fighting. Later, as Rusty James rides off on a motorcycle, he is shown riding off with nothing but his shadow next to him - sentimentality, perhaps, as it may indicate his brother is riding with him in spirit - and then once more as Coppola shows a silhouette of Rusty James by the Pacific Ocean in California. This reliance on French New Wave formalism and German expressionism to capture the action at night is often makes Rumble Fish so elegant and mythical. While the referencing of Greek mythos helps there as well, it is these elements that make Rumble Fish feel so dream-like and otherworldly that he can be nothing but a symbolic representation of reality. It is not meant to capture reality, but rather to show a heightened version of it that allows Coppola to imbue some sort of message or moral - as with Greek mythos - about the world that he sees arising. To him, these boys, though reckless and fighting, are good at the very core. They are simply in a world that demands too much of them despite giving them no solid starting point life, leading to their wayward thinking and aggressive actions that are merely expressions of fear instead of anger. These boys are terrified and do anything they can to make themselves feel better, even if it kills them.

This other-worldly and dream-like feeling is not just accomplished through the film’s visuals, but also through the film’s acting. From the very beginning, the acting seems off. As Midget walks into the restaurant and calls out for Rusty James with every character then calling him by his full name of “Rusty James”, Rumble Fish just seems weird. Throughout the rest of the film, the entire cast continues to play the film this way - though it becomes less noticeable - with this very heightened annunciation, calling one another by their full name. While it may be off-putting to some, it greatly adds to the film’s general aesthetic. Creating this surreal and self-reflexive work (in the vein of French New Wave films), Coppola’s chosen acting style for the film is one that subtly calls attention to the fact that this is not reality. This is a film, not intended to represent reality but one intended to augment it in service of these themes. It is, in effect, a film that wishes every element to call attention to its style. While the acting is still good - especially Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke who disappear into their respective roles - the on-the-nose dialogue that never sounds “speakable” in regular speech is what often defines the acting of this film as the actors seek to wrap their delivery around this awkward dialogue style. For many films, this would not work, but each actor’s dedication to making these lines spark and Coppola’s aforementioned intent with this verbose and reflexive dialogue makes this a film that is served quite nicely by its unconventional great writing and cast.

Between Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, Coppola not just demonstrated his great collaborative harmony with author S.E. Hinton in bringing the respective novels to the big screen, but also in his phenomenal understanding of the teenage mind. As he would further demonstrate in Peggy Sue Got Married, Coppola’s ability to create these intimate character studies in the 1980s - switching it up from the glossier and greater scope of his character studies in the 1970s - that drive at what exactly makes a teenager act the way they do and seeks to treat these typically discounted characters as the misjudged individuals they are is one of the films’ greatest assets. Coppola treats this characters with great respect, as opposed to many filmmakers who may just write them off as hoodlums. However, as redeemable teenagers who have a chance to be saved if reached in time, the characters in Rumble Fish are greatly developed, have great thematic resonance, and it is all due to Coppola and Hinton seeing through their rough exterior to get at what makes these kids tick. Pulling back this facade and allowing the viewer to fully enjoy what makes these characters who they are, Coppola’s film is one that is a masterful example of character-driven films with great old-school style.

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