Thursday, February 7, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Rumble Fish (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola has always been a true innovator, an art-house filmmaker whose art exceeds most directors.  While he is most remembered for his grand epic work in the Godfather films, he has built more of a career on artistic expression, style, and a little bit of insanity along the way.  Apocalypse Now is grand, but haunting and offbeat; there is The Conversation, The Outsiders, and of course Rumble Fish, all leaning more towards the small art-house productions he tries still to this day.  We are nearing the 30th Anniversary of Rumble Fish, arguably Coppola's most expressionistic film, a dreamlike picture that sings like the scattered notes of a jazz song across the screen.  As fresh as it feels today I can't imagine the response back in 1983.  It might be the very definition of "not for everyone," but what films really are?

Rumble Fish stars Matt Dillon as Rusty James, the leader of a ragtag group of street hoods.  Rusty's hoodlum friends include a young Nicolas Cage and Chris Penn, and Vincent Spano.  The others look up to Rusty because he can take care of himself in a gang fight, has energy and charm, and preaches about times when street gangs were alive.  Rusty is a purist who rejects drugs; his idea of street gangs involves honor and history and brotherhood.  He has modeled his life after his older brother, simply called The Motorcycle Boy, played by a young and intense Mickey Rourke.  Rusty deifies him, so it is a tough message for Rusty once The Motorcycle Boy reappears after being in California for two years and tries to talk Rusty out of the gang lifestyle.

When he isn't spending his time wasting time, Rusty has a girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who knows her own angles and a drunk for a father (Dennis Hopper in his signature character type: drunken pops).  But what he has more than anything is angst.  The energy of the film is in the visual aesthetics.  Rumble Fish doesn't bother having any sort of thread to carry throughout the film.  Things happen like fights, break ins, sex, booze, but there is no tangible arch.  Having this isn't always a necessity if you plan on telling your story through stylistic embellishment.  Coppola has a firm grasp on what he is doing here.

Shot in crisp and clean black and white, Rumble Fish then employs almost theatrical techniques like smoke machines, obvious choreography, characters levitating, and a wonderful stream of consciousness for our hero.  One montage early on has Rusty imagining Patty dressed suggestively in various school rooms throughout the day.  I couldn't imagine a better way to show where the mind of a teenager is all day.  Later a fight breaks out, smoke billows furiously, and the flashing of subway lines work like lightning across the action.  The time period is also intentionally vague, giving the film an air of timelessness that may not work in a more direct narrative film.

What is Rumble Fish about?  Well, it is a story about a teenager coming to terms with himself, but the canvas is more important.  The city is nondescript, the characters are fascinating.  I see pieces of West Side Story in Rumble Fish, and then the angles and energy and chances being taken send me to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, which came out six years later.  The Last Picture Show carries some of the same weight in its themes.  But that is neither here nor there; Coppola gets great work from such a talented young cast the same way he did in The Outsiders.  I feel like the fans of Fellini and a young Jean-Luc Godard might recognize Rumble Fish as Coppola's foray into the world of these European directors.  It may not be for everyone, but there is nothing wrong with that.