Time waits for no one; no favors has he
Time waits for no one, and he won't wait for me – The Rolling Stones
Time. Once you hit the teen mark in life – what a beautiful horrible time that is. Dreamy and crazy and banal and violent – in action or in mind – melodramatic and real and hormonally addled. In the case of Rusty James who is sometimes not the smartest (but not dumb), and oftentimes intensely poetic – we see it in movement, in words, in the way he looks at his surroundings: his drunken dad’s apartment, his girlfriend’s intelligent beautiful face and his older brother’s odd, sad, sleepwalking swagger. And then listening to that older brother even if he doesn't understand half of what he says. And there’s those brightly colored rumble fish in the pet store…
Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish presents and ponders these dreamlike feelings of teenhood as an expressionistic mood piece – a reverie that feels of this world and out of this world but so rooted in an emotional truth that it, at times, feels Shakespearean. It’s a beauty of black and white cinematography (by Stephen H. Burum) as if Orson Welles took over both Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets but infused them with F.W. Murnau and, of course, Coppola. Deep focus, Dutch angles, bold, abstract camera moves, dark wet streets, a rumble so balletic that it was indeed choreographed by San Francisco Ballet director, Michael Smuin – Rumble Fish is a stylistic wonder, but rich with feeling that’s embedded right in that style. According to Burum (from American Cinematographer):
"For reference points, the first picture that Francis wanted us to look at was the Anatole Litvak film, Decision Before Dawn… Decision was a picture about spies in postwar Europe and it was actually shot on location in about 1946. What he wanted Dean Tavolouris to see was its images of ruined cities. That was where all the smoke and obscurity in Rumble Fish came from. He wanted to give the feeling that these kids were operating in a wasteland. It was partial destruction with a leanness in the way things looked. In all, it reflects the mental state of the characters and the chaos in their world. Another picture that we looked at was Johnny Belinda that Ted McCord [ASC] shot. We did look at some of the German Expressionist films such as The Last Laugh by F.W. Murnau. Francis showed it to the actors because he wanted more body attitude out of the kids. Emil Jannings’ posture in The Last Laugh becomes more and more forlorn as he is beaten down by life. So Francis was trying to get across to them, especially to Matt Dillon, how important body language was. Even in silent acting, you could project that kind of feeling so strongly. We looked at Viva Zapata and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.”
But, for sure, this is a Coppola film through and through – a masterpiece – there has been no other teen film like Rumble Fish (released in 1983) – before or since. Coppola was so ahead of his time here, so experimental and unafraid, that the film remains timeless (as does the brilliant, evocative percussive-based score by Stewart Copeland).
And, so, for years, the picture was misunderstood (though it had its defenders – like Roger Ebert – and it’s respected now, with an impressive Criterion edition). But some baffled critics seem to adamantly not understand – as if they resented the filmmaker for making an art film out of a young adult S.E. Hinton novel ("an art film for teenagers," Coppola said). The great S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola and who (of course) also wrote the novel, The Outsiders, which was Coppola’s other Tulsa teen film made before Rumble Fish – both released the same year. What a year, Coppola so suffused with beautiful rebel youth. He dedicated Rumble Fish to his older brother, August. This was personal for him.
Hinton’s Rusty James was only 14 in her novel, his older brother, Motorcycle Boy was 17. Here, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is in his later teens, and his brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) is 21. That’s old to a teenager. But Motorcycle Boy was an old 17 in Hinton’s novel and he’s an even older 21 in Coppola’s movie – a haunted young man whose hearing comes and goes, who is colorblind, and who has seen and felt more than he says, speaking quietly, and often with literary references that only their book smart but dipsomaniacal father (Dennis Hopper) understands. Rusty James beseeches them to “talk normal” because he feels left out. He wants to be like his brother. He wants to belong, especially after his mother has split and moved to California. But he’s not like his older brother. And probably not like his mother either. As his old man says:
“No, your mother... is not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He's merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river... With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and... findin' nothin' that he wants to do. I mean nothing.”
Wrong side of the river – we first think – wrong side of the tracks – but river feels so much more mythological, so much more symbolic than that – it’s movement, it’s time – and Motorcycle Boy wants to flow. As Rusty James says in Hinton’s novel, “I couldn’t picture the Motorcycle Boy in California, by the ocean. He liked rivers, not oceans.” At the magazine stand in the movie, Rusty James compares Motorcycle Boy to the Pied Piper, that the guys in the town would have followed him anywhere, “Yeah, they’d all follow me to the river, huh?” Motorcycle Boy says, “And jump in?”
Motorcycle Boy has been gone a few months – in California, he says – but returns when Rusty James rumbles with Biff Wilcox – he returns quite dramatically. Recovering from a fight wound, the brothers hang out, while Rusty James' friend Steve (Vincent Spano) remarks on the older brother’s appearance – as if he can’t hear him: “He looks so old I forget he’s just 21.” Rusty replies, “Yeah, that’s pretty old.”
That is pretty old to a teenager – and Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy does look and seem appropriately older – he’s cool, maybe crazy to others, but also dignified, “Royalty in exile.” It’s as if he’s in on some secret only he understands, and it feels like… the end. You feel a pall of death hanging over him. And you feel it for young Rusty James too – unless he escapes. Will he? Rusty James says: “Man, I feel like I’m wasting my life waiting for something. Waiting for what? I wish I had a reason to leave, man.”
Rusty James has time ticking all around him – literally conveyed by the ticking score, the clocks spied in different scenes, and a broken old clock hitched up to a truck in town – Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy lean against it as Patterson the Cop (William Smith), with his ominous mustache and sunglasses (he’s the personification of both The Man and institutionalized soul-crushing), picks at Motorcycle Boy, again, as if he’s not standing right there. Rusty James asks him why he hates him so much. “I hate him so much, because you kids think he's something he's not. He's no hero.” Rusty quite reasonably counters with: “Like you are! You're a hero, right?”
Patterson the Cop is not a hero. He’s more like the Grim Reaper – death is at their door – and he’ll sure as hell be a part of it somehow. Rusty James’ death? His brother’s death? The death of adolescence? The Grim Reaper lays in wait. In a spectacular near-death sequence, Rusty James goes out of body and floats over the town, spying how people would feel if he were dead. Did he mean anything? You wonder if his brother would wonder that. Probably not. He doesn’t seem to care anymore, not what people think, and that makes him “dangerous,” “crazy,” to soul-crushers – he’s in his own world. And it’s Motorcycle Boy who really seems like he’s floating, out of body, near death, throughout the entire movie.
If there’s a Grim Reaper, there’s also a Guardian Angel (as the actor himself, Laurence Fishburne, described himself), and the movie opens with Fishburne’s Midget – dressed in white jacket and white hat –walking into the diner/billiard hall to warn Rusty James: “Biff Wilcox is looking for you … Says he’s gonna kill you.” Death is already waiting. Time is key – it means something to the director. As Coppola described (in “The Making of Rumble Fish”) right after Midget warns Rusty James: “And from that moment until the end, time is running out on this character…”
And it is. Time is tension in Rumble Fish. The boy’s father may show how long you can hold on as a booze-hound as if old age is forever, but youth? Youth is short, even if your summers feel long. Friends and girlfriends, and the sad junkie Cassandra, and Benny from the diner (actors Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid and Tom Waits– all fantastic here) are there and will likely come and go. But moments mean something – like when Motorcycle Boy rides Rusty James on his bike at night – a loving, gorgeous sequence of brothers just being – two young men feeling like they are anywhere else but there. For some minutes.
Motorcycle Boy may have been about the river, but, by the end, Rusty James makes it to the ocean. And it’s beautiful to see that he’s gone that far – and on his brother’s motorcycle. The ocean feels like either the end of the line or the beginning of the story – where the river meets the sea – and that’s either life or death for Rusty James. We hope life.
My piece originally published in Ed Brubaker's Criminal