Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.
The American writer, Susan Eloise Hinton (better known as S.E. Hinton) gained fame as the teenager author of “The Outsiders” in 1967, a “young adult” novel before there ever was such a genre. Her gift for language and setting (Tulsa Oklahoma) among the disillusioned and lost youth has since become a regular part of public school curriculum. The novels Tex, That Was Then This is Now, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish deal with themes which resonated with young readers and continue to influence today. Francis Ford Coppola, frustrated with his brand name (The Godfather series in particular), embarked on two small personal projects with limited budgets with his “family” of actors and creative team members from past films to reach back to his instinctive creative days. The resulting work produced The Outsiders in March 1983 in expressive color and Rumble Fish later that October of 1983 in striking black and white. Both films were photographed by Stephen H. Burum (veteran of many Brian De Palma films such as The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way).
There are tragic echoes, ripples in time, that reverberate and connect most of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a underrated effort which recently received a prestigious Criterion Collection release on disc. These ripples flow through the two troubled brothers, their alcoholic father, the mother who abandoned them, the veteran street cop watching over one of the brothers, the doomed romance between two young lovers, and the addicted ex-girlfriend. The disconnects, loneliness, and quiet despair lies underneath the everyday lives of these people. They are all ghost-like searching the city streets for clues. This ethereal longing for something greater is a central theme that Coppola brought strongly to the forefront on screen. Youth has a taste for self destruction while believing themselves indestructible. This duality is the heart that beats in Rumble Fish. Floating within the confined wastelands of Tulsa, the yearning to break free trembles beneath the surface at all times.
Coppola touted Rumble Fish as an art film for teenagers. It is much more than that for it relies on the unforgiving conceit that youth is not all that it is cracked up to be. This is perhaps why the film tanked at the box office and never managed to acquire young audiences such as the novel did. Coppola does not utilize cinema tricks just for the sake of it. The clock in Rumble Fish continually ticks (you can hear it in Stewart Copeland, founder of the band The Police, and his manic percussive score) that makes the characters march towards some unknown fatal destination. Many ghost-like scenes invade otherwise standard exchanges between characters such as the father, inebriated as usual, confused at first whether he really sees both of his sons in his squalid apartment. The lovers spat on the street is suffused with other-worldly smoke that swallows up the characters. The knife fight between gangs where we can see striking shadows and mist surrounding a nightmarish decaying stage set for some long ago battle. Tulsa is seemingly transported to another age and another time, again giving rise to this idea of ghosts floating through this story.
Rumble Fish incorporated many of Francis Ford Coppola’s merry band of regular cast members and some of his own family. Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, fresh off of The Outsiders with Coppola, were the first cast. There is Lawrence Fishburne (Mr. Clean from Apocalypse Now), Nicolas Cage (nephew of Coppola), Herb Rice (Roach from Apocalypse Now), Tom Waits (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Sofia Coppola (daughter and filmmaker in her own right), Vincent Spano (whatever happened to him?), the late Christopher Penn, Diana Scarwid (whatever happened to her?), veteran character actor (and personal favorite) William Smith, and even a sly cameo by author S.E. Hinton as a prostitute trying to drum up business with the two brothers. Coppola brought master production designer Dean Tavoularis (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather trilogy, Zabriskie Point, Ninth Gate) which took actual locations in Tulsa and heightened the surreal uneasy feeling of the film. Director of photography Stephen H. Burum worked closely with Tavoularis to create the German expressionist landscape of deep shadows and confining spaces that defines this wasteland of youth (they even painted shadows on the sets to deepen the expression on film). The fact that these very creative filmmakers contributed their time and energy to such a small project is a testament to Coppola’s mettle as one of America’s top modern cinema masters.
Clocks are ever present in almost every scene either by visual or an auditory sense. It is counting down the seconds, winding up the tension in Rumble Fish. Time is like some heavy cloud (such as the time-lapsed clouds in the beginning sequence) that weigh upon Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) and his ghostly idolized older brother, Motorcycle Boy (played to perfection by a young Mickey Rourke). This longing, referred to earlier, reaches such high levels when these two are on screen together. Rusty-James tearfully pleads with his brother to just see him. See him for who he really is. That inherent need to belong, to feel needed or loved, is such a universal feeling we all share. With the incessant feeling of time ticking away, the film presents the characters as being short on that time to discover their place in this world before that world chews them up and spits them out.
Time also ticks away on the soundtrack (an incredibly intricate sound design by Richard Beggs) in a variety of inventive ways. We not only hear clocks ticking, clanging, buzzing, but in water dripping, echoing voices (another ghostly like effect), percussive beats from the Stewart Copeland soundtrack, and an underlying blanket of sound that gives that sense of something different in this world running away with time. Beggs never seems to overindulge in these effects. It seems a natural part of the world they have created. Do yourself a favor and turn up the sound when watching this film to fully appreciate the work that went in to creating this aural landscape.
The title Rumble Fish refers to Motorcycle Boy’s statement of certain fish in the local pet store that are separated in the fish tank for they would kill each other if in the same space. His thought of freeing these fish into the river, giving them the space they really needed, would undo that primal need to destroy each other. Is this what we need for the self destructive behavior for youths in gangs? Freedom and the responsibility to choose, rather than be like the ghosts of past gang members on the endless cycle of nihilistic violence? Sometimes it takes a ghost (in this case, the quiet presence of Mickey Rourke) to show the way; break free of the constraints of endless repetition that life sometimes hands us.
This all sounds so bleak on the surface, but there is a beautiful hope. Coppola provides it little by little as the film progresses for we end up caring, against our better judgement, for these characters and want them to succeed. These are flawed broken people, but they carry the same needs and desires we all do. Hope is possible and given in the end which lifts the film up right where it needs to be.
No longer a ghost of time will Rusty-James be, but living in the present upon a path to something better than the world he left behind. Rumble Fish is a work of art with heart, daring, and the inventiveness of a Coppola that he strives to be outside of the ghost of his mainstream successes.
[Francis Ford Coppla (foreground) with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke on set, Tusla OK 1982]