Francis Ford Coppola finds the melodrama in one’s teenage years and treats them as if they were a work of art in 1983’s Rumble Fish. A swarm of black and white imagery (save for occasional pigmentation that pops with neon fervor) and the ultra-cool ambience that radiates off James Dean’s legacy, it is, as Coppola put it during the film’s promotional stages, “an art film for teenagers.”
At its center, it is a typical teen movie, telling the story of a beautiful, and tragic, juvenile living in a desolate American town, uncovering the mismatch in his relationships with his friends, his family, and his love interests. But Rumble Fish is also photographed with the spirit of German Expressionism and sometimes the French New Wave, less interested in its storyline and more infatuated by, like its leading hero, its own style and aesthetic. You aren’t likely to have seen anything like it. Akin to Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), it should fit within the genre in which it’s designated. And yet it’s something more of a misfit puzzle piece, imitating the shape of a fitting section but nonetheless slightly off in its structuring.
And it’s all the better for it. In Rumble Fish do we have a setting straight out of unofficial 1950s Americana, a protagonist who’d be at home in one of those low-budget rock ’n’ roll pictures of that aforementioned era, like Untamed Youth (1957) or The Beat Generation (1959). But with a twist. It plays like fantasy.
The movie circles around the life of Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a bad boy teen — and quasi-gang-leader — treated like a god among his peers in his humble hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Going steady with a good girl (Diane Lane) and steadying his reputation around the area (everyone calls him by his first and last name as if refusing to worship him were a crime), he strives to someday be as routinely idolized as his older brother, the enigmatic, 21-year-old Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke).
But Rumble Fish is about the ending of childhood idealization and the slow but steady flow of cynicism that floods in when one realizes that the world is not nearly as grand as they think it is. Near the beginning of the movie does Rusty James plausibly think the way things are are the way things are going to forever be. He’s always going to have this particular girl by his side, is always going to take everyone’s breath away when he walks into a room, and is always going to win knife fights that gain him short-lived glory. He also thinks Motorcycle Boy’s perpetual swag is something of an occupation, and that playing the part of the archetypal tough guy is going to make him his town’s Marlon Brando.
The film watches as Rusty James’ world crumbles. He realizes that not all his romances are set in stone and that his girl might not so easily forgive him if he cheats. He comes to understand that his father (Dennis Hopper) wasn’t born a loser, and might have, in fact, been an awful lot like him and Motorcycle Boy in his youth and ended up the way he is now as a result of wasted opportunity. Most dramatically, he reaches the inevitable epiphany that walking and talking like a too-cool punk is not a way to live. That the more he indulges himself in the fantasies of who he wants to fashion himself into, the more his potential withers away. Life is much too precious to live fast and die young and pretend as though such were spiritual. It isn’t.
Made conventionally and Rumble Fish would still sting. It would also resemble The Outsiders, which was released just a few months earlier and was also directed by Coppola and adapted from a novel written by S.E. Hinton. Rumble Fish, though, is the more interesting of the two films. The Outsiders adaptation lifts the words from the page and manages to come up with a satisfying page-to-screen transition. But Rumble Fish explores the dramatic possibilities of the novel and filters them through the lens of the defining, earlier mentioned cinematic periods. And it’s refreshing to see the standard teen movie executed with such a generous helping of reverie.
Critics and audiences didn’t quite take to Rumble Fish as the hip genre film Coppola was hoping it would become upon its premiere, but in the 30-plus years since the original release has it grown in its stature. How couldn’t it, anyway — this is an original, singular piece of cinema unparalleled by its teen movie counterparts. A-