Contemporary artists are frequently lauded for “reinventing” themselves. Over the years, both critics and consumers have taken that notion too much at face value, I think. First, there’s the philosophically dubious idea that one consciously invents a self at all. And too often the mere adoption of a persona is given the weight of metamorphosis.
In the more than fifty years of his quest—with an artist such as this one, to speak in terms of a “career” seems insultingly reductive—Francis Ford Coppola has gone through many profound changes, but he has never reinvented himself. Rather, he has lost and found himself over and over again. Like his friends Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, Coppola has a sensibility that derives from the tension between dual attractions: these three have all always been drawn to classic Hollywood film language and production values, but also to higher-than-average levels of personal expression. For Coppola, that tension was (almost hilariously) articulated early on, when he followed up the quirky 1966 coming-of-age story You’re a Big Boy Now with the 1968 musical Finian’s Rainbow, the last such genre picture for the legendary Fred Astaire. Coppola poured gallons of family feeling, lore, and food love into The Godfather, the 1972 movie that made his name—and then felt hugely alienated by the fact that that film, and its 1974 sequel, indeed had made his name. Because despite how much of himself he had put into the organized-crime saga, he felt it wasn’t him. Between those two pictures, he made The Conversation, a movie very much him, about a man feeling very much trapped in a web he eventually sees (or does he?) as being of his own making. He then used the currency acquired via the Godfather pictures to rebuild his production shingle and take on an ambitious project about Western civilization’s madness that would come close to driving him, and many others, mad. That is 1979’s Apocalypse Now, a movie that he has tinkered with several times since its contentious opening. His determination to downsize, to make a film on a more “human” scale, found Coppola getting lost yet again in his own studio, crafting the convoluted One from the Heart (1981), a musical as beguiling and confounding—and moving—today as it ever has been.
Which brings us to the subject at hand. Rumble Fish (1983) is a movie that is almost painfully personal, in ways both direct and indirect. It was a companion film to the higher-profile one that preceded it, The Outsiders—the two were shot practically back-to-back. But for followers of Coppola’s work, both projects were almost entirely unexpected, unlikely literary adaptations of young-adult novels by S. E. Hinton. The Outsiders is based on Hinton’s first novel, about alienated boys in the Midwest fighting and loving and losing and finding themselves. Hinton wrote it in 1965, before YA fiction was a thing—and she did it while she herself, for “S. E.” stands for Susan Eloise, was still a teenager. As a result, The Outsiders resonates with a kind of plainspoken sense of both romantic yearning and confusion; it’s a book that doesn’t have everything figured out. That’s a salient feature of all Hinton’s early work.
What brought Coppola to it? He took on The Outsiders, he has frequently recounted, after it was suggested to him by a group of middle-schoolers. Certainly, for a filmmaker who had earlier adapted the best-selling writer Mario Puzo and the classic chronicler of colonialism and its discontents Joseph Conrad, Hinton did not seem an author he would turn to entirely of his own volition. But the affinity was there, and the deeper affinity was there with Rumble Fish, which he decided to make while he was still shooting The Outsiders. According to Jon Lewis’s valuable Coppola book Whom God Wishes to Destroy . . ., he once described Rumble Fish as the carrot dangling at the end of the stick that he came to see The Outsiders as.
The work on both films got him out of Hollywood (figuratively), San Francisco (where he ran his Zoetrope Studios), and, yes, himself, in a sense. Just before, he had made One from the Heart at his facility, and it was an unexpectedly troubled production; in this period he had also worked himself into a frenzy over Wim Wenders’ Hammett, which he executive produced and which underwent considerable reshooting. (The experience was harrowing for Wenders and inspired his 1982 movie about moviemaking, The State of Things.) “It was chaos incorporated at Zoetrope,” Coppola told New York Times writer Aljean Harmetz. “Like fighting a war.” The extent to which his crises were of his own making is arguable; in any event, he was once again, as had been the case after Apocalypse Now, in dire need of respite. “I used to be a great camp counselor,” he joked to Harmetz, “and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. It would be like a breath of fresh air. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.”
On Sundays during the Outsiders shoot, Coppola and Hinton worked on the script for Rumble Fish, a more intimate but also more strangely mythic narrative than that of The Outsiders. He then enlisted a couple of actors from the other film, Matt Dillon, then eighteen, and Diane Lane, then seventeen, to play its leads. Where for The Outsiders Coppola took a lush, emotive, romantic approach replete with allusions to Gone with the Wind (a favorite movie of one of its characters), with Rumble Fish he went about finding himself in a different way. The story here is very simple: Rusty-James (Dillon), a charming, aimless gang leader, searches for meaning in the absence of his legendary older brother, the Motorcycle Boy. The Motorcycle Boy cruises back into town at a crucial juncture for Rusty-James, and the older brother has a message for the younger: he’s not going to find what he’s looking for. The brothers wrestle with their drunkard father, Rusty-James wrestles with his feelings for his sometimes girlfriend, Patty (Lane), a local cop sets his gun sight on the Motorcycle Boy, and all the characters enact gestures and provocations both intimate and archetypal.
Rusty-James is not, on the face of it, a likable character. He’s petulant, a little dumb, too cocky. He daydreams salacious daydreams of Patty in shop class but unhesitatingly screws around behind her back at an impromptu lake-house orgy initiated by his buddy Smokey. When Smokey (played by Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage, whose very eighties big hair is a treat) uses the high-school-rumor-mill scandal of Rusty-James’s infidelity to get a leg up with Patty himself, Rusty-James confronts him: “I woulda never been able to think of something like that.” Smokey says, “I know,” and then, probably inadvertently echoing The Godfather, adds, “It’s nothing personal, Rusty-James.”
The film’s conception of Rusty-James seems to come from the self-doubts, the feelings of being “less than,” that Coppola himself had to have been wrestling with after so many of his dream projects had degenerated into arguable debacles. On an even more personal level, Coppola’s relationship with his own older brother, August, a respected academic, certainly came into play, as Francis has acknowledged himself—the film is dedicated to August. You’ll never be the Motorcycle Boy, Rusty-James’s buddies keep telling him . . . but here’s the Motorcycle Boy himself telling him that being the Motorcycle Boy isn’t all that. Is that another side of the artist? Another side of his relationship to his beloved brother, whom he brought into his own business and artistic concerns in the eighties? Not unlikely.
In any event, the artist himself did not attack this project with anything like self-doubt. While The Outsiders was made in an approximation of the Technicolor of Gone with the Wind, Rumble Fish is in a black and white that is so much about contrast that some of the “shadows” in individual shots are actually black paint applied to surfaces. “We painted shadows on the walls,” director of photography Stephen H. Burum said in an interview with American Cinematographer. “The pool hall scene, for instance, was filled with them, all painted in there. For Patty’s house, all the tree branches are painted on the facade.” German expressionist film is often evoked in discussions of the look of Rumble Fish, but Burum recalls that Coppola screened F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh not for the crew but for the actors: “He wanted more body attitude out of the kids. [Emil] Jannings’s posture becomes more and more forlorn as he is beaten down by life.”
As for Burum and production designer Dean Tavoularis, “for reference, the first picture Francis wanted us to look at was the Anatole Litvak film Decision Before Dawn, which Frank McCarthy produced. Francis knew McCarthy because he had produced Patton, which Francis cowrote. Decision was a picture about spies in postwar Europe, and it was actually shot on location [. . .]. What he wanted Dean to see was its images of ruined cities. That was where all the smoke and obscurity of Rumble Fish came from. He wanted to give the feeling that these kids were operating in a wasteland.”
Rumble Fish is a movie that takes place in the past, the present, and the future. And its visuals are defined by that. Time is always on its mind and not on its side. (Clocks are often prominent in this homage to youth, a nice rhyme with their near omnipresence in Ingmar Bergman’s film on old age, Wild Strawberries.) Shots in the opening scene include fast-motion views of clouds passing in the sky, the sun speeding across the skyscrapers of the part of Tulsa none of its characters ever get to. The movie is full of ghosts. In the diner/pool hall called Benny’s Billiards, the boys—Rusty-James, his tough-guy pals Smokey and B.J. (Chris Penn), and the more straight-arrow Steve (Vincent Spano), who wants to be the gang’s Homer—hop and jump and slide around on the furniture like phantoms, or maybe wannabe phantoms (the drive to self-destruct is strong in adolescents), or maybe future members of a modern dance troupe. The proprietor, Benny (Tom Waits), admonishes them to watch their language; his voice is strangely disembodied, like maybe he’s not even there, and for all the attention the boys give him, maybe he’s not. In strides a tall fellow named Midget (Laurence Fishburne, the boy gunner of Apocalypse Now, all grown up and rather intimidating) to announce, “Biff Wilcox is looking for you, Rusty-James.” The dialogue seems as ritualized as the movement: “Bring it down, bring it down, cool it off.” Fugitive shadows of West Side Story accompany Rusty-James and his sad little gang to the rumble, where Rusty-James gets a Christlike wound in his side.
The boys of Rumble Fish are, make no mistake about it, terribly delicate. The supposedly fearsome Motorcycle Boy is played by a Mickey Rourke who is as recessive as he is beautiful. He spends most of the movie wearing a near-sleeveless V-neck sweater that Sandra Dee would have been comfortable in (provided she could wear a starchy white blouse beneath it). The Motorcycle Boy is both partially deaf and color-blind, and sometimes we hear as he does, words dim and echoey, laying out for him his own self-doubts on a kind of wobbly platter. He almost never speaks above a whisper, while Rusty-James is all bluster—bluster with little follow-up and a lot of whining when he doesn’t get his way. The retro stylings, the nostalgia for the “gangs” before “dope” ruined everything—that’s the past in which Rumble Fish takes place. The black and white, though, despite its obvious retro connotations, is its present. It corresponds specifically to the Motorcycle Boy’s color blindness, of course. And it’s not like old black and white; there’s something too fast about it. It’s broken up by the vivid colors of the Siamese fighting fish that the Motorcycle Boy makes it his mission to “return” to the river—nobody even asks if they’re fresh- or saltwater fish, but that’s not the point, they need to be free, and the Motorcycle Boy needs to be a martyr for the sake of a metaphor.
The cinematography is of a piece with the skittery percussive score by Stewart Copeland, then the drummer of the Police. It’s a prophetic bit of work, with the musical component weaving in and out of the movie’s world and its sound effects. David Lynch pioneered this sort of thing with Eraserhead, but Coppola and Copeland bring this blending to bear on a more immediately accessible kind of narrative in a very stirring way.
The future in which Rumble Fish is set resides at least in part in its vision of tormented but fluid masculinity. For a couple of supposed tough guys, Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy are almost perversely lacking in machismo. They’re ideals of a sort; doomed as they may be, they represent potential alternatives to the toxic masculinity of a Sonny Corleone. A quarter century after Rumble Fish, following several more cycles of losing and finding, Coppola made Tetro (2009). This is a black-and-white film about two brothers, a self-written picture distilling much family lore but also trucking in masculine archetypes, ones that the film twists and turns and mutates into something that seems to mash up Tennessee Williams and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It is practically a sequel to and/or a remake of Rumble Fish, and it pushes the personal aspects of that story to a level that’s both baroque and microscopic.
Perhaps surprisingly for a nonqueer filmmaker, Coppola in both of these films seems attuned to the specific longing inherent in queer cinematic iconography. It is the longing of the outsider, the longing that keeps its secrets while knowing no boundaries. It is embodied by Alden Ehrenreich in Tetro and by Dillon in Rumble Fish. (And there are shadows of it in the romantic obsessiveness of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” from1992, and 2007’s Youth Without Youth.) Rumble Fish as a whole is suffused with that longing, and it goes in many directions. Rusty-James may not be the brightest fellow, but he has a desire that is very direct and possibly universal: “I just want you to see me, man,” he says through his pain. Coppola’s achievement is in seeing him, and seeing himself, and seeing us, all operating, or at least trying to, in the wasteland.