Sunday 5 August 2007

Rumble Fish (1983) Francis Ford Coppola

The motorcycle boy reigns, or so the graffiti says all over town. His brother Rusty James is playing pool in Benny's Billards when in comes and tells him that Biff Wilcox wants to kill him. To his friends Rusty James is obviously seen as a tough guy, swaggering around in a headband and a sleeveless white vest, chewing gum and being called by both his names. To me he looks more like the sort of kid that dominates everything until he meets someone who's really tough, at which point he's never heard of again. What a surprise when that's exactly what happens! He looks like he should be in Staying Alive but he's in black and white and the language is certainly nothing that you'd see under the Code. The only thing in colour are the rumble fish of the title, Siamese fighting fish.

There are names everywhere in Rumble Fish. Rusty James is Matt Dillon, and his buddies are played by Chris Penn and Nicolas Cage, who is so young here he hasn't even learned how to act badly yet. His delectable girlfriend Patty is Diane Lane, who is a decent actress who sounded artificial here. Her sister is Sofia Coppola, the director's daughter who went on to become an award winning director herself, though her Oscar was for writing Lost in Translation rather than directing it. The Benny of Benny's Billiards is Tom Waits with his unforgettable voice. The cop is William Smith, legendary B movie villain. There's even Bela Lugosi on the TV.

The semi-mysterious motorcycle boy is no less than Mickey Rourke, in only his sixth film, a year after Diner, and he provides by far the best acting from any of the young actors in this film. He's apparently half deaf, colour blind and amazingly old at 21 to just about everyone else in the story. He really was notably older than the rest of the main cast: he was 27 when he made Rumble Fish, compared to 19 for Dillon and Cage or 18 for Lane and Penn. The biggest name at the time was their alcoholic father, played by Dennis Hopper, who reminds very much here of a shorter Harry Dean Stanton, strangely because he's really an inch taller.

This film is something entirely new for me. Everyone and their dog in the States, it seems, has read every novel that S E Hinton wrote, especially Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, but growing up in England around books, the name never came up. They obviously had quite an effect on Francis Ford Coppola, who directed both novels in the same year and cast her in bit parts in both. She's a hooker in this one. Now I might just see why these stories are important to the American psyche.

Rusty James is almost the exact sort of juvenile delinquent your parents don't want you hanging round with. He doesn't do drugs but he does everything else. He breaks into buildings to party, he cheats on his girlfriend any chance he can get and doesn't understand why she gets upset, he insults everyone and goes ballistic the moment anything doesn't go his way. In other words he's a dumb little kid who doesn't understand what freedom means. Leonard Cohen described the United States as the cradle of the best and the worst.

Everything I see backs that up. Whether you end up as the best or the worst depends on the choices you make and the system doesn't really seem to care which. It just gives you the right to choose and people get to write books and direct movies about the people who make the wrong choice. I see a lot of kids in the States, both old and young, who are walking the same road as Rusty James, thinking they're cool when they're just idiots, either unaware that they've made the wrong choices or unwilling to live with the life that goes along with them.

We have idiots in England too, but not particularly like this particularly American breed. The system there isn't perfect by any means but it doesn't follow this route. Whether a school is good or bad, it works to ensure that everyone reaches a particular level rather than just giving them the option of whether they learn or not. I grew up, and parts of that took a lot longer than others, but I never had to take one of these American rites of passage to get there. I therefore see stories like this one, and Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club as completely redundant.

I enjoyed the art house cinematography of Stephen H Burum and, I'm sure, Francis Ford Coppola. I got to see this on a fullscreen VHS release, so I'm sure I missed a lot of the composition but enough survived for me to see it as notable. The perspectives were great, the passage of time was fun and the black and white contrasts were excellent. I enjoyed the acting, even that of Nicolas Cage which has to be a first for me. Dillon is exactly what he should be for the part, as it's only the character that's worthless, and Rourke and Waits and Hopper are fine.

I can't say I enjoyed the film though. It just seemed stupid to me. To my mind, Rusty James deserves everything he gets here. He's a complete moron, something that should be blatantly obvious to everyone who knows him and anyone who misses that is a complete moron themselves. It's an art house movie for 12 year olds.

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