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  • Writer's pictureJake Sanders

Living on Tulsa Time: Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish

In 1982, while reeling from the commercial failure of his phantasmagoric musical One from the Heart, Francis Ford Coppola received a letter. It was written by a middle-school teacher and attached to fifteen pages of children’s signatures. The note read: “We are all so impressed with the book, The Outsiders by SE Hinton, that a petition has been circulated asking that it be made into a movie. We have chosen you to send it to”. Coppola was touched. He had taught drama as a camp counselor in his younger days and felt like once again working with a cast of kids might be a restorative experience after his recent troubles. He subsequently set to work adapting Hinton’s proto-YA novel about a gang of working-class Greasers and their preppy rivals The Socs. During the production of The Outsiders, Coppola and Hinton used their downtime to start developing a film adaptation of another of her works, the 1975 novel Rumble Fish.

The Outsiders is best remembered for uniting many young actors who would go on to have enormous success in Hollywood. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and C. Thomas Howell play brothers alongside Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, and Emilio Estevez. Matt Dillon and Diane Lane star in supporting roles, and would be bumped up to greater prominence in Rumble Fish. The Outsiders has its charms, but it's too maudlin to be fully successful. Rumble Fish, however, takes many of the same ideas and pushes them into more interesting territory, while also prefiguring the stylistic experiments of Coppola’s later work.

Dillon plays Rusty James, a dopy delinquent desperate to achieve the legendary status of his older brother: 'The Motorcycle Boy' (Mickey Rourke). The two have been raised by their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper), whose affection for classical references he shares with Rourke’s philosophising hoodlum. After his brother returns from an odyssey to California, Rusty James wrestles with his inadequacies as he tries to prove himself a worthy leader of his crew.

Dillon, still a teenager during production, delivers a remarkable performance, and more than holds his own in a picture that puts him alongside not only Rourke and Hopper, but Nic Cage, Tom Waits, Lawrence Fishburne, and Chris Penn. Rusty James is a strangely endearing creation. On the one hand, he's a violent moron who cheats on his kind-hearted girlfriend (Lane). On the other, he's a lost kid who worships his brother as much as he’s desperate to prove himself in his own right. Dillon brings an affected machismo that's undercut with moments of heartbreaking vulnerability. Jug-eared and perpetually sleeveless, Rusty James is an instantly iconic himbo bad boy.

Coppola connected to the story of fraternal insecurity on account of his own relationship with his older brother - a respected academic to whom the film is dedicated. Rourke’s character embodies the inscrutability of adulthood for teenagers, filled with mysteries that elide largely disappointing truths. At one point, Vincent Spano’s nebbish young scribe remarks to Rusty James: “he looks really old, like twenty-five or something”. Color-blind and partially deaf, The Motorcycle Boy sees Rourke go full Brando mode, rarely raising his voice above a whisper and speaking in cryptic pronouncements that at times recall Michael Cera’s Twin Peaks cameo.

Despite their differences, there’s a real tenderness between the brothers. While their conversations are intellectually unbalanced (as Cage’s Smokey tells Rusty James, “you ain’t got your brother’s brains”), there’s something touching in how they engage one another. At one point, Rusty James rides pillion with The Motorcycle Boy, alternately screaming in terror and delight, burying his face in his brother's shoulder for comfort. While Rusty James recovers from a fight in an alleyway, his brother cradles his body in his lap, which Coppola and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum frame as a kind of gang-land Pietà.

This is by no means the only classical allusion in Rumble Fish. The film is filled with imagery and dialogue that transforms the milieu of petty criminality into something epic. When The Motorcycle Boy finds the gangs once again at war he remarks “Another glorious battle for the kingdom?”. In the same fight, Rusty James suffers a wound to his side, which is later sterilised with a splash of bourbon. Rusty James is throughout treated as an unlikely Christ figure: at one point he even appears to die, only to be resurrected. Coppola packs the films with mythic tropes: a returning king, his quest to a distant land, battles, betrayals, fathers and brothers. This contributes to the film’s feeling of temporal dislocation. When exactly does Rumble Fish take place? The setting is seemingly then-contemporary Tulsa, but the monochrome cinematography, fifties patina, and historically-influenced costuming contribute to an eerie sense of unreality.

The costume design by Marjorie Bowers is certainly distinctive, mixing biker-boy aesthetics with Greco-Roman details like Rusty James’s leather vambrace, and The Motorcycle Boy’s knitted v-neck that falls like a tunic. Although Coppola is not a queer filmmaker, the connection between these stylistic influences and gay culture adds an intriguing suggestive element to Rumble Fish. Regardless of Coppola’s personal orientation, there’s a fetishistic quality to Rumble Fish and a persistent fascination with young bodies, particularly male ones. The frequent shots of wayward kids in varying states of undress in Rumble Fish often bring to mind the photography of Larry Clark.

Clark, who was born in Tulsa in 1943, explored the city’s underbelly in a series of devastating photographs of the city’s youth. Simply titled ‘Tulsa’, his collection of black and white portraits was taken during the throes of Clark’s own drug dependence, and provides a stark, visceral account of adolescent self-destruction. Often photographed half-naked and posing with guns, Clark's subjects embody a distinctly American cocktail of teenage unrest and self-directed annihilation. Nothing in Coppola’s own Tulsa story is as startling as what Clark documented, but there remains a similar bleak glamour to both works, particularly in their focus on addiction.

From Larry Clark's Tulsa (1971)

Early in the film, Rusty James speaks wistfully of a time “before the dope ruined everything”, while at home his father’s daily routine consists of drinking himself into a stupor. Rusty James’ gash to his side is delivered by a rival gang leader on amphetamines, whose speed habit he views with disgust - as he does Cassandra (Diana Scarwid), a breathy, Blanche DuBois-esque heroin user vying for his brother’s affections. For all the classical grandeur, there’s a haunted, decaying feeling to Coppola’s Tulsa, one that seems to have been exacerbated by the city’s substance abuse.

Coppola emphasises the feeling of acceleration through time-lapse footage of clouds in the film’s opening and fills the film with images of clocks and timepieces. There’s a sense the characters are racing towards something, but exactly what is hard to say. The Motorcycle Boy’s attempt to flee the purgatorial zone of Tulsa only brings him full circle and his description of California suggests the fatalistic mood is inescapable: “California's like a... beautiful, wild girl on heroin... who's high as a kite, thinkin' she's on top of the world, not knowing she's dying even if you show her the marks”. His final, doomed undertaking - the freeing of the Siamese fighting fish in the river is an attempt to take control of his fate, one that reads as a suicide mission more than anything.

At the end of the film, Rusty James takes on the mantle of The Motorcycle Boy, finally reaching the ocean on his brother’s bike. It's bittersweet, however, and there remains a sense that Rusty James is slipping into a role predetermined by his family rather than exhibiting any real autonomy. This feeling of familial destiny recalls Michael’s arc in The Godfather while looking ahead to the complex genealogical dynamics of Tetro.

Tetro is a film that is as much a companion piece with Rumble Fish as The Outsiders. The 2009 film stars Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich (whatever happened to this promising young actor?) as brothers wrestling with a difficult paternal legacy. Beyond its themes of brotherhood and generational predetermination, the stunning black-and-white photography (this time by Mihai Mălaimare Jr.) creates an immediate stylistic connection between the two films.

Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich in Tetro (2009)

In Rumble Fish, Coppola, Burum, and productions designer Dean Tavoularis crib from both film noir, and its German Expressionist progenitors. The world of Rumble Fish is filled with a heady mix of chiaroscuro and smoke and in a Murnau-esque touch, many of the shadows are painted directly onto the walls. This again elevates Rumble Fish from a straightforward street-level tale into a work of imposing gothic spectacle. Coppola’s interest in classical effects and production design would be pushed to even greater lengths in Dracula.

“Don’t Box Me In”, an original track by Stan Ridgway and The Police drummer Stewart Copeland, plays over the end credits of Rumble Fish. While the relationship between the song and the film is obvious from the title alone, it could equally read as a comment on Coppola’s own career, which has always resisted easy categorization. The fact Rumble Fish is essentially a funhouse mirror reflection of The Outsiders, which took its aesthetic cues from Gone With the Wind, is just one example of his refusal to be confined to a single stylistic approach. Coppola’s desire to continually drive ahead with wild experiments despite the failure of One From the Heart is what marks him as a true innovator, and such a rare talent. Rumble Fish might not be viewed on the same level as The Godfather, but there is no minor Coppola.


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