Drew McWeeny of HitFix is contributing a series of columns about the essential titles that any film fan ought to be familiar with, while I respond in kind. Links to your own blog posts on any of these films -- The Basics -- are not only welcomed, but encouraged.
You know, I didn't peg Drew for a David Arquette fan.
He had mentioned wanting to take our column in a new direction, away from your usual list-making classics, but I didn't want to seem rude by pointing out that 2000's Ready to Rumble wasn't exactly some hidden gem critical to my deeper understanding of Brian Robbins' filmography (Norbit, Wild Hogs).
Of course, by the time I saw his piece on Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, I had realized my error and okay, this joke's run its course.
It would seem that I'd attended the only public schools in this U.S. of A. that didn't require our English classes to read S.E. Hinton's classic, The Outsiders. Knowing the public schools I'd attended, though, if we had read the novel, then we would've in turn set aside class time to watch Coppola's 1983 film adaptation, almost as a reward. But we hadn't, so we didn't, leaving me to (eventually) greet with fresh eyes Coppola's other 1983 film adaptation of a Hinton work concerning troubled Tulsa teens.
If you believe the graffiti on the walls, the Motorcycle Boy reigns, but he's vanished two months ago and Rusty James (Matt Dillon) -- his younger brother and biggest fan -- thinks that any supposed truce he established between the local gangs is now null and void. Sure enough, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) arrives just in time to save Rusty from a rumble and lay out some facts: the Boy's no hero, and Rusty's no leader.
Coppola would come back to this turf with last year's Tetro, another tale of sibling strife strikingly shot in black-and-white with occasional flashes of color, but Rumble Fish is a more consistently surreal outing. When the Motorcycle Boy is revealed to be hard of hearing, the discord of Stewart Copeland's score makes a bit more sense (a score which reminded me a bit of Nathan Johnson's work on Brick, which similarly stylized the high school experience with a straight face). When we realize that the Motorcycle Boy's colorblind, the ramped-up visual style of Stephen Burum's cinematography -- the above-mentioned bursts of color at emotional peaks, combined with Coppola's overwhelming fondness for smoke, sweat and shadows everywhere -- feels a bit more apt.
We also discover that the Boy is a bit aloof, causing people to think he's crazy, and the film even faces a similar disconnect between its emotion and its imagination. Coppola can give Rusty James all the out-of-body experiences that he wants, but none would match the look on his face when his brother turns to him and says, "If you're gonna lead people, you have to have somewhere to go." Truth be told, I struggle to think of the last film I saw where the protagonist had to contend with his own existential uselessness and didn't find himself a new sense of purpose by the time the credits rolled. Usually, our hero rises to the occasion, even if he has to lose his way in the process; here, Rusty James can't save the day because he's not the man he thought his brother was, and because he's not the man his father (Dennis Hopper) used to be.
He's been abandoned by both at some point in his life, and he's starting to lose the respect of his diner-dwelling comrades and the girl of his dreams (Diane Lane). The best thing he can do is leave this world behind, as the Motorcycle Boy insists. It's not an act of cowardice so much as a means of saving Rusty James from himself and his local delusions of greaser grandeur. There's an all-American sense of tragedy inherent to that -- hope, too -- and even if I'm not sure that the full weight of it resonates with me amid the visual flair, I can safely say that I've never seen anything quite like it.
Until next time, the Motorcycle Boy reigns.