It’s not surprising that Rumble Fish was booed at its premiere during the 1983 New York Film Festival, but such a start can serve as a mark of distinction, placing a film in welcome company. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura was booed at its premiere at the more influential Cannes Film Festival over twenty years earlier. At the San Sebastian International Film Festival in 1984, Rumble Fish was redeemed by winning the Golden Shell award. By that time, however, the film had died a miserable death at the box office.
For the most part, critics panned Rumble Fish. The primary criticism of the film was that it focused too much on style, leaving the story obfuscated by liberal amounts of smoke and painted shadows. For example, Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times, said: “…the film is so furiously overloaded, so crammed with extravagant touches, that any hint of a central thread is obscured.”
The film later gained more admirers, not the least of which was the director himself, based on his commentary for the DVD release. Coppola envisioned Rumble Fish as an art film for teenagers to set it apart stylistically from The Outsiders, which he had completed filming just prior to Rumble Fish. Both were filmed on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma, featured many of the same actors, and were based on books by S.E. Hinton. At the time, Coppola was suffering from the failure of his own studio after the complete disaster of One from the Heart.
[Rumble Fish] is a deeply poetic and personal essay on adolescence and a sure sign that Coppola is seldom the man you want to hire for a mainstream, moneymaking project. (Thomson, p. 743)
Stephen Burum’s black-and-white cinematography is beautiful. Dean Tavoularis, his set design sprinkled with touches of expressionism that contrasted well with Coppola’s astute visual sense of realism, created a rich atmosphere that remains timeless. The moments when the design seems overbearing is where it too obviously reveals itself, such as a day scene when Rusty James visits his girlfriend Patty and the painted shadows on the front of the house from a prior night scene are still visible.
The story of Rumble Fish is simple. It’s about a man returning to his poverty-stricken neighborhood to rescue his younger brother from a life of gang fighting, but he gets killed in the process. It’s a story that resonates throughout history. The film evokes a reaction that might be less about the style than it is about the utter negation of meaning that the anti-hero portrays throughout the film, about which I’ll discuss more later.
The underlying theme, which is a bit overbearing, is the passing of time. While the time-lapse photography of clouds and night falling on the city make for excellent transition shots, the inclusion of clocks at every turn becomes almost ridiculous when Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy walk over to a truck loaded with a huge clock face and stand against it. And, just so you don’t miss the point, Benny (Tom Waits) muses about time while wiping the counter at his cafe, which is the local hangout.
Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. When you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there. It doesn’t matter. You know? The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got?” I got thirty-five summers left. Think about it. Thirty-five summers.
But these minor annoyances do not detract from an exquisite black-and-white film with an original, driving soundtrack composed by Stewart Copeland. It’s a well-balanced blend of differing, and even risky, elements at a time when the teen film was about to become a formulaic rehash of suburban kids suffering through embarrassing moments in their lives. The urban, gritty nature of Rumble Fish stands out among the teen films of the time.
“Furthermore, film historians acknowledge in retrospect Coppola’s artistic courage in making an unrelentingly pessimistic picture about modern youth, which transcends the simplistic presentation of youngsters in more innocuous, safe teen flicks.” (Phillips, p. 225)
Although the story is told from the point of view of Rusty James, the beginning of the film makes clear that the main character is the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Two images in the opening seconds of the film show graffiti which declares, “The Motorcycle Boys Reigns.” It’s important to note that the signs say “reigns” instead of a more colloquial “rules,” which would be the language that Rusty James would use. The Motorcycle Boy, as the anti-hero, is a Socratic figure who has returned to the place where he has been charged with corrupting the youth by the one figure of authority in the film, Officer Patterson (William Smith).
Although the Motorcycle Boy holds a near mythic status among his admirers in the lower-class neighborhood where he grew up, he tells Rusty James that he’d prefer to remain a neighborhood novelty. He makes it clear that he did not return to bring back gangs and rumbles. When Rusty James pushes his brother about how he could lead people anywhere, the Motorcycle Boy says, “If you’re going to lead people, you need to have somewhere to go.”
Why, then, did the Motorcycle Boy return? The Motorcycle Boy, as a Socratic character and a corrupter of youth, returns to face his destiny: death. Perhaps he knows he is dying and chooses his own way out. Regardless of how or why he dies, it allows his younger brother a chance to escape and to get a better shot at life. This is where the creeping sensation of nihilism enters the film. While there are plenty of suggestions that the Motorcycle Boy might be crazy, others who are closest to him suggest that he sees the world differently, both in a literal sense (being color blind) and figuratively (a prince in exile, being born in the wrong era). Even his former girlfriend (Dianna Scarwid) says about him, “I thought he was gone for good. I was wrong. But I was right.”
The Motorcycle Boy tells Rusty James that he stopped being a kid when he was five years old. He grew up in a broken world in which he had to fight for survival and meaning. Once he gets outside that world, he realizes all the meaning and esteem he held from his leadership in the gangs amounts to nothing. He couldn’t escape it, so he had to come back to make sure all traces of his former glory were erased.
While in California during his two month absence, the Motorcycle Boy experienced a profound change. Seeing the mother who had abandoned them fifteen years earlier may have been the moment he knew there was only one way to save his brother. When he finally tells Rusty James about seeing their mother, Rusty James is angry at him for waiting so long. The Motorcycle Boy finishes the story of how their mother left and took him with her, causing their father to get drunk and leave Rusty James alone for three days (which is the basis for his fear of being alone). When Rusty James asks why he didn’t tell him that before, the Motorcycle Boy says that he didn’t think it would do him any good. He knows Rusty James doesn’t learn through stories.
Rusty James steers the conversation back to California, asking his brother what it was like. He replies, “California’s like a beautiful, wild girl on heroin … who’s high as a kite, thinking she’s on top of the world, not knowing she’s dying even if you show her the marks.”
The Motorcycle Boy knows that at the rate Rusty James is getting into fights, he will end up like the girl on heroin. He fears that Rusty James still identifies with his former self. While Rusty James wants them to get the gangs going again so they can rule their side of the river, the Motorcycle Boy has no such plans. Whatever is happening in the Motorcycle Boy’s head, his younger brother has no clue. As Steve says about the Motorcycle Boy, “I never know what he’s thinking, but you, Rusty James, I always know what you’re thinking.”
Near the end of the film, their father (Dennis Hopper) says of the Motorcycle Boy: “He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to be able to do anything he wants and finding nothing that he wants to do. I mean nothing.” Similarly, in a scene at a pool hall, Steve wonders aloud if there is anything the Motorcycle Boy can’t do. He seems to be gifted at everything he does but finds no pleasure in doing anything.
“One of the two core symptoms of human depression is anhedonia, the loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities. Daily stressful life events are recognized as predisposing factors in the etiology of depression.” [Source: http://biopsychiatry.com/anhedonia.html%5D
While explaining his past to a bruised and beaten Rusty James and a frustrated Steve, the Motorcycle Boy says that he eventually found rumbles to be a big bore. In addition to the Motorcycle Boy’s hardness of hearing and color blindness, he might equally suffer from anhedonia. This lack of ability to experience pleasure is referenced obliquely when Rusty James asks his brother how the ocean was. The Motorcycle Boy tells him that he never made it to the ocean because California got in the way. Likewise, he can’t find pleasure in life because it, too, gets in the way.
Later, right before the Motorcycle Boy and Rusty James take a ride on a motorcycle that the Motorcycle Boy steals (one of his bad habits), Rusty James says, “I feel like I’m wasting my life, waiting for something. I wish I had a reason to leave.” Throughout the film, his older brother has been subtly trying to give him reasons. For example, in a scene when the Motorcycle Boy, Rusty James, and Steve are walking across a bridge, they stop to look at the river. Rusty James comments on how his brother likes the river but then turns his back to it while drinking from a bottle. The Motorcycle Boys says the river goes all the way to the ocean. Rusty James then makes Steve take a drink from his bottle. Steve doesn’t like it but Rusty James tells him it will get you where you need to go.
Rusty James spends a good portion of the film talking about how he thinks he will be just like his older brother. Even their own father, upon hearing Rusty James declare that he thinks he will be just like the Motorcycle Boy, says, “You should pray to God not.” The Motorcycle Boy knows that the only way for him to break the spell he has over his younger brother is through death. Rusty James sees himself as a reflection of his brother. At the pet store, the Motorcycle Boy shows Rusty James how rumble fish will try to fight their own reflection. Later, when they return to the pet store to steal the fish, the Motorcycle Boy finally says to Rusty James, “I wish I were the big brother you always wanted. But I can’t be what I want any more than you can.” He finally breaks the reflection that Rusty James has been seeing.
The Motorcycle Boy is convinced that the fish wouldn’t fight if they were free to swim in the river. He feels the same about his brother, that he wouldn’t fight if he were free of his confining environment. At the same time, he also knows that Rusty James needs to be free from himself, the idolized Motorcycle Boy, the reflection that he fights to maintain.
In an excerpt from one of the deleted scenes on the DVD, Steve tells Rusty James that if he hangs out with the Motorcycle Boy for too long, he won’t believe in anything. The Motorcycle Boy spends the entirety of the film destroying all meaning he had previously created and his life ends up no more valued than the life of the fish he tried to take to the river. Mickey Rourke approached the character of the Motorcycle Boy as “an actor who no longer finds his work interesting.” (Goodwin, p. 347)
At the end, when Rusty James sees his own reflection in the police car window, he smashes it, finally breaking himself free. It’s a painful and sad moment of release. Now that he no longer has his brother to look up to, he must find his own way. It ties back to the beginning of the film when Midget (Laurence Fishburne) tells Rusty James that Biff Wilcox is looking for him. Rusty James says he’s not hiding. He then tells him that Biff wants to kill him. Rusty James replies, “Saying ain’t doing.” Rusty James had been hiding behind his brother’s reputation the whole time, saying that it didn’t matter. Now he must face the reality of it.
The final song that plays over the end credits further reinforces the notion of breaking free from confinement. The song is titled “Don’t Box Me In.” In the case of the Motorcycle Boy, Rumble Fish explores what happens when we reject all the boxes we have previously been in. Will it free us from having to accept predicted ways of behavior or will it lead to our untimely demise? What happens when we feel we have nowhere to go? Even in the end of the film, everyone inadvertently follows the Motorcycle Boy down to the river, leaving them all with nowhere else to go.
Rumble Fish is the strongest evidence yet that Coppola is a challenge to the system. (…) The system produces films that do not require abstract or symbolic thinking. Rumble Fish is a demanding film for people with expectations conditioned by standard Hollywood product. (Chown, p. 168)
- “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, David Thomson, Knopf, 2010
- Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola, Jeffrey Chown, Praeger Publishers, 1988
- On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola, Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, William Morrow & Co, 1989
- Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, Gene D. Phillips, The University Press of Kentucky, 2004