The Weird Wonderful Look of Rumble Fish

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I’m saving up all my big talking for the piece I’m working on about Mickey Rourke right now, but I saw Rumble Fish in high school (it was the big Matt Dillon – S.E. Hinton collaboration that swept the nation, or at least the early teen female set) and fell in love with it. Rumble Fish is a weird movie and I only realize that now that I have seen it as an adult. It is truly bizarre. There is not a camera angle that Francis Ford Coppola does not enjoy, whether it is appropriate or not. It is the simplest of stories, yet the method of storytelling is overly complex and intricate, as though we are watching some abstract intellectual French drama or highly wrought German melodrama.

The film is told with high-angle shots and deep creepy closeups – not to mention the fact that it is in black and white – except for the red and blue fish floating in their tank. The performances are over the top, all operatic and palpitating with tortured-young-man energy (S.E. Hinton’s glorious stock-in-trade) – and there are times when it either looks like a noir, with shadows thrown so long they take up entire blocks, or early Sidney Lumet movies, with the jangly jazz music and busy chaotic street scenes.

Some of it, with its deeply-inward-looking urban angst and repetitive images of bars (on gates, fire escapes, grates on shop doors), reminds me of The Pawnbroker. It’s all rather ridiculous. The soundtrack is insistent, bossy, and omnipresent. BUSY. This movie is BUSY.

But when I was a young girl, my heart throbbed to it. The lonely dumb kid, who could be a wonderful person if he was just given the chance … the loyal yet fiery young teen who is his girlfriend … and then, of course, the mythological Motorcycle Boy, who haunts the town. He haunts everyone even when he is right there in front of them, because he reminds them of who they are not, he reminds them of their best dreams for themselves, and also their worst fears. He dominated when he was absent, and graffitti declaring that he “reigns” has covered the walls of the city. He dominates now that he has returned, even though he seems to have lost interest in domination altogether.

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In many ways, this is THE MOST RIDICULOUS of movies. I guess I love it for that reason. I love the big gesture of it. I love the balls. To make a teen-rumble drama look like a pretentious art-house film. And to have it, strangely, WORK. All I know is it worked for me as a teenager, and even though now I think, “Holy crap, how on earth did they let him get away with this??” it still works.

Everyone in the film is chewing up the scenery, playing their parts to the hilt: Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Spano, Chris Penn … they stand around in empty landscapes, with the clouds rushing by overhead speeded-up, they sit at counters that look like something out of a 1950s cautionary tale about rebel youths – but in one shot, Dillon and Rourke walk past a movie theatre and Debbie Does Dallas is playing. These boys live in a world that pre-dates the 1960s and the social and cultural upheaval. They are macho, isolated, sensitive and restless.

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I saw the entire thing as totally realistic when I first saw it in the movie theatre as a 13 year old girl, or however old I was – it just seemed REAL to me. And so I believe Francis Ford Coppola was really onto something with this film, something I wish he had explored more, in other films. Perhaps because I was the kind of teenager who lived almost in a dreamworld, where things were fiery and important and “crucial” and life-or-death. I wouldn’t have recognized melodrama if you blasted it in my face at point-blank range. Melodrama was just life, man.

Now I see Rumble Fish as high camp. I am more struck by the look of it, the in-your-face camera angles and mood – which somehow highlight, in a strange and abstract way, the quietly intense Method-actor performances going on.

Joe Valdez at at This Distracted Globe has more.

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10 Responses to The Weird Wonderful Look of Rumble Fish

  1. jean says:

    That close up of Matt Dillon’s face!!! I mean, really, have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

  2. rossi says:

    oh red
    i must say rumble fish
    rocked my world
    it was so ahead of its time
    and micky rourke
    was so amazing
    in the days before he lost his face
    here’s hoping his comeback
    and new face holds

    not since deborah harry
    has the world watched a person
    so on top of this game
    throw it away
    so willingly

    few have the talent of micky
    few as self destructive

    i am curious to see his new movie
    but i do miss his forever gone
    face

  3. Catherine says:

    I wanna see this soooo badly!

  4. Hi Sheila. I don’t have this on DVD but do you mind if I steal one of these screengrabs for a future banner? I have so many backlogged it would probably be a while before it shows up but I wanted to be courteous and ask first.

  5. red says:

    Go for it!! I love your banners!

  6. speak says:

    Wow, someone else who feels how I do about Rumble Fish! Keep up the great writing, I read you all the time!

  7. Mitch Berg says:

    This movie caught me just at the time when my sense of adolescent self-dramatization intersected with my small-town chip on my shoulder. I identified with movie on a visceral level that (like most everything that happened to be back then) would embarass me if I let it.

    But years after the fact – a year or so ago – I saw the movie again,with all of that baggage locked out of the room -and I loved it.

    Great piece!

  8. red says:

    Mitch – yes, it’s amazing how it still works, right?? Some of those movies that really speak to us when we were young or at a certain point end up looking silly when we are grown-up – but this one doesn’t. I think part of it is because of Coppola’s crazy busy style – it IS an art-house film … so something about it transcends.

    He says it is his favorite of all of his films.

  9. 2008 Books Read

    … in the order in which I finished them, understanding that very often I read many books at the same time. I count re-read books, by the way. I’ll include links to any posts or book excerpts I might have…