Rumble Fish ★★★★

I first watched this months and months ago, then re-purchased it when an edition with special features became reasonably priced, and decided this time I’d watch it when I wasn’t in prime danger of falling fast asleep due to exhaustion. I found the whole thing very interesting stylistically but simply could not find the energy, the first time, to sit through it–or anything–and stay awake.

Unsurprisingly as it, too, is based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, Rumble Fish was directed by Francis Ford Coppola almost immediately after he did The Outsiders using even shared cast members. Beyond that, though, it bears almost no resemblance to that film, which has engendered a strong teenage cult following. Rumble Fish is, instead, an arthouse movie in every sense–I was pleased to note other sources mentioned connections to German expressionism and French new wave–being filmed on high-contrast black and white with dashes of colour–very rare ones–and using an extremely unusual, rhythm-based score by Police percussionist Stewart Copeland, and unusual angles and sets to boot (furthering the two connections I previously referred to). Rusty James (Matt Dillon, fresh from The Outsiders) is a high school delinquent trying to live up to the massive image of his older brother, “The Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke) who has not been seen for quite some time. He begins by getting in a fight–one he is informed of by Midget (good ol’ Larry Fishburne*)–with one Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow, also coming from The Outsiders), where he recruits his friends (including director’s nephew Nicolas “Cage” Coppola and Chris Penn) and “half the town” to join him. We immediately know something of his character when he goes instead to see Patty (Diane Lane…guess what she did last?), whose little sister (played by “Domino,” the old screen name of Sofia Coppola, who manages better here than later when she blows a gaping hole of terrible acting into Coppola’s third Godfather flick) tries to interfere. He finally makes it to the fight, which takes place to the most pounding part of Copeland’s score in a lightning-flashing train station with rotating shots and a mass of confusion and violence that is interrupted by the sudden reappearance of the Motorcycle Boy.

A strange and possibly confusing film, the central concepts are not easy to penetrate because we are seeing the film through the Motorcycle Boy’s colourblind eyes, but we are following the steps of Rusty James, and this conflict of understood reality from Rourke’s character and mistaken reality from Dillon’s can blind the viewer to the nature of the world we are seeing, which is nothing like Rusty James remembers, even though much of the film has everyone encouraging, supporting, or at least not disagreeing with his impression of it. As it happens, Rusty is unaware of the fact that his brother is not his eventual future, but in fact a misguided soul who has the skill to do almost anything, but has nothing that he wants to do–nothing to really aspire to, which the Motorcycle Boy can see, but Rusty cannot. He is not as clever or well-thought as his brother, gliding recklessly into and out of relationships and situations–be it a fight or a terrible relationship with Patty.

The style of this film is definitely nothing you can simply ignore, but at the same time feels exactly right. While I’ve always understood the new wave of French cinema–of which I’ve seen no films, it should be noted–to have a strong focus on scenes where “nothing happens” visibly, long, lingering shots and an air of pretension that ruins any sense of disbelief, I’m inclined to believe that it is more like what is visible here instead–a pacing that matches the action taking place, even if that action is no action, with the truth of the situation being the effect of what’s occurring on the character we’re following, in this case Rusty, and that effect may be slow to grow on him, and it will take us just as long to see and experience it. And the black and white choice seems absolutely correct; there is no impression that it was chosen for no reason, or that the film as it appears is not served by this choice, it most certainly is, and other than the obvious connection to the Motorcycle Boy’s own impaired view, it feels exactly right to portray the world and way things are–I felt no particular desire to see the “actual” appearance of things (ie, in colour) because it didn’t seem necessary or appropriate for it to be there.

Copeland’s score has been called both dated and irritating, but it’s nothing of the sort–though I can see how others might feel that way. It’s unusual, it’s got a stronger emphasis on the percussion than most scores, but this seems to make sense in light of Copeland’s background, including a renown for polyrhythms and the like. It fits the mood and visuals without exception–not a surprise, I suppose, since he used a device to do this which was new at the time called a “MuSync”–and complement or enhance them much of the time.

This is definitely an arthouse film in that pretentious sense, but it doesn’t have an overbearing, condescending or alienating pretentious sense, and is quite worth seeing, but an open mind or an understanding of its approach are, I think, very necessary to said viewing.

Oh, and lest I forget: Tom Waits plays Benny, who runs the billiard hall/diner that much of the action takes place in. He has an interestingly subdued, caricaturization in his performance, seemingly pulled back from the action and almost mumbling (albeit clearly and audibly) as if he is the voice of adulthood that is completely unheard by our protagonist–quite appropriately. He does have the most repulsive habit–accentuated by the foley artist, I’m convinced–in the world, though–chewing gum, and doing it loudly. This sets my teeth on edge, but seems appropriate to the character all the same.

*Sorry, he IS still crediting himself as that at this time, and I think it’s funny regardless and always call him that.