R for lots of language, violence, sexuality, drug / alcohol abuse, and nudity. This is another one of those stories that is just about the world of outlaws and vice. Unlike The Outsiders, the movie has a less kid-friendly appeal. That means that we get to see the creepier version of the stuff that we saw there. It's far more bleak, while oddly kind of glorifying of the lifestyle. (The same thing happened with Fight Club, if that helps you understand what I'm talking about.) A well-deserved R.
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
I keep watching these Facebook videos of a BBC show called "Unpopular Opinion." Here is my unpopular opinion: I don't get what people see in The Outsiders. "But aren't you an English teacher?" Totally. But that doesn't mean that I have to love every book that ever existed. The Outsiders never appealed to me at all. There are elements of the book that I get and are pretty good. But on the whole, I never really liked it. It's not the rebel element of the book. After all, I really like Rebel without a Cause. But there's something about Rebel without a Cause that isn't in The Outsiders, or by the transitive property, Rumble Fish. It is the element of wanting to be out of that life.
I'm going to be making a lot of comparisons to The Outsiders because of S.E. Hinton, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, and Francis Ford Coppola. It's the elephant in the room, so I'm just going to come out with it. This is borderline a sequel. Coppola immediately finished The Outsiders and went right into this movie. And that's going to come into play when talking about Rumble Fish. Both stories are about the embrace of vice. I know that Hinton has messages of the toxicity of crime with these stories. After all, these characters have absolutely terrible lives. They are surrounded by crime and vice on all sides. Everyone seems pretty darned miserable. But the thing about Hinton's stories is that they are kind of sexy, in the same way that the artist tortures himself for something greater. In the MPAA section, I made the comparison to Fight Club. I don't hold any disparaging thoughts on Fincher's effectiveness in that movie. But I know that he and Pahalniuk always commented that people just didn't get the message that anarchy was an empty promise. Too bad both of them made anarchy sexy as heck. The same thing in true with The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.
But Rebel without a Cause is about the desperation to redefine oneself. Jim in Rebel moves from place-to-place, desperately trying to reach that state of tabula rasa. It is the world around him that keeps throwing him back into that world. But Rusty-James (by the way, if you tried playing a drinking game and you had to sip every time the name Rusty-James came up, you would die) embraces this horrible world. He goes out of his way to make his life more and more toxic. If you really wanted to argue against my point that Jim is someone sympathetic while Rumble Fish has no one, you could use The Motorcycle Boy as your evidence. But The Motorcycle Boy is so aloof and emotionally distant in this movie that it is hard to say that he is really fighting for anyone's freedom, despite the fact that it is technically the point of the movie. But it is really hard to feel sorry for Rusty-James because he is given multiple opportunities to do the right thing, but he never EVER takes it. I mean, he goes as far as to have an orgy. That doesn't really make for a sympathetic character.
And yet, Rusty-James is supposed to be sympathetic. His flaw is that he is always in the shadow of his brother, who is wise enough to know that this lifestyle isn't really worth it. There's a weird irony with the whole Motorcycle Boy dynamic. Rusty-James oh-so-desperately wants to be the Motorcycle Boy. Okay, that makes sense. But The Motorcycle Boy looks on his own life with scorn. He's distant because all of this seems toxic or boring. (I'm not quite sure because Mickey Rourke's portrayal of this character --as much as I love the actor --is enigmatic as get out.) But there's this whole tree of how different characters view success in the world. Dad sees no one as successful. He's a loser and everyone around him is a loser. Rusty-James views The Motorcycle Boy as the most successful person imaginable, mostly because of his brains and his status. The Motorcycle Boy --and this is me taking a shot in the dark --views his mother as successful because she got out...
...but the Motorcycle Boy got out. He went to California. He found his mom. (Unless none of that is true which is a possibility based on the performance.) But he left to return to his throne and to take care of Rusty-James. That's the thing that I don't get. I get the vibe that The Motorcycle Boy loves his little brother and knows that he needs to take care of him. After all, Rusty-James is almost killed a few times in the movie. But I never got the vibe that he came back for the Motorcycle Boy. It really feels more like The Motorcycle Boy can't fit in normal society. He would rather be the king of the slums than simply a citizen in normal society. But that is in direct conflict with the end of the movie.
The Motorcycle Boy intentionally gets himself killed to force Rusty-James out of this lifestyle. Again, the end is a bit cryptic. You could argue that Rusty-James becomes the new Motorcycle Boy, but I don't like that as a conclusion as much as Rusty-James being free from the life. The Motorcycle Boy left California because he didn't fit in there. (I really don't read the story as the Motorcycle Boy returning for Rusty-James simply because he is so darned enigmatic and deified in the story.) Won't the same cycle happen to Rusty-James? I mean, we see him at the ocean, implying that he went to California. But The Motorcycle Boy is educated and can fit in with society. Rusty-James despises the idea of society. He's thrown out of school. He's distracted and is frustrated with his own intellect. If The Motorcycle Boy couldn't make it in California, what makes us think that Rusty-James would have greater success with The Motorcycle Boy's mantle?
I want to love the colored fish. I do. But the use of color, as much as I love the idea of it being a metaphor for seeing things differently, feels like Francis Ford Coppola is just getting in his own way again. Coppola is a talented director who believes everything that I believe about art. He believes in pushing himself and taking chances. But he also is so desperate to get out of his own shadow that it comes across as childish at time. There's a lot of shots in this movie where he's trying to be avant-garde, but it comes across as an art school student at times. I wonder if Coppola is depressed about the fading memories of American Zoetrope. I feel anything that isn't The Godfather is an attempt to recapture the glory days of his filmmaking youth. The aesthetics aren't really appealing in Rumble Fish as much as they are surreal. The entire movie has a hard time being vulnerable. Instead, it hides behind nostalgia filmmaking (despite the fact that Rumble Fish claims to be set in the present day). There's a lot that doesn't appeal to me here.
I wish I liked this kind of stuff. It's just that nothing here really screams clean to me. It feels like when I watch THX-1138. It is a cool experimental piece, but doesn't really hit the buttons it needs to, especially considering that Coppola is an established director by this point. I wish he would grow, not regress with his filmmaking.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.