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Article – “Rumble Fish” (1983) Revisited…

 

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Posted August 12, 2018 by

 
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“Rumble Fish” (1983) Revisited…

They are swimming in a tank, a sliver of wispy colours in the murky water. They don’t swim around in circles quite like ordinary goldfish, but that would be a metaphor of the kind which is so obvious it would be blinding. The rumble fish are prey to destiny, but it’s not a sentence which exists in the lack of processed memory. Instead the rumble fish are always a moment away from self-sabotage. If they see their own reflection, they will attack it and die in the struggle.

Then there is Rusty James (Matt Dillon), strutting around the streets of Oklahoma. Rusty hangs out at the pool hall with his buddies waiting for a fight. Maybe the next scrap will be the one which finalises his dreams of street domination. But there are no gangs anymore and what’s a guy to do. It is a strange piece of commentary that shows how turmoil festers in a young man’s mind not in the face of violence and hostility but through the lack of it. His friends are reluctant to tag along to the next futile skirmish. But Rusty has learned to talk his way through anything, using body language and his tough exterior as much as words.

Rumblefish revisited

For Rusty the beginning and end of his own personality is his brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who disappeared to California and the coastal breeze. The Motorcycle Boy was once feared and respected around Oklahoma and now Rusty wants people to revere him just as much. When Rusty finally gets the fight he desperately desires, he needs rescuing from his brother who returns to the city when everyone least expects it. Later, he tells Rusty that warring is not the way to progress in life and a man must forge his own way. ‘If you’re going to lead people you have to have somewhere to go’. They return home to their father (Dennis Hopper), a sweaty mess who spouts philosophy which Rusty can’t understand. Even at home, Rusty feels like a boy with no outlet for his big ego. He constantly searches for answers from his brother but he only receives incoherent responses. Mickey Rourke plays the Motorcycle Boy like a zombie; he speaks in a meditative dirge, mumbling intermittently, resigned to his fate. Some members of the film crew jokingly named the production ‘mumble fish’.

Rusty also contends with his pretty girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane). He doesn’t have anything worthwhile to offer her only promises which she knows he won’t keep. But sometimes a toothy grin can get you anything. When they are together Rusty and Patty do nothing more than kiss and make plans which neither of them really believe in. When he is in school (which he only attends because his friends go there) Rusty daydreams about Patty, seeing her bikinied body and feathered hair. When Rusty wants to be just like his brother, not even the greatest authority can dissuade him otherwise. Outside school Rusty encounters the local police officer, Patterson (William Smith). Patterson knows all too well about Motorcycle Boy and his reputation and won’t let Rusty forget that he will turn out just like his delinquent brother if he is not careful.

rumblefish 1983 poster

The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and was co-written with the author S.E. Hintonwho also worked with Coppola on the adaptation of The Outsider, her famous 60s novel about boyhood in the south. Coppola said he wanted to make an art movie for teenagers. In this regard he succeeds, creating naturalistic expressions and spontaneous character developments. Rumble Fish is a film where the characters don’t act mechanically but on the whim of circumstance and at the behest of ego. The films soundtrack was composed by Stewart Copeland, lead guitarist from The Police. Included in his work is the jaunty motif of the passage of time. Many of the pieces standalone in their space, working as catchy pop tunes. Also the cinematography shines in glorious black and white (and rain and smoke). There are few films more pleasurable to look at. The cast too is an impressive array of talent from Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne, to Chris Penn and Tom Waits.

There are also playful interpretations of death and mortality. Throughout the film clocks appear at various intervals, sometimes ticking away at fast speed or without hands on the face. For Rusty time is the duel signifier; he is running out of time and falling behind on adopting his brother’s legacy, while time is also creeping up on his brother whose journey seems to be eating away at him from the inside. The last good deed Motorcycle Boy can do is rescue his brother from himself, ‘loyalty is his only vice’, he says. Rusty James is a young man who doesn’t have the outlets to develop as an individual and has been forced into seeing a nightmare as a dream. He doesn’t even know if his mother is dead or alive but he’s desperate to find out.

Rumblefish with Nicolas Cage

Some people criticised the film suggesting that it was a film where nothing happens; in fact Rumble Fish is a film about a man who has nothing to do, only repeat the cycles that have whirled around him. I remember the first time I saw Rumble Fish, I too was waiting for something significant to occur. But when the film ended I felt there was more to the film than its transparent plot. I decided to watch the film again a few weeks later and I was won over by the film’s ingenuity and boldness, admiring its bravery in being what it wants to be and not what audiences demand. In those intervening weeks between viewings, I unconsciously settled into the faith that my mind would make sense of the film and things would become coherent. The changes that we undergo in life happen imperceptibly; we can’t see or feel them as they happen but we know afterwards that they have occurred. Maybe Rusty James could step back and take a look at things from the outside, because he’s probably too close to his own reflection.

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Written by:

Justin Aylward
@JustinAylward92
justinaylward.com
Freelance Contributor

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