Friday, 14 April 2017

RUMBLE FISH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Coppola B & W gang pic looks GREAT on Criterion, & Torontonians can see it on a big screen at the "Neon Dreams" series at The Royal Cinema.

"How do you know when someone's crazy?"

Rumble Fish (1983)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Scr. S. E. Hinton and Coppola
Starring: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Nicholas Cage, Diane Lane,
Diana Scarwid, Vincent Spano, Tom Waits, Chris Penn, Laurence Fishburne,
Tracey Walter, William Smith, Glenn Withrow, Sofia Coppola

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Time passes. Oh, does time pass. Benny (Tom Waits) knows all too well. God knows how long he's been presiding over his Tulsa, Oklahoma billiard parlour and serving (only God knows, how many teenagers); some good, some bad, some from the wrong side of the tracks, some from tony, leafy neighbourhoods of manicured lawns, some who go to public schools, some who go to private schools - but, all of them, young.

They won't be that way for long - young, that is.

Benny knows.

"Time is a funny thing," Benny mutters to nobody in particular, the ancient clock on his wall: framed with neon, ticking, attached to a perpetual flipping/clicking mechanical contraption advertising local businesses. "Time is a very peculiar item," he continues, aimlessly wiping the soda counter with a dirty rag. "You see, when you're young, when you're a kid, you got time. You got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there... it doesn't matter."

Like all glorified soda-jerks long past their prime (if they ever had a prime), Benny is a philosopher. "You know," he observes, "the older you get you say, 'Jesus, how much have I got? Me, I've got thirty-five summers left.' Think about it. Thirty-five summers."

Yeah. Benny knows.

The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) knows too. He's been gone a long time. All that's left of him in Tulsa are memories of the old days, memories of when gangs ruled the streets, memories spray-painted on street signs, cement underpasses and brick walls of abandoned, decrepit warehouses - all in corners of the city forgotten by everyone except homeless puking alcoholics and the kids looking for places to rumble, away from the prying eyes of cops - emblazoned with the present-tense words: "The Motorcycle Boy Reigns".

He reigns no more. Like the title of S. E. Hinton's second novel (resting twixt "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish") declared: "That was Then. This is Now." And then is when The Motorcycle Boy left Tulsa, like so much dust in the wind. He hightailed it on his hog to California.

They say a young man should "go west". He did. He wanted to see the ocean. He never did. "California got in the way," he muses to his little brother Rusty James (Matt Dillon) upon his surprise return to the city in which he's been immortalized by the youth devoted to aimlessness and violence.

And yes, things do tend to get in the way, but only if you let them.

And time, oh that lover who woos us with infidelity, it rushes by - the sun rises, the sun sets, the glorious cumulonimbus clouds of Oklahoma blitz across the big skies. We, like the film's characters, live in moments so significant, yet so fleeting.

Rumble Fish might be one of Francis Ford Coppola's best films. That's saying something; the dude directed The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. He also directed The Outsiders, which, like Rumble Fish, was based on the bestselling young adult novel by the aforementioned Hinton.

The Outsiders was a big hit at the box office, especially with kids. Coppola's bold mise-en-scene appropriated, quite liberally, from the technicolor-dappled epics of yore - notably Gone With The Wind, David O. Selznick's astounding film adaptation of the novel which The Outsiders' characters are strangely obsessed with (in spite of being teenage "greasers"). Coppola was really taken with Hinton's books and in the novel "Rumble Fish" he recognized material that could be taken in much darker and decidedly different directions. Warner Brothers (the studio backing The Outsiders) had no interest in Coppola's vision for a film adaptation of "Rumble Fish" and they were especially filled with trepidation over Coppola's desire to have the productions overlap. He did what he usually did - the dude is a maverick - and so he set-up Rumble Fish with another studio, Universal Pictures.

Watching the two pictures together is pretty interesting and a lot of fun, but it's also obvious that the former is vastly inferior to the latter. (That said, where the first film connected with its intended audience, the second film was a big box office flop.)

The first-third of Rumble Fish has a relatively simple narrative exterior. Rusty James is the alpha in a group of pals that includes the smartly-dressed (in a gorgeous "Wild Deuces" club jacket from the 50s) Smokey (Nicholas Cage, in his first major screen role), beefy strong-arm muscle (fibrous between the ears as well as his bulging biceps) B.J. (the late Chris Penn, Sean's younger brother) and bespectacled, white-shirt-attired bookworm Steve (Vincent Spano). The boys are lolly-gagging around Benny's Billiards when the mysterious, snazzily-dressed African-American "Angel of Death" figure Midget (Laurence Fishburne) sashays in to deliver a message that Rusty's hated rival Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) is looking for him. "Says he's gonna kill you, Rusty James," Midget announces with a slight musical cadence in his voice. Rusty James takes aim on the billiards table. "Sayin' ain't doing," he responds.

It's set. Rusty James is going to square-off against Biff Wilcox later that same evening. He and his boys swagger through the streets of Tulsa until Rusty James checks out to visit with his girlfriend, the gorgeous Catholic High School girl Patty (Diana Lane). She's clearly in a whole different league, but she is unable to resist the rough, tough manly charms of this wife-beater-shirt-attired thug with his forehead-wrapped bandana and a smoke perpetually dangling from his lips.

Ah, men in Tulsa, are surely men with a capital "M".

And yes, Rusty James is certainly all-man, especially when he faces the cackling, hopped-up, dirty-fighting Biff Wilcox, so blond and pale, the guy seems to be a veritable albino in sharp contrast to our sweaty, black-haired, olive-complexioned hero. The fight reaches a fever pitch as the lads from the rival camps cheer on their respective leaders.

However, the vicious mano a mano comes to a brief standstill with the mysterious sudden appearance of The Motorcycle Boy, stylishly smoking a cigarette on his hog, shaking his head at the sight of the tussling with an expression of bemusement and disgust. Unfortunately, Rusty James looks at his big brother just long enough for Biff Wilcox to wield a scythe-like shard of glass, slashing our hero's stomach wide open.

No matter.

You see, The Motorcycle Boy is back in town and the chortling albino is handily dispatched in a swift act of violence, so spectacularly shocking that the jaws of the assembled hit the dirt. (This is one of ace stunt-coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker's most astonishing pieces of work that the audience is pretty open-mouthed as well.)

During the middle act of Rumble Fish we're treated to a series of strange episodes involving the relationship between the brothers, their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) and a slow, subtle series of power shifts, all culminating in a gloriously dreamy sequence "across the river" in the Black district of Tulsa with plenty of booze-ingestion, pool-playing, wandering the lively streets (in marked contrast to the emptiness of downtown Tulsa) and all to the beat of live zydeco tunes emanating throughout the "wrong" (but clearly more buoyant and ethnically diverse) side of the "tracks".

An act of violence (perpetrated no less by White-Trash, via the wonderful Tracey Walter, the UFO-obsessed janitor in Repo Man) forces Rusty James into an out-of-body near-death experience and from here, we're set up for a third act in which certain very sad truths are revealed.

Some of the saddest truths involve the contrast between the brothers. Rusty James is a dreamer, but his dreams are petty and he's not too smart.

The Motorcycle Boy dreams too. We see him dreaming, but he's not only partially deaf and colour blind (gotta love the B/W lensing in this regard), but in spite of his obvious intelligence, he's squandered his potential and he might, he just might, be insane. Grim faced cop Officer Patterson (William Smith) not only hates The Motorcycle Boy for making the youth on his beat think gang warfare is romantic, but he's convinced the hog-riding, sport-coat-attired dream boat (who looks like he'd be more at home as a Parisian intellectual than a Tulsa greaser) is most definitely mad - batshit crazy.

Dad would disagree. Through the fog imbued in his soul by booze, the grizzled patriarch and former lawyer reduced to collecting welfare and living in a fleapit, looks proudly and yet, with deep sorrow at his eldest son.

Says Dad: "He's merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and yet, finding nothing that he wants to do."

Dad puts the capper on this. "I mean nothing." he growls bitterly, dolefully.

The contrast between the brothers doesn't end here. Rusty James keeps imagining he can be just like his brother. "You should pray to God not," warns Dad. Our hero's friend Smokey sums it up best, though. "You might have gotten by for a while on the Motorcycle Boy's rep, but you have to be smart to run things," he states matter-of-factly. "You ain't got your brother's brains. It's nothing personal, Rusty James, but nobody would follow you into a fight because you'd get people killed - and nobody wants to be killed."

Nobody that is, except for The Motorcycle Boy. He's got a massive death wish. Rusty James, however, is all about survival. It might be sheer instinct, but he wants to live so very dearly.

Even in affairs of the heart, the brothers part company. Rusty James dreams of purity. And filth. Patty might wear her Catholic schoolgirl uniforms well, but beneath them is the lithe, supple flesh of sheer beauty. She's the ultimate symbol of the Madonna-Whore. The Motorcycle Boy's love of his life is the appropriately-named Cassandra (Diana Scarwid). Blond, beautiful, tantalizingly sexy and a teacher. Well, ex-teacher. She might love The Motorcycle Boy, but she loves heroin even more. She's a junkie - pure and simple.

Well, maybe Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy aren't all that different in their taste in women. In their own ways, Patty and Cassandra are both Madonna-Whores. If there's a contrast, The Motorcycle Boy looks upon Cassandra with a blend of sorrow and fleeting joy as he imagines her promise. Rusty James looks upon Patty with pure lust. He even daydreams about her through the boredom of school - he imagines sexy Patty lolling about the classrooms in her bra and panties.

If the brothers share anything wholeheartedly, it's knowing they want something more than what life in Tulsa can ultimately offer. The Motorcycle Boy is obsessed with the Siamese fighting fish (the literal Rumble Fish of the title) that live in separate tanks in the local pet store. The fish can see each other through the glass (they're one of the few things we can see in colour), but it's the glass that keeps them from killing each other.

But maybe, the older brother thinks, just maybe they could live in peace if they were free. But who's going to set them free? Who's going to set The Motorcycle Boy free? And most importantly, who's going to set Rusty James free?

Maybe both of the brothers have to find ways, respectively and on their own, to set themselves free.

The first time I saw Rumble Fish in 1983, I was a huge fan of it. Over the 30+ years since that time, it stayed with me, obsessed me and beckoned me to revisit it. My most recent helping on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray was not only a dazzling experience, but I fell in love with the picture all over again. The monochrome cinematography by Stephen H. Burum with its lovely fine-grain and brilliant use of short-lenses (skewing all the long shots and making the close-ups resonate with literal in-your-face intimacy), Stewart (drummer from "The Police") Copeland's oddball percussive score with its blend of reggae influences, classical acoustic splendour, rock styling and some truly ear-caressing (alternating with ear-shattering) sound design by mixer Richard Beggs, the expert slicing and dicing of picture and sound (always bold, but still elegant and ALWAYS serving the story and tone) and last, but certainly not least, the morphing of grit, grotesqueries and old-school refinement in the production design of Dean (Little Big Man, Farewell My Lovely, The Brinks Job, all the Godfathers, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation) Tavoularis.

This is a film like no other. Yes, it hits plenty of familiar beats, but it hits them with a multitude of sticks, hammers and two-by-fours. We never quite know where we are, nor do we even fully comprehend when the film is set. It seems so long-and-ago-and-far-away and yet so urgently vital and contemporary. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday and at others like now, in the moment of all our lives, and yet at others, it feels timeless. Rumble Fish can only exist, on film and as a film.

We know it's a film, but even though we're aware of the medium and the craft and the supreme artistry, why does it so often feel like we're looking into a mirror? Probably because it takes chances and revels in the sheer joy of making movies and telling stories with pictures. The style gives us gooseflesh, and yet not a single moment feels self indulgent. It's as if Coppola is using all his love for the medium, every tool at his disposal to rub our noses in terrible truths via fabled delirium.

To watch Rumble Fish is to watch a dream unfold - a mad, no-holds barred expressionistic tale of loyalty, family, madness, coming-of-age and violence - a mythical, phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of sheer aplomb. Yes, we feel, see and hear its director. Thank God! He's a great filmmaker here - never afraid to push aesthetic, cinematic boundaries, but what we experience, really experience, what we feel, oh do we feel, is the rush of time - the inevitability of time ending and the need to make every moment of our time on this earth count, really count.

Rusty James learns the hard way that it's all going to be over before we know it.

And bless Francis Ford Coppola for this picture. He makes us learn it too. And he does so by appropriating (mostly from Murnau, Pabst and Lang) with glorious, unashamed abandon and makes it all his own.


Rumble Fish is a Director Approved edition on the Criterion Collection and includes a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Stephen H. Burum and approved by director Francis Ford Coppola, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, an alternate remastered 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, an audio commentary with Coppola, new interviews with Coppola, S. E. Hinton, Roman Coppola, Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, a new conversation between Burum and production designer Dean Tavoularis, pieces from 2005 about the film’s score and production, interviews from 1983 with Dillon, Lane, Vincent Spano and producer Doug Claybourne, a 1984 French TV interview with Mickey Rourke, "Locations: Looking for Rusty James", a 2013 documentary by Alberto Fuguet about the impact of Rumble Fish, a new piece about the film’s existentialist elements, “Don’t Box Me In” music video, Deleted scenes with a new introduction by Coppola, a trailer, an essay by Glenn Kenny and gorgeous new cover art by Michael Boland.

In Toronto, the film can be seen Friday, May 19, 2017 on a big screen during the wonderful "Neon Dreams" series sponsored by Hollywood Suite and replete with a terrific pre-show presentation beginning one hour prior to the 8:00 p.m. showtime at the best independent theatre in Canada, the Royal Cinema.