• U.S.

Cinema: Time Bomb

3 minute read


Directed by Francis Ford Coppola Screenplay by S.E. Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola

The easiest way to praise a film is to call it poetic. The easiest way to dump on a film is to call it unrealistic. Believability is the line drawn in the dirt; on either side are warring sensibilities, rival gangs of moviegoers or critics. Seen this way, the defenseless movie is reduced to a Rorschach inkblot, an excuse for prolonging the debate between fantasy and naturalism.

Rumble Fish is the messiest, most provocative inkblot of the year. On the naturalistic level, Francis Coppola’s film is a botch, a hoot. The two main characters—Rusty-James (Matt Dillon), a 17-year-old punk who figures he moves with the swagger of stardom, and his older brother the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), tired of being an outlaw legend in Rusty-James’ eyes—are little more than the sum of their mannerisms. Their father (Dennis Hopper) is a philosophizing sot who comes and goes with the whim. Rusty-James’ girlfriend (Diane Lane) is a mere receptacle for his careless abuse; his best friend (Vincent Spano) is a cowardly grind seduced by Rusty-James’ danger. None of these dead souls ever enters the land of living drama, where obsession and ambiguity intersect and a poor soul in the dark can look up at a figure on the screen and say, “Hey, that’s me.”

Instead, one suspects, Coppola wants the moviegoer to shout, “Hey, what’s that?” If Rumble Fish fails as a traditional movie about real people, it is beguiling as an exercise in hallucinatory style. As he did in his adaptation of another S.E. Hinton novel (The Outsiders), Coppola has taken the protagonist’s point of view as his visual strategy. There it was Technicolor romance; here it is stygian monochrome. To the Motorcycle Boy, colorblind and partly deaf from too many fights, the world is “black and white with the sound turned low,” and what he sees is what we get. Dark clouds hurtle across the sky; diagonal strips of shadow fall like knife scars on every face; steam rises from the streets and rolls off the most innocuous front porch. Clocks, with or without hands, are everywhere, reminding the Motorcycle Boy of his mortality; and the sound track has the ominous rhythm of a heartbeat, a time bomb.

Rumble Fish may prove to be another kind of bomb. Coppola simply will not behave. Pressed to the wall by his failures with One from the Heart and Zoetrope Studios, prodded by a Hollywood that wants one of its pedigreed talents to make “a good picture,” the director keeps slipping away into stylistic eccentricity. In one sense, then, Rumble Fish is Coppola’s professional suicide note to the movie industry, a warning against employing him to find the golden gross. No doubt: this is his most baroque and self-indulgent film. It may also be his bravest.

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