Coppola: The Outsiders (1983)
In many ways, the second half of Francis Ford Coppola’s career has been haunted by the spectre of Apocalypse Now. Since he could never hope to replicate the scale of Apocalypse Now – that’s a once-in-a-lifetime achievement – most of his subsequent films have focused on frustrated auteurs, and the frustrations of auteurism itself, both as concept and practice. Before he moved onto this obsession with frustrated auteurs, however, Coppola made several bids to rival or outdo Apocalypse Now. The first was One From the Heart, a musical set on an enormous scale replica of Las Vegas, but the muted critical reaction and disastrous financial reaction forced him to move away from another big statement for his next work. Instead he split the difference between his artistic and commercial ambitions, releasing two adaptations of S.E. Hinton’s novels in the same year, with the same cast, both set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yet while these two films were clearly part of the same project, they couldn’t be more different in tone and style, as Coppola channelled all his more artistic and auteurist ambitions into Rumble Fish, while reserving a much more naturalistic tone for The Outsiders.
Based on Hinton’s novel of the same name, The Outsiders helped establish the Brat Pack style that came to dominate teen films throughout the 80s. The plot revolves around two rival gangs in mid-1960s Tulsa – the Greasers, a group of working-class teenagers, from the “wrong side of town,” and the Socs (or Socials), a group of more affluent, middle-class teenagers. While the rivalry between the older members of these gangs sets the scene for the film, we see them mainly through the eyes of two younger Greasers, Ponyboy Curtis, played by C. Thomas Howell, and Johnny Cade, played by Ralph Macchio. During the first act of the film, which takes place over a single night, Ponyboy and Johnny are attacked by some of the Socs, and accidentally kill a senior gang member in self-defence. They’re forced to flee into the country, where they hole up in an abandoned church over the second act – the first time we see daylight in the film – before returning to Tulsa for the final act of the film.
From the very outset, Coppola’s approach is elegiac, and the film opens with a series of sepia-toned images, accompanied by Stevie Wonder’s “Stay Gold,” itself inspired by the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which plays a pivotal role in the story. Here, Coppola already seems nostalgia for his artistic heyday of the 1970s, and this dovetails in turn with his more personal nostalgia for the 1950s, creating a free-floating sense of nostalgia that doesn’t have any one single historical referent. The film proper opens with the main characters all watching a film, suggesting that this freeform nostalgia for the 50s has started to overtake, or become indistinguishable from, the lived memory of the 50s. With a muted palette that seems to exist halfway between colour and black-and-white, Coppola seems to be shifting between memory and nostalgic recreation, producing a loose ambience that often seems designed to be watched in the background, in a state of semi-distraction, not unlike the drive-in move theatre where we meet most of the key characters.
Over the rest of the film, Coppola will use Tulsa to yearn for a mythical heartland that is coterminous with his own artistic heyday, producing a burnished longing that would become inextricable from the nostalgic Hollywood of the 1980s. This deeply elegiac quality often feels like a kind of auteurist exhaustion – an exhaustion, and an elegy, that we don’t see again in Coppola’s filmography until The Rainmaker, which came on the heels of The Godfather III, Dracula and Jack, his next big bid to reclaim the grand sweep of his 70s films. As in The Rainmaker, this elegiac quality overwhelms the story, relegating it to a series of broad brush strokes as Coppola takes us on a propulsive journey through the all-night strip where the Greasers and Socs fight out their turf war. While the characters all have different traits, they’re all travelling deeper into the night to avoid going home, and to avoid succumbing to a predetermined future. As they hop from one spot to the next, the nightsprawl expands before them, and the film takes on the rhythm of a musical, except with highly choreographed nocturnal sequences instead of musical numbers, all of which serve to propel us and the camera even further into the night, and further away from dawn.
This fixation with deepening the night, and staving off the morning, is Coppola’s way of capturing the challenge, for his characters, of being the first real adolescents in history. For this transitory generation, too young to have fought in WWII, but too old to be baby boomers, teenage life is an entirely new phenomenon, which makes adulthood feel oppressive and inconceivable in a brand new way too. Throughout the first act, the night becomes a new space of adolescent possibility, even as the teenagers try to flee adulthood with a new intensity, as the omnipresent train whistles and gusts of wind gives their nocturnal activities a mythic momentum, reminding them (and us) that the most important thing is to keep moving. More than anything else, The Outsiders is thus a tribute to adolescent restlessness, and to all the increasingly ingenious ways that these teenagers are able to keep chasing the night, and postponing the dawn. As with Rebel Without a Cause, adolescence here brings a new sense of duration, a new sense of time, and a new kind of waiting – waiting for a future that was perhaps only ushered in by the teen films of the 80s.
For the great paradox of The Outsiders is that the film itself seems to be arriving thirty years too late, addressing teenagers who by this stage are in their forties. That belated address makes the film even more melancholy, as Coppola crafts the kind of film that these characters desperately needed to see and watch in their own adolescence, but that can’t be found anywhere in Tulsa, as their distraction at the opening drive-in attests. Coppola’s film thus not only establishes much of the lexicon for the 80s teen film, but also foreshadows that the 80s teen film is nearly always inflected through the 50s – about the formation of teen culture in the 50s as much as the flowering of teen culture in the 80s. After all, the 80s was not only the great decade of marketing to teenagers, but the decade when the first teenagers were coming of age – the decade when the first wave of teenagers was addressing the second wave – meaning the 80s teen film tends to have a double address, as it does here. Coppola himself was requested to make the film by a class of 80s teenagers, who sent him a personal letter, with their librarian’s help, to ask that he adapt it for them.
Like One From the Heart, then, this complex adolescent situation is set entirely at night, and lit entirely by artificial light, during the first act of The Outsiders. We only see daylight when the accidental murder forces Ponyboy and Johnny to head west, but even here we don’t really see naturalistic daylight. Instead, we’re subsumed back into the sepia tones of the opening credits, as daybreak brings us to a mythical heartland, divorced from time, and exempt from the passage of adolescence into adulthood. At this point, The Outsiders starts to resemble a more recognisable 80s film, such as The Lost Boys, or The Goonies, as Ponyboy and Johnny rest in an old church during the day, and only venture outside at night. Even here, their activities are still primarily nocturnal, meaning we rarely see daylight. The longest outdoor sequence takes place at dusk, and is further muted by Coppola’s decision to shoot it mainly in the reflection of a local lake, which dims the palette and lighting further.
Instead of receiving any direct daylight during this sequence, Ponyboy and Johnny spend most of their time reading Gone With The Wind – and by the time they finally watch the sun rise, it’s just as plastic and artificial as the light effects in Victor Fleming’s film. Coppola frankly presents this sunrise as a sepia-toned fantasy, shooting it on a sound stage, and having Ponyboy break character somewhat to read “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” thereby taking us back to the stylised, elegiac quality of the opening credits. During this beautiful sequence, Coppola seems to be reaching deep back into the film memories of his youth to try and revitalize his own career via Ponyboy and Johnny, but in both cases the best is behind them, since it’s only a matter of time before the two teenagers have to return to Tulsa. Worse, when they get back, this palpably plastic sunrise seems to have swallowed up any future that might lie beyond the nightsprawl, which now loosens and slackens, unable to guarantee them the same propulsive momentum that it provided in the opening sequences.
This second iteration of the nightsprawl is more attuned to what Gilles Deleuze would call an any-space-whatever. Alienated from the past, and with the future now foreclosed as a nostalgia effect, Ponyboy and Johnny wander the streets with a new kind of drifting anomie, producing the most experimental part of The Outsiders – and the act that comes closest to Rumble Fish in its tone and atmosphere. This is also where Coppola makes his most provocative and original suggestion – that teenagers are the real descendants of film noir, living by night whenever they can, and that the hard-boiled protagonists of film noir were the first teenagers, smarting under the same sense of arrested development that would become critical to the teen film as a genre. You can see this crossover between noir and teen sensibilities in some of the earliest teen films, most notably Rebel Without a Cause, but Coppola historicises it in a new way here, effectively presenting the teenagers of the 50s as a melancholy continuation of noir style, and a stark alternative to the lush vision elaborated by 70s and 80s neo-noir, which had a much more performatively “adult” attitude to cinema.
If anything, adults are the alien creatures in The Outsiders, since the adult world feels acutely displaced from childhood here, forcing adolescents to become adults too soon, and to take care of children in a world where adulthood, and adults themselves, are nearly always absent. The few adults that we do seem seem to come from a different planet, while many of the night scenes in the third act play out against spaces that are normally contoured by adults, or designed for adults, but now uncannily devoid of even the remotest adult presence. In Coppola’s universe, adolescents have to protect children from absent adults without turning into adults themselves, and that melancholy predicament drives the doomy atmosphere of this last part of the film. While the story might be pretty skeletal, then, The Outsiders is a masterpiece of tone, cementing a yearning, melancholy and romantic fatalism that culminates with one of the older Greasers, played by Matt Dillon, trying to manically overtake the nightsprawl one last time. In a final surge of energy, he runs to overtake a train, and then to overtake a police car, as the police come to personify the entire adult world hounding these teenagers into a future they can’t bear to contemplate – a future that means erasure. In other words, The Outsiders ends as it begins, as a transitional work, haunted by the past, but not yet assured of the nostalgic sheen of Stand By Me, which is perhaps why it speaks so eloquently to this period in Coppola’s career too.
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