Francis Ford Coppola’s populist and auteurist impulses diverged dramatically in the wake of Apocalypse Now. After trying to outdo his magnum opus with One From the Heart, he made two films that, together, summarized the two main trends of the rest of his career. On the one hand, The Outsiders anticipates the ebbs in Coppola’s efforts to regain his former auteurist grandeur, and the peculiarly elegiac quality that would ensue when he turned his hand to more modest and mainstream projects. On the other hand, Rumble Fish was the first of many attempts Coppola would make to return to his auteurist heyday. Despite the fact that it was made in the same year as The Outsiders, features the same cast, the same setting and the same source material – S.E. Hinton’s teenage novels – Rumble Fish feels like a missive from a completely different cinematic universe. Gone is the sepia-toned nostalgia image of The Outsiders, replaced with a slick, hi-def, black-and-white palette that was as foundational for 80s indie cinema as The Outsiders was for the 80s teen film. Perhaps that explains why Rumble Fish focuses more on the older adolescents in Hinton’s 50s subculture, and makes more use of Matt Dillon and Micky Rourke, who play Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy respectively, the two main players in this largely plotless and freeform teenage wasteland.
Whereas The Outsiders was quite classical and elegiac in its style, Rumble Fish is atonal, angular, dissonant and jagged, fusing the New Wave cinema of the 1960s with the New Wave music of the 1980s to create one of Coppola’s most visually distinctive films in the wake of Apocalypse Now. In The Outsiders, the characters were all trying to stave off the dawn, and journey to the end of the night, but the sharp black-and-white palette of Rumble Fish tends to displace any clear distinction between day and night, much as Coppola now emphasises the slicker side of noir, rather than the more melancholy musings of The Outsiders. Moreover, the time frame of Rumble Fish is so diffuse that it makes nostalgia impossible, as Coppola opens with a time lapse of Tulsa, and moves to a ticking clock, before the pulsing electronics of Stewart Copeland’s score creates a percussive intensification of the present moment. That’s not to say that Rumble Fish is exactly “set” in the present, since Coppola seems to be avoiding both a stable present or past tense, figuring the film as a line of flight from the linear temporality that makes nostalgia possible in the first place. As a result, Rumble Fish fuses 50s and 80s adolescence even more dramatically than The Outsiders, and exudes a much stronger sense of the incipient 80s counterculture, often approaching a cyberpunk style in key scenes.
The result is noir as pastiche, signifying an undifferentiated pastness that can be translated directly into present tense style without any lived memory of the past it refers to. In other words, this is 50s style turned into 80s fashion, shaped like an inchoate music video, or even a proto-grunge aesthetic, as Coppola takes us through a series of downbeat rooms surrounded by semi-industrial voids, devoid of the public sphere that once populated them. This is almost exactly the look of Jim Jarmusch’s bombed-out cityscapes, full of adolescents who have been jettisoned from history, set adrift amongst interstitial spaces that reflect the blind spots of the adult world, and the generations of adults who came before. Throughout this whole process, time becomes the real subject matter of Rumble Fish, from the opening rumble, which seems to splinter time, and propel us through some weird temporal netherworld, to the bar where Tom Waits presides, reminding his teenage clients that “time is a funny thing – time is a very peculiar item.” In fact, the shift from One to the Heart to Rumble Fish parallels Waits’ own shift from the crooner of the 70s to the angular art rocker of the 80s, especially when paired with Copeland’s score. Together, Copeland and Waits produce a soundscape that precludes us being immersed in the film, instead foregrounding images as images, while helping to choreograph the billows of smoke that linger from Apocalypse Now around the fringes of most scenes, contorting time in their willowy wake.
As with The Outsiders, the police are framed here as a synecdoche for the adult world, except they are more explicitly associated with the regulation of time, while adolescents are fighting for their own teenage temporality – for a sustained present tense that preserves and protects them from the adult world. In the critical encounter of the film, Rusty and Motorcycle Boy take on a police officer in front of a clock with no hands. Standing in for the hands of the clock themselves, they fight the adult world in the name of a new conception of time – started by the opening rumble, and climaxing with the rumble fish of the title, which are stored in a local pet store, and are the first images in the film that we see in colour. This uncanny burst of colour takes the place of regular nostalgia – “it seems to me I can remember seeing colours, it was a long time ago” – and bleeds out across the remainder of the film, suggesting a period of adolescence that is even more distended than in The Outsiders, stretching much further back into childhood, and much further forward into adulthood. This dispersed colour field gradually segues, in turn, into the lingering smoke, which plays like Coppola’s effort to incorporate two incompatible timelines into one shot – childhood lagging, adulthood nearing.
Through the rumble fish, Coppola’s film evokes a world in which nostalgia has been dissociated from lived memories, both individual and collective, and instead affixed to images. Even as the teenagers try to formulate their nostalgia for a childhood that is eluding them, emergent media seems to reconfigure regular memory, such that the only sustained passage of recollection in the film is immediately subsumed back into the Hollywood media machine. In what starts off as a regular confession scene, Rusty confides to Motorcycle Boy that his mother is alive, but we soon find out that he only knows this because he has seen her on television, in Los Angeles, where she moved to create a new life with a movie producer. Moreover, he can only share this memory with Motorcycle Boy under the protection of “Video Spot,” a video game parlour whose hyperreal fixtures further dissociates the recollection from any embodied or lived sense of time. While the style of Rumble Fish departs from One From the Heart in its New Wave slickness, scenes like these do also capture the music video aesthetic of Coppola’s musical – and both anticipate his film-ride hybrid of Captain EO, especially when Rusty levitates like a music video star-turned Disney attraction.
More generally, Rumble Fish suggests that the emergent media sphere of the 80s is co-opting the everyday experience of time. Over and over, Coppola returns to the clock in Waits’ café, whose second hand is gradually overtaken by the rhythm of omniscient advertisements, all of which suggest that time, duration and memory are on the cusp of being totally commodified, especially for adolescents. Against that backdrop, Rumble Fish, like The Outsiders, yearns for a teenage line of flight – an escape from conventional, or commodifiable, space and time. As the title suggests, the rumble fish encapsulate this state – existing at the cusp between the film’s two temporal field, they become role models for the gang members, who are fascinated by their peculiar properties, and try to emulate their coloured freedom from the black-and-white prison of Stephen H. Burum’s slick cinematography. Like the teenagers, the rumble fish are unable to distinguish between reality and representation, since they will fight a reflection of themselves if any mirrored surfaces are left in their tank – and yet this fluidity also frees them somewhat from the pet shop, which is stacked with taxidermy, light years away from the beautiful swathes of colour the fish generate around their passage.
Over the last part of the film, then, Rusty and Motorcycle Boy set out to free the rumble fish, and disperse their coloured temporality over the rest of the film, producing an emergent No Wave aesthetic that is almost Lynchian in the surreal way that it displaces and alienates 50s teen culture. In one of the closing scene, Rusty walks down an empty street as the entire audiovisual continuum of the film ruptures behind him, producing abrasive bursts of industrial sound interspersed with artificial-sounding wind, as if he were traversing the cinematic apparatus responsible for the mass-mediated nostalgia Coppola is so keen to avoid. By the final scenes, there is no real plot, character or setting – just a weird kind of displaced waiting, a series of postures, as the key players hang out, bum around, and drift from place to place, but without the clear delineation of past and future that make waiting meaningful. Like images waiting in vain for a reality to anchor them, these teen figures settles into a kind of second-order waiting – waiting for the temporal realignment that will give their very waiting meaning, with no sense of how long they have waited, or how long they have to wait. Whereas waiting normally involves an intensified awareness of the present tense, this second-order waiting goes one step further, eclipsing past and future, leaving no point of reference but itself, in possibly the most involuted and solipsistic climax of Coppola’s career.
In other words, this weird waiting displaces its object in the same way that Willard’s waiting eventually displaces Kurtz in the closing act of Apocalypse Now, which perhaps explains why Dennis Hopper once again makes a cameo as witness to this waiting. In the final gesture of the film, Rusty manages to free the rumble fish, and pour it into the river just before the police get to him. As the fish swims in open water for the first time, and the line of flight from regular temporality is momentarily complete, Rusty is overcome with flashes of colour, before the credits roll over his silhouette in front of an ocean – the great expanse of fluid time that the rumble fish presumably escapes to, at least in fantasy. The result is one of the tightest films of Coppola’s late career, a perfect precursor to the surreal 50s of Peggy Sue Got Married, and one of the greatest of the 50s/80s Moebius strips that would define this decade of cinema.