Free The Rebellious Adolescence Of Rumble Fish Essay Sample
Released in 1983, Rumble Fish, Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to his adolescent coming-of-age film The Outsiders, follows the travails of young misfit Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a disaffected, alienated teenager from a broken home, prone to violence and rash behavior, and his complicated relationship with his legendary, aloof brother known as the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Coppola’s aesthetic is a dramatic one, utilizing techniques of film noir and German Expressionism to showcase both the harsh world of adulthood that Rusty James fears entering and the lonely, colorless world of the Motorcycle Boy, which he cannot fully engage in. The use of cinematography, editing, performance and plot structure within Rumble Fish allows Coppola to deeply and poignantly explore themes of teenage rebellion, the fluid nature of time, the unfulfilled desire for freedom in small-town American life, and so much more.
Rumble Fish, like its predecessor The Outsiders, is a teen film through and through, with its sharp focus on the troubles of young people who cannot quite find themselves in the conflicting sea of responsibilities, pressures and conflicts they must navigate (Shary 39). Rusty James’ coming of age, as told in the film, is explicitly shown as a struggle to find an identity and a sense of freedom in the face of rampant disappointment and fear of loneliness. The son of a drunken, yet well-read father (Dennis Hopper) and an absentee mother, Rusty James instead works hard to live up to the legend of his older brother, Motorcycle Boy, who was known as a “Pied Piper/Robin Hood” type among the youth of his neighborhood. Having returned to town an aloof, soft-spoken stoic, Motorcycle Boy spends the film trying to teach Rusty James that his old life of rumbles and troublemaking didn’t do him any good, despite Rusty’s fervent attempts to get out of the shadow of his brother’s reputation.
The placement and movement of the camera is integral to conveying much of the mise-en-scene and directorial vision of a film; in the case of Rumble Fish, Coppola’s unique aesthetic creates a psychological portrait of his teen delinquents in a way that is both deeply intimate and dispassionately distant. Coppola makes great use of close-up in the film, many of the most emotional moments of the film elegantly framing Matt Dillon’s or Mickey Rourke’s faces opposite each other, or deep in the foreground of the frame to one side, as whomever or whatever they are considering or talking to exists on the other side, in the background. This serves to visualize the innermost thoughts of these characters, framing them almost as thought bubbles.
Furthermore, Coppola will fill the frame with his character’s faces at climactic moments, demonstrating the fear or anger they are experiencing at any given time. At the same time, Coppola’s fight scenes (the ‘rumbles’) are filmed with a surprising theatricality, using wider masters to showcase the intricate choreography of the fights. Matt Dillon, in his first rumble with Biff, flits and dances about the warehouse set as if it was West Side Story, lending a somewhat lithe freedom to the proceedings. Motorcycle Boy often shows a similar agility, and his motorcycle is used to great effect at the end of the first rumble, Coppola showing him running his motorcycle at Biff head on to defeat him, the wide shot showing Biff’s body tumble end over end until it hits the ground.
Coppola’s techniques, particularly with the camera, evokes the German Expressionism of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with his Dutch angles, deep use of shadow and silhouette, and the smoky alleyways of the small-town setting. With these techniques, Coppola “renders adolescent angst by means of Expressionist techniques, including disembodied dream sequences, and which replicates the German figuration of the modern city as a looming, estranging place” (Welsch 101). The canted angles of German Expressionism are frequently used here, most often in altercations with the police or other gang members (the initial gang fight with Biff, or the final shot of Officer Patterson after he has shot Motorcycle Boy) to demonstrate a sense of unease with the world they live in. Rusty James world is symbolically off-center, as his priorities and perspectives are literally skewed within the frame. The aforementioned use of shadow is integral to showing the darkness of Rusty James’ world as well, with long shadows trailing the walls at opportune moments - his father, played by a drunken Dennis Hopper, is introduced in shadow along with a silhouette of a dog, and the audience’s first meeting with junkie teacher Cassandra is also framed largely in shadow.
Some of the more explicitly presentational elements of the film evince this dedication to Expressionism, and convey Rusty James’ constant yearning for a better world and a better him. After being beaten severely by a mugger, Rusty James has an out-of-body experience, Coppola floating Matt Dillon slowly above the proceedings, the camera floating right along with him. In a film that is dedicated to largely low-angle Expressionistic shots, this is somewhat of a directorial shift, though it is foreshadowed in the beginning by the long, predatory shot of the camera following Rusty James and Steve down a long alleyway from above, as if preparing to swoop down and attack them. Nonetheless, Rusty James’ out-of-body experience allows him to float around to several other places and imagine a post-mortem reconciliation with those whose respect he seeks – first, he forgives a crying Patty, and then he receives a respectful toast from the other pool sharks at the billiard hall. This moment is important for Rusty James’ character, as it provides him with a needed release from the bad-boy reputation he has sunk himself into, and achieves the approval of the people he cares about.
These moments, and more, help to highlight the film’s thematic focus on Rusty James as indicative of disaffected, alienated youth. Rusty, with his lack of care in school, shows him to be uninterested in academic pursuits that might uplift him from his own poverty and delinquency - most scenes of him in class see him merely daydream seductive visions of his girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), and he shouts to the principal that he only goes to this school “’cos my friends go here” before getting suspended.
Motorcycle Boy, meanwhile is an unhinged ideal of perfection, Mickey Rourke playing him in a way that is “underresourced and unhinged, but disarmingly sweet and insightful” (Walsh 138). Motorcycle Boy’s presence is almost always heralded by the low, masculine roar of a motorcycle – particularly when he appears out of the aether to get Rusty James out of a violent situation (Fahlenbrach 91). With his aloof manner, intimate knowledge of Rusty James’ past, and his constant control over his situation, he seemingly represents the freedom Rusty James is looking for. However, MB himself is still wanting, with an “acute perception” of the world that is often mistaken for insanity, according to his father. This is symbolized in his inability to make it to the ocean – his excuse is that “California got in the way.” For all of his confidence and advice, Motorcycle Boy does not inherently know how to escape his own troubles any more than Rusty James.
Rusty James clearly wants to be just like the Motorcycle Boy, and at the same time he wants to use MB as a surrogate mother figure (Lebeau 96). Rusty James idealizes the gang world of MB’s youth, which leads him to rebel against MB when he himself notes the futile nature of it. RJ, like with his broken family, pines for a time that never was – his insistence of the continuation of gang fights, or ‘rumbles,’ comes in a time after the gangs have been disbanded. They only exist in memory, with tales of MB holding his own in the gangs and Rusty James earnestly desiring to have that same “Pied Piper” reputation he resents MB for having. Even the Motorcycle Boy takes pity on him for holding on to these lost dreams, constantly warning him that “even the most primitive of society has an innate respect for the insane,” explaining the flawed nature of people’s adoration of him as a legend.
While Rusty and the Motorcycle Boy constantly navigate this complex dynamic of resentment, hero worship and brotherly love, they manage to achieve a measure of peace and balance with one another in the bittersweet ride through town that MB gives Rusty late in the film. This is the first time we ever see Rusty on MB’s bike, the two of them riding together through the empty neighborhood streets at night, Coppola framing the two of them together in an intimate moment of freedom, both men standing united against the world (even running a red light to throw one last middle finger at society). Though they do enter one final confrontation at the pet store, where Motorcycle Boy explains that, “I can’t be what I want any more than you can,” and commands him to take his bike and head “all the way to the ocean” – hoping that Rusty James can have a better fate than he knows is fated for him.
Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the film is its use of color – Rumble Fish’s black and white presentation is a direct corollary to Motorcycle Boy’s colorblindness, which they allude to in a scene in which Steve asks him to describe his colorblindness as Coppola shows him looking at the street around him from his POV. Even more striking is the film’s use of time-lapse photography in the establishing footage of the city; the film begins with time-lapse footage of clouds, an image which will be constantly returned to throughout the film. In certain scenes, the fast-moving clouds are seen behind characters while in real time, indicating that this is happening within the diegesis of the film (symbolizing the fluid nature of time, which is passing far quicker than the characters realize). Within the film itself, this theme is expressed by shop owner Benny (Tom Waits), who monologues in one scene about time: “when you're young, you're a kid, you got time, you got nothing but timeThe older you get you say, "Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left." (This scene is shot at a high angle, with a running clock in the right foreground of frame to hammer home the notion of fleeting time.) With these elements, Coppola reminds us that time and youth are incredibly finite, and people grow up faster than they think.
Not unlike Schindler’s List, Rumble Fish also contrasts its primarily black-and-white color scheme with a flash of color in a highly symbolic moment, with the bright red and blue “rumble fish” (Belton 60). Seen early in the film and expressly discussed by Motorcycle Boy and Rusty James, MB notes that they “try to kill themselves fighting their own reflection,” a symbol of Rusty James’ attempts to escape both himself and the fear that he is like his father and/or brother. Later in the film, they also become symbolic of the freedom and identity Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy yearn for, as MB breaks into the pet store to free them, and is killed in the process. In the melee, Rusty James is able to get them to the river, where they swim away to freedom. In this rebellious gesture, Rusty James learns a way to escape the endless cycle of violence, drug use and abandonment he has encountered all his life, feeling a sense of achievement even though it comes at great cost with the death of his brother.
After being accosted by the police at the crime scene, the film features its one other instance of color photography, as Rusty James sees himself (briefly in color) in the reflection of a cop car’s window, which he then shatters in an attempt to ‘fight his own reflection.’ This explicitly links Rusty to the rumble fish – two creatures constantly trying to overcome themselves, often using violence to do it. After this, Coppola’s long, slow pan along the gathering crowd of the townspeople, muttering to themselves in sequence about the legend of Motorcycle Boy, stops at a piece of graffiti under a nearby bridge that reads “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns” (a repeated phrase found on road signs throughout the town), with Rusty (in silhouette) driving the bike past the sign to freedom. Like the rumble fish’s flight to the river, this allows Rusty to escape his brother’s shadow and the specter of his own indecision, taking on the mantle of Motorcycle Boy as the film shows him driving to California and the Pacific Ocean. The film’s final shot is of Rusty, in silhouette, standing next to MB’s motorcycle, his brother noticeably absent but still symbolically present, Rusty having achieved liberty and a spiritual balance with his brother.
Belton, John. "Painting by the Numbers: The Digital Intermediate." (2008): 58-65.
Coppola, Francis Ford (dir.). Rumble Fish. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane.
Universal Pictures, 1983. Film.
Fahlenbrach, Kathrin. "Emotions in sound: Audiovisual metaphors in the sound design of
narrative films." Projections 2.2 (2008): 85-103.
Lebeau, Vicky. "Lost Angels." (1995).
Shary, Timothy. "The teen film and its methods of study: A book review essay." Journal of
Popular Film and Television 25.1 (1997): 38-45.
Walsh, Keri. "Why Does Mickey Rourke Give Pleasure?." Critical Inquiry 37.1 (2010):
Welsch, Tricia. "Foreign Exchange: German Expressionism and Its Legacy." Cinema
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