Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Francis Ford Coppola 1983 Double Feature: THE OUTSIDERS & RUMBLE FISH

 by Adam Riske

Sometimes you’re not on the same page as one of your favorite filmmakers.

There are times I need to remind myself that I’m not always going to like every movie made by directors I consider my favorites. I equate it to taking a train; most of the time you’ll both be on the same train running on the same track but there will be days where your favorite filmmaker is conducting the train on track #3 instead of the usual track #2. The train on track #3 got to where it meant to, but that doesn’t mean you like the destination it reached.

That’s where I’m at with Francis Ford Coppola’s two films from 1983: The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. I want to like both movies, but they’re just not for me in the way other Coppola films are including his Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Peggy Sue Got Married, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Rainmaker. I admire much of the Coppola filmmaking flourishes in The Outsiders and especially the very experimental Rumble Fish, but the impediments are ones I can’t get past.
Rumble Fish was described by Coppola as being the carrot he would give himself for making The Outsiders, which is evident after watching the two movies in the span of a few days. I find it interesting how Coppola wound up on The Outsiders. The story goes that a group of students and their teacher wrote to Coppola after reading the S.E. Hinton novel in their class and requested Coppola (who they as a group called their favorite director) adapt their beloved book into a movie. Coppola was moved by the letter and took the assignment. I use the word assignment intentionally because The Outsiders (in its theatrical form; there was a restored director’s cut of the full novel put together by Coppola many years later) feels like a movie made by a guy so supremely talented that he can’t help but make work in some regards (the look, the mood, etc.) but isn’t able to put over the top because it’s not a passion project. The movie feels like a dutiful favor where the filmmaker didn’t want to let a class of students down more than a movie Coppola has a burning desire to tell himself. He’s gotten better at “assignments” over the years (e.g., The Godfather Part III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula reportedly were made more for financial reasons with Coppola’s studio than because they were films Coppola needed to make as an artist for himself).

I read The Outsiders in school (I think it was junior high, but it could have been high school) and I loved it at the time. It was one of my preferred novels we read in class. There was something exciting and identifiable about the story of teens in emotional turmoil. We watched the movie on VHS in class after we were done reading the book and I remember being underwhelmed by it because of how much was lost in translation from page to screen (which isn’t Coppola’s fault, really, because Warner Bros. forced him to chop the movie down considerably). This recent rewatch was my first in decades and, no longer having fidelity to the novel and just wanting to watch a good movie, I was underwhelmed by the 1983 cut. The Outsiders has a cast of recognizable faces before they were stars (Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise to name a few, there’s so many more) but only a couple really register (Dillon and Macchio) and the rest come across more as ciphers. The best scenes are the ones with C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio together, away from the rest of the group. The heartbreak that Tough Guy Matt Dillon feels when he sees that the group’s altruism is punished instead of rewarded is affecting but it doesn’t land like it should because the whole movie feels like it’s in too big of a rush to sit with any of it.
Rumble Fish (another film adaptation of an S.E. Hinton novel) is frustrating for different reasons. I’m not sure how the story is told in the novel, but boy does this film need a narrator. If Matt Dillon’s lead character told the audience more about his interior life and feelings, I could get behind a guy who’s all macho posturing. Without it, it’s just performative bravado. The thing that tanks Rumble Fish for me, unfortunately, is the Mickey Rourke performance. Rourke is a fascinating actor (I’ve described him as either one of the best or one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen, sometimes in the same scene) but his performance in Rumble Fish is frustrating and alienating. Every line of dialogue is whispered or mumbled. I read he approached his part (of a hood tired of being a hood) with the approach of an actor who was tired of being an actor. If that’s what he was trying he might have succeeded too well to the detriment of the movie. Rumble Fish has some great flourishes here and there (the weird soundtrack, the arresting black & white photography, the sequence when Dillon’s soul temporarily leaves his body after a brawl and hovers over the ground as an observer), but I found the movie to be a frustrating watch in a way I don’t with the other Coppola films, many of which I get on a gut level and don’t need to do mental gymnastics over to analyze if they worked for me or not.

It’s a bit of a bummer to write pans for two 1983 films in a week designed to celebrate the films of that year. I was fully expecting to enjoy both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish but as a I said before, me and Mr. Coppola were just not on the same track this time. And that’s okay. It doesn’t diminish him as an artist to me whatsoever. I’m glad to have had an excuse to revisit The Outsiders and see Rumble Fish for the first time. I still have some holes left in Coppola’s filmography and I'm eager to see what’s next.

1 comment:

  1. The main thing I remember about Rumblefish is that there's a really cool shot of a fish tank. I wish I had more to say or recollect, but your write up makes me realize perhaps I wasn't alone in my disconnect from that movie.

    I saw The Outsiders on a small TV connected to a Playstation my junior year of college, with someone who enthusiastically loved it and had seen it so many times that I felt like an outsider myself. I feel like I owe that one a second look based on the cast alone but I am intrigued hearing the story behind the scenes of how Coppola came to direct it.

    Thanks for a fascinating and honest take as always!