Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Coppola, Made in Tulsa: Rumblefish

Another revised translation from abandoned project Cinema in Transit.  

Rumblefish (Francis Ford Coppola) 

Out of sorts with the adult world, the unrelenting Coppola concocts a tale of (still) mimetic violence among Tulsa teenagers.

What’s good about Coppola is his awareness of being part of the History of the Cinema, with capital letters. What’s tiresome about Coppola is his awareness that the quickly embittered prophet in him must negotiate hairpin bends within this very history of cinema. That’s why his most recent films are a bit doltish. That’s why they depress American critics (who tend to have a phobia about prophets – look at Welles). That’s why, in spite of everything, he interests us phenomenally (after all, it was Europe that took it into its head to write the History of Cinema).

Watching a Coppola film – Rumblefish more than all the others put together – is like encountering a new pinball machine. A Gottlieb or a new-look Bally (you hardly ever see any Williams any more) where you would put an old ten-franc coin in the slot in a state of anxious excitement. How does this one work? Where are the bumpers, corridors, free spaces, targets, the captive or extra balls, the special? What sort of noise does it make? What’s the best way to win? 

When you look at the backglass of the pinball machine (let’s call the “old” part of Coppola’s films their “backglass”) you always see the same inscriptions. “It’s more fun to compete” means there is more pleasure playing with others (because of the competition). Well, Coppola’s films are always stories of gangs. Mafiosi, soldiers after that, teenagers after that. “A game of skills” means that you have to be dextrous in order to play and have total command of the film technique (and film memory). Now when you look under the glass of the pinball machine (let’s call the most modernist part of Coppola’s films the “glass”) you can easily see that this man has a need to test himself out by pursuing the movies in their most advanced form. 

I say “advanced” as I would say “decomposed” if talking about a piece of meat. Twenty years on, Rumblefish is the equivalent of what Arthur Penn tried to do in his little-known film Mickey One (1964). The same kind of blandly angelic good looks hero (Warren Beatty then, Matt Dillon now), the same retro-style black and white, the same metaphysics of scores outstanding, the same vanities. Except that in twenty years the images and sounds of the American cinema, worked on by video, electronics, Europe and its idea of its future, are now able to come up with different dreams in the same bed (in the same film). Nowadays it’s an experience that can be bought. In 1964 it was Penn who was mannered. In 1984 it’s the audience of Rumblefish (an audience targeted by Coppola as younger and younger) which is naturally mannered. All of today’s directors with a bit of life in them (from the most laborious, like Beineix, to the most talented, like Ruiz) are heirs to this phenomenal corpse: the cinema. All big wheels in a sense, but rolling at breakneck speed towards the “new images”. Auteurs, it’s true, but of somewhat comical prosthetic parts. The truth of the lie was yesterday. The powers of the false are for today. Signs of the times. 

There was one important date in the history of the pinball machine (but a clever anthropologist would align it with the history of cinema); it was when it too started talking. “Play me again!” implored the abject Xenon. “Bye-bye!” the irritating Q*bert’s Quest simpers nowadays to the player who has just lost his stake. There’s nothing human about these voices, they no longer “stick” to the image, they accompany it. 

Coppola is contemporary to Xenon. His “style” is a matter of displaying – conspicuously if possible – the choice of amplification to which he submits this or that detail (whether visual or in sound) so as to make it play a little solo, just like in jazz. This is what he started doing in One from the Heart. Something in between pointless showing off and last-minute verification, the test and the check-up. So in Rumblefish there are solos: of images (Stephen Burum’s), words, music (Stewart Copeland’s, the drummer from Police), of gestures, camera movements, of everything. They have no purpose apart from the pleasure of someone noisily revving up a very fine machine before riding out on it. 

Some examples. The film’s American title cues its meaning, that’s to say that unless we leave the tribe we are doomed to hurl ourselves upon our own image and to gnaw it or destroy it; in “French": the title has become Rusty James. Now these are the words most often heard in the film. The hero is continually called by his name, either in challenge or with affection, often in the way that a child is spoken to, to get it used to the idea that it has a name – its name, a name all of its own. This “Rusty James!” uttered in an Arkansas accent (the setting is Tulsa) is a way of drawing in the spectator, like the Xenon pinball machine’s “play me again”. There are many other examples of this art of amplification. The decision to film in black and white with the alibi of the Motorcycle Boy’s colour-blindness. Or that long scene between the two brothers where the elder (the Boy in question) keeps on asking the younger just one question: “Why?”. “Why why?” the other finally protests. And the scene continues, getting stuck on this little word like a clot of blood. Or again those fight scenes choreographed like commercials, shot at Adidas level, as if already quoting from a film that we were supposed to know. Or the sudden colour of the fighting fish (red, blue) in their poverty-stricken aquarium. Or the virtuosity of the camera movements, as if, since he has begun using video to rehearse his films like ballets, Coppola was finally able to treat the camera with all the consideration owed to a character. 

This is how F. ‘Ford’ C. painstakingly creates today’s mannerist cinema. This Italo-American is our Parmigianino or our Primaticcio. Everything he loses on the one hand – spontaneity, humour, inspiration – he gains on the other – inventiveness, melancholy, courage. Of course, there’s often a desire to beg him (you’d have to shout very loud) to let his characters and his shots breathe, not to smother them – and us – beneath his show-offish expertise, not to lose what often gives his films their charm (for example the whole Mark Twain-style episode in The Outsiders), not to want to perpetually control everything (because “everything” is too much). Of course, he is further away from the lyricism of Nicholas Ray or Sam Fuller (other analysts of group violence and its homosexual core) than from the frigid pyrotechnics of Otto Preminger. But all the same, he’s there. 

For the mistake would be in imagining that Coppola makes do with tacking on a hypertrophied style to what are in the end hackneyed themes. This isn’t quite true. The man possesses a “vision of the world” which is perfectly in keeping with the pandemonium he has in mind for the movies. 

What’s the story of Rumblefish? An attractive and charismatic ex-gang leader known by the name of Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) comes home to Tulsa now older (he is twenty-one!) after a trip to California. He joins his father, an out-of-work alcoholic lawyer (Dennis Hopper, who is terrific) and more especially his younger brother, Rusty James (Matt Dillon). While he has been away Rusty has tried to keep the gangs going and be one of their leaders. Rusty is wildly beautiful. Rusty totally looks up to his brother. But Rusty is betrayed by words; the fact is: he’s not very smart. He doesn’t realise that no one believes any longer in this kind of heroism, nor does anyone believe in him as a leader. How is he to be made to realise this? Motorcycle Boy is in the fiendishly Coppalesque situation of someone who has touched bottom, found nothing there, and is reduced to sporting a dandyish demeanour of few words (he’s not just colour-blind but half-deaf!). So that his little brother can become a man (who knows?), he will have to resort to the complicated metaphor of the rumble fish. And this metaphor will be the death of him. 

Clearly, Rumblefish is a story of disillusionment. Made flesh, the ideal disappoints. Idols have feet of clay. (Remember Kurz-Brando in Apocalypse Now). This is nothing unusual. A filmmaker who wants to rethink the cinema’s powers of illusion needs to believe that the world (the “real” world) is already an illusion. That it consists of appearances, of celestial twinkles and earthly shams. The beautiful, very innocently Disneyesque scene where Rusty James has been knocked out and dreams he is dead and you see his levitating body turned into a soul in transit overflying a smoke-filled field of mourners, perhaps tells us the truth of Coppola’s cinema. The world in essence hardly exists. The director only manipulates its substance in order to extract a little of his soul.

 First published in Libération on 15 February 1984 as "Coppola, made in Tulsa". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

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