New Illusion: THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLE FISH, and Coppola in the early ‘80s

William Patterson, Matt Dillon, and Mickey Rourke in Francis Coppola’s “art movie for teenagers.” (RUMBLE FISH, 1983)

In the 1980s, the narrative goes, the great Francis Coppola lost his touch. Following an extraordinary run during the previous decade — The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now — he ascended into the stratosphere on a cloud of ego fumes, trading substance for style, eschewing serious-minded projects for what The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael would call “pastry chef’s movies.”

But, to me, this is a misunderstanding. For Coppola, the early ’80s were not a time of creative bankruptcy, but of creative realignment. In the films of this period, the director’s focus shifts away from the medium’s ability to evoke real life and toward its power to create artifice. Inaugurated by the 1981 musical One from the Heart, this creative enterprise hits its stride with Coppola’s two S.E. Hinton adaptations from 1983, The Outsiders and (in particular) its avant-garde counterpart, Rumble Fish.

Films talk to each other. They borrow styles, trade symbols, tread similar ground, winking and calling back-and-forth, sometimes mirroring one another, other times bending away. Coppola’s Hinton films are engaged in such a dialogue. They share a basic setting — the emotionally-charged worlds of Oklahoma juvenile delinquents — and many of the same themes. The two films were both shot on location in Tulsa, made back-to-back with much of the same cast and crew, and released in 1983. Yet they represent radically different visions of their source material.

Coppola had never been a realist filmmaker. Even his classic films are intensely stylized (take, for example, the baroque, chiaroscuro compositions of The Godfather). Yet his movies employed many techniques in vogue in the auteur director-driven cinema of the period, which strove to create experiences more gritty, intimate, and raw than those of older Hollywood studio films. They were shot, for the most part, on location. Their narratives were morally ambiguous, and avoided tidy endings. The performances tended toward the naturalistic, often integrating improvisation and utilizing the “Method” approach, which encouraged actors to seek total emotional identification with their characters. If they did not aspire toward realism, Coppola’s films of the ’70s shared a drive toward a feeling of life.

Coppola’s evocation of “the feeling of life” (THE GODFATHER, 1972)

This drive reached its apotheosis with 1979’s Apocalypse Now, a hallucinatory epic transposing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War. Over a grueling sixteen-month shoot in the Philippines, Coppola and his massive crew contended with monsoons, suffocating heat, poisonous snakes, illness, nervous breakdowns, and guerrilla warfare spilling over from the country’s civil conflict. All the while, as the script underwent continual rewrites, the vision of the film became more and more elusive. Its star, Martin Sheen, nearly died of a heart attack. Coppola reportedly contemplated suicide. “My film is not about Vietnam,” the director would remark. “It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went crazy.”

Coppola on the set of APOCALYPSE NOW (Photograph: Zoetrope)

Though it would eventually be considered a masterpiece, Apocalypse Now’s initial reception was extremely mixed. “Sometimes I think, why don’t I just make my wine, do some dumbbell movie every two years, and take trips to Europe with my wife and kids,” he confessed.

But the path of the “dumbbell movie” was not Coppola’s. Having taken the location shoot to its extreme, the next leg of his work would articulate an alternative language of cinema, simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. Where his ’70s work had diverged from the sensibilities of the studio-era, his coming work would revisit older cinematic traditions and appropriate them to novel ends. Their subjects would be more universal, with characters evoking archetypes, the performances more theatrical, gestural. Using new techniques and technologies, the moods and themes would be manifested through a mise-en-scene blurring into the fantastic.

Hyper-stylization in ONE FROM THE HEART (1981)

His first experiment in this aesthetic would be its most extreme exercise, and would essentially spell its doom. Developed with the help of veteran actor/dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly, 1981’s One from The Heart follows a couple (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr) who break up, fool around, and reunite, set to music by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle. The story plays out in a surreal, neon dream-vision of Las Vegas, constructed on a massive set that would eventually wind its way through nine sound stages.

Critics almost unanimously hated it, finding it technically impressive but overly detached and empty of humanism or substance. Its budget having ballooned from $15 million to $26 million, One from the Heart recouped a measly $637,000 at the box office, leaving Coppola (who had produced the film through his own Zoetrope Studios) with staggering debts.

The “Brat Pack” cast of THE OUTSIDERS (Photograph: Getty)

As he contemplated his next move, Coppola received a letter from a junior high school librarian, entreating him to adapt The Outsiders for the screen. The novel, which had become one of the most popular young adult books of all time, told the story of two young boys from the wrong side of the tracks, embroiled in a local gang conflict between the rough-and-tumble Greasers and the preppy Socs. Susan Eloise Hinton had written the book while she was still in high school, abridging her name, lest reviewers dismiss the story’s authenticity because of her gender.

Moved by the letter, Coppola also saw an opportunity to generate some money before the full brunt of his One From the Heart debts came crashing down. Not only would the project have a built in audience among the fans of the novel, it would also allow him to work with a cast of young actors. “I used to be a great camp counselor, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.” Their fees were lower too. As it happened, the group he gathered would turn out to be a veritable who’s who of future Hollywood stars (C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane).

THE OUTSIDERS (1983) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

Commercially-minded as it was, The Outsiders adhered to Coppola’s creative vector in many regards. While the most obvious visual cues are furnished by the denim-and-hair gel Greaser aesthetic (with plenty of antecedents among the teen rebellion/juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s), Coppola zeroed in on the story’s emotional currents — the desire for belonging, the end of childhood — modeling the film’s look on the colorful melodramas of the Classical Hollywood period, Gone With The Wind in particular. Not to put too fine a point on it, he augmented the film with a swooning score, composed by his own father.

But Coppola the business-minded pragmatist could only stay in ascendance for so long before Coppola the restless artist came out of eclipse. As production went on, he began to imagine another project, based on another Hinton novel, one that would deal with the same themes but would be the negative of The Outsiders in tone and presentation, a kind of shadow-twin; gritty where its counterpart was gentle, avant-garde where its double was pop. Where The Outsiders was to be a “Gone With The Wind for fourteen-year-old girls,” Rumble Fish would be “an art film for teenagers.”

Shades of Expressionism in RUMBLE FISH (1983)

The story follows a teenaged hoodlum named Rusty James, who is obsessed with living up to the reputation of his older brother, an absent, quasi-mythic gang leader known only as The Motorcycle Boy. As Rusty James becomes more and more self-destructive, The Motorcycle Boy returns, but he’s undergone some sort of transformation. He may be enlightened, or he may be mad. Coppola recognized his own experience in Hinton’s story, having grown up in the shadow of a talented and charismatic older brother.

Treating the project as a reward for finishing The Outsiders, Coppola wrote the screenplay with S.E. Hinton on days off from shooting. Less than a month after The Outsiders had wrapped, Rumble Fish had started filming, using virtually the same crew. Rusty James and his straight-laced girlfriend, Patty, were played by Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, both of whom had been part of The Outsiders. Mickey Rourke, then at the height of his magnetism, took the role of The Motorcycle Boy, modeling the character on Napoleon and Albert Camus. The cast was filled out by Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Chris Penn, and Nicolas Cage, with Dennis Hopper playing the boys’ alcoholic father.

RUMBLE FISH (1983) utilizes an expressionistic, off-kilter visual sensibility

Like The Outsiders, Rumble Fish is cinema-literate, composed from disparate reference points: the strange angles and painted shadows of Expressionist silent film; the theatricality and fanciful choreography of old Hollywood musicals; surreal, symbol-laden mise-en-scene recalling the weirder works of arthouse directors like Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Jean Cocteau, and Ingmar Bergman. The experimental score, written by The Police’s Stewart Copeland, is largely rhythmic, evoking the ticking of a clock.

To my mind, Rumble Fish stands as the most realized fulfillment of Coppola’s aesthetic aims during this period of his career, and one of his very best films, period. It calls to mind many other works of art, cinematic and otherwise, yet its style is completely singular. But most remarkable, perhaps, is that through this filmic language, Coppola is able to grasp something that is not esoteric but simple and universal.

Rumble Fish is about growing up. It’s about grappling with your idols and the mythology of the past. It’s about facing the future, realizing that the youthful sense of invulnerability is an illusion. It’s about the finitude of time. It’s about recognizing the need to adjust your world view. There is no other film like it.

A flash of color in a black-and-white world (RUMBLE FISH, 1983)

Coppola’s next directorial effort, The Cotton Club, would also go wildly over budget, and the filmmaker would spend much of the next decade doing work-for-hire. This stretch of his career is widely regarded as the period where a great artist lost his magic, but for me, it represents a great, unrealized project. During the early years of the ’80s, Coppola was moving into a unique sensibility. I imagine a world where he’d not been entagled by debts, where his studio hadn’t crashed and burned, where his vision had more time to bear out. Had it come to pass, perhaps he might have given us another classic run.

The Outsiders plays at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Thursday, July 12. Rumble Fish screens on Thursday, July 19 in conjunction with a Cinema Classics Seminar, taught by yours truly. Visit our website to learn more and purchase tickets.

See you at the movies!

— Jacob Mazer, Special Programming Manager, BMFI