RUMBLEFISH AND THE MANICS

 

"Living life like a comatose

Life sold cheaply forever.

Under neon loneliness.

Motorcycle emptiness."

Manic street preachers.

 

 

In 1983 Francis Ford Coppola rendered to celluloid S E Hintons much loved children's classics 'The outsiders' and 'Rumblefish' . The latter failed to be screened in the majority of cinemas - a huge box office flop it was the least commercially successful of the two and yet the most artistically heralded. Only in the films subsequent status as a 'cult' movie does it seem that the film finds its just desserts in tireless re-runs at arthouses throughout the world. The film finds a specific appeal for a hitherto unconsidered generation. 'Rumblefish' stands its urban grainy ground in what was been considered higher cultural circles of cinematic scrutiny, and at a more accessible level there are those youths who inexplicably love it. The Manic street preachers have perhaps opened the door for many into the world of this black & white dream, most notably in their homage to their cinematic heroes Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy - in the form of what proved to be their most popular and widely known song to date (though surprisingly not their most successful in chart terms). Perhaps it is now to the bands irritation that the song has become synonymous with the band themselves in spite of later hits, an image change, and two later albums it their calling card - the moment at which the audience is at its wildest. This is hardly surprising given the identification the band themselves undoubtedly have with the film and the films characters, most evidently in the form of lyricist Richard Edwards public wish to be referred to as Richey James in imitations of Matt Dillon's non philosophical and "not word smart" character (an inappropriate identification and self undermining occurrence which anyone familiar with the songs and honesty of the Manics lyrics will know) For fans of the Manics this may provide a starting point, a curiosity to the film which has so inspired their heroes, whilst for those of us who are already acquainted with it, the song and its remarkable popularity, indicates something which we are already aware of - not only providing confirmation of our personal opinions of the films atmospheric greatness (few people I know have actually heard of it!), but more vastly this illustrates the special appeal of the film to alienated youth (the Manics ability to express and manufacture this for a 'useless generation' is a topic for discussion in itself).It is this youthful and universal appeal which I shall proceed to discuss.

 

Hintons work has been criticised on several counts, which seem to emerge from her status as a woman writing about men - a disappointment to those feminists who are unable to see beyond gender restrictions and understand more the themes contained within. The eloquence and sorrow which she has bestowed upon her lower class characters has also been subject to abuse.

 

"Her heroes sometimes err on the side of over sensitivity and poetic perception." (Rose, 1983,258)

Additionally, the movies place within the genre of teen/bike movies has been Mark Spratt (Rebels, Rumbles & Motorcycle boys', Cinema papers 1984) spoke of 'Rumblefish' as a film which inherits the "Born to be wild" ethos the 1950s & 60s,an ethos which he feels has been squandered by the adolescent culture which has lost the dream behind it.

"Motorbikes seem to have become transport, not proud stallions carrying wild boys to their dreams"(1984,309).

He sees this to be symptomatic of "the facile materialism" which he detects in 80s cinema. However, if this is the case then it can also be said to reflect the hopelessness of the age, our 'why bother' generation.

"The 1980s becomes the decade of the so-called 'no power' generation famous for a facile materialistic conformity, or crudely, shopping rather than politics. They do drugs, but privately, the paisley shirts and rock aren't so much a true sixties revival as another failure of originality, not knowing what to want." (Pye, 1986,48)

This argument gains credence when placed in the timeless, and time wasting landscape of 'Rumblefish' - a landscape which echoes latter day (the1950s, with its pre occupation with leather jackets, motorcycles, gangs and a certain indiscernible fashion style) and yet remains curiously in the here and now. This ambiguity provides an indication of its generation; lacking imagination and utilising what has been given in an age of used up ideas and themes. Thatcher and Reagan induced self interest and conformity ensure that a battle for identity is inevitable. The feelings expressed within the film remain as timeless as its setting.

"I just wanted to tell the truth about teenage life and to tell it the way it is. Most adults don't remember the emotional intensity and the idealism of being a teenager. That's what makes my work different. Mostly I just remember real well what it was like to be a teenager. Some of the problems change, but the feelings don't." (SE Hinton, 1977, intro to Teen Tracks edition of 'Rumblefish')

Writers who have condemned Hintons observance of male bonding with claims that it is to the exclusion of the female other fail to perceive the more universal category of problems which her work addresses, shared by male and female alike - those of youth. This also transcends the superficial gang theme the film, which is also a question for analysis. Lebeau rightly points out that The Motorcycle boy has in interest in the gangs, or reviving them, when he returns, "It wasn't anything" he tells Steve. Rather he turns his attention towards the fighting fish in the pet Store

"Rumblefish could be described as the gang film that never was. The gangs are fragile, even delusive, memories against which the relations between Rusty James (Matt Dillon) and his elder brother, The Motorcycle boy (Mickey Rourke) is played out." (Lebeau, 1995)

It is the rather underexposed (for some) aspect of the gangs that creates the -problem for many within the film. It cannot be easily categorised as a 'gang film' or a 'Teenage rites-of-passage' movie because of its bold mixture of high and low culture and refusal to recognise boundaries between them. On the one hand, the film deals with what has been classified as a lower culture subject matter (gangs, youth, motorbikes as a spectacle), whilst on the other it employs higher cultural 1920s German expressionism in its filming. These are undoubtedly a major influence in shaping the look of the film, as displayed in the films use of expressionist camera angles, painted shadows and disharmony in the lighting which owe a great deal to Robert Wienes' 'The cabinet of Dr Caligari' (1919). It is this failure to commit to either art or product (high or low culture) which prevents the film from being either mainstream or avante garde, rendering it to the peculiar status as a 'Cult movie'

 

Some readers have found these cinematographic techniques to be highly alienating, making it difficult for character identification, and for the viewer to understand what is going on.

 

"None of the dead souls on the screen ever enters the land of the living drama, where obsession and ambiguity intersect and a poor soul in the dark can look up at the figure on the screen and say 'Hey, that's me'. Instead, one suspects, Coppola wants the moviegoer to shout 'Hey, what's that?'" (Richard Corliss, Time magazine, 1983,91)

 

However, viewed within the context of the day of its reception such a confusion of content and image is the perfect stage on which a play about teenage experience can be acted. That is, at a time when classical music has become a consumer product, available in weekly instalments with an accompanying step by step magazine and literature is serialised into weekly mini series and is available on audio cassette, this blurring of cultural boundaries is one which its audience experience on a daily basis and are adept at deciphering. In viewing the film the effect of Coppolas pretentious cinematography, the clutter of images in the mise en scen, (distancing the spectator from the characters on screen) is to recreate the feelings of the youths themselves not fully understanding, at odds with an environment which they have no control over and unable to communicate with those around them. Like the disillusioned hopeless generational misfit on the screen the viewer is denied the comfort of escapism and the dream screen state (Metz). Although, in all fairness I feel that the mythic aspects of the film, brotherly conflict and a quest for identity are overwhelming in their capacity to produce audience identification and response. It is these aspects I shall now briefly outline.

 

Within the Western and the action film there has been a reoccurring theme of brotherhood, rivalry and coming of age the pacifist Vs the fighter, the domesticator Vs the warrior, the spiritual Vs the physical. This is the epic which has been played out repeatedly throughout history and mythology, a story as old as that of Cain and Abel. 'Rumblefish' tells the story of two brothers, not in opposition, but in stark contrast (although Rusty James insists that he will one day be like his brother and looks up to him with religious devotion). Rourke plays a prince of peace, a brother of man, a spiritual leader who speaks in parables. His sensory limitations (he is colour-blind and partially deaf) are indicative of his clearer and more intense insight; he is focused and recognises the deceptive nature of temporal illusion. (In the form of the bright lights of California which distracted him from his true salvation - the ocean). Just as the cop, whose shadow always precedes him (Symbolic of his association with all that the young people oppose - law, authority, limitations and death) is preoccupied with time (in this case wasted) the 'prince in exile' is fixated upon water, time lapsed clouds, puddles of water in the street, the river, the ocean are all visual references to his destiny.

"Like the coloured fish (which only the natural leader 'The motorcycle boy' has the power to see) ordinary things are endowed with transcendental, highly metaphoric significance through the use of non realist camera angles, speeded up film and fantasy sequences, strategies that evoke an attitude of veneration parallel to that inspired by leaders, a sense of mysterious transcendental power or the meaning in things"(Ryan & Kellner, l99O,)

The greater glory which The Motorcycle boy speaks of in pictures to those who are unable to understand is beyond the comprehension of his less philosophical brother, who is unable to match his elder - socially, physically or intellectually (his brother must come to his rescue). Rusty James is unable to understand the metaphorical and cannot appreciate the mythic import of the prophetic words of the motorcycle boys' sometime girlfriend Cassandra (who changes her mind that she was right in thinking that the Motorcycle boy had "gone for good").

Although the aptly named Cassandra' decent down the fire escape in correspondence to her sycophantic attachment to The Motorcycle boy and her habit may well symbolise her Dante-esque descent into the lower spiritual world, it is also indicative of the retreating form of woman within the film. Notably women are not a stable part of the boy's life, Rusty James finishes with him, but more poignant is the absence of the mother from their father - consequently an alcoholic, and the boys lives. This, absence is keenly felt via the comparisons made between The Motorcycle boy and his mother (who looks like her). For Rusty James this looking up to his brother represents an absence of the mother, in psychoanalytic terms, the desire for an omnipotent, maternal presence of infancy - as reflected in his fear of being alone, and his need for a strong leader.

 

"The leader is someone who has no limitation on the triumph of his will, he represents a conservative male desire to regress to a narcissistic state in which all desires are immediately satisfied.' (ibid)

 

The absence of a mother and a leader is something which is experienced by al in the independence thrust upon individuals in the difficult transition to adulthood. This is something which the younger brother, unlike the elder who "stopped being a kid when I was five", is unable to do throughout the film, and which he achieves in the end.

 

"The Rumble fish of the title suggest not gang warfare but an aggression directed, as if by some demented Narcissus, against oneself". (Johnston, l984, 8)

 

It is little wonder that The Manic Street Preachers have felt such an affinity with the film, the ambivalence of a band who sing so willingly 'You love us', and yet who display a very different self opinion in the form of the anorexia and wounds inflicted by insightful and suffering lyricist Richey 'Manic' (as he has been donned) to his own person. A similar discrepancy is displayed in the films love of its own spectacle, the young n within it, and yet the double edged sword of the seeds of their own destruction which marks every true tragedy and is the requiem for a un-used and much abused generation

 

"If The motorcycle boy were mearly insane we could him as a derelict mind with unusual powers, but the insanity he speaks of is not of the clinical variety. There is something divine about his madness." (Geoffrey Hill, 1992)

 

Angela Lynne Readman

 

READY TO RUMBLE? Cool quotables for those in the know

 

If you haven't seen it (well firstly, why not?) and still aren't convinced here are a few tasters of what's in store, for the chosen few here is a brief reminder of what is so cool (better than cool, warm) about the film

 

· "Your mother was not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He's merely miscast the play. Every now and then a person comes along who has a different view of the world than the usual person. It doesn't make 'im crazy. I mean acute perception - that doesn't make 'im crazy However, sometimes it can drive you crazy

 

· "Even the most primitive societies have an mate respect for the insane

 

· "When you're young you've got time. You got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there - it doesn't matter. You know the older you get, you say, Jesus, how much I got? I got 35 summers left. Think about it - 35 summers."

 

· "You're smart, you're just not word smart"

 

· "California is like a beautiful wild girl on Heroin not knowing she's dying even if you show her the marks"

 

· "You know if you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go

 

· "Someone oughta put the fish in the river"