Rumble Fish (1983)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Universal Home Video, $19.95

After the commercial failure of his ambitious musical One From the Heart, Francis Ford Coppola decided to get back to basics. He took a crew to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and produced two inexpensive teen films, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Both pictures, which were shot back to back, were based on popular books by S.E. Hinton. Upon their release, they largely were overlooked by critics, but now, more than 20 years later, both films are clearly seminal works in the careers of Coppola and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, ASC, who photographed the pictures.

Burum had worked with Coppola as a second-unit cinematographer on Apocalypse Now, and he also shot The Escape Artist, which was produced by Coppola and directed by Caleb Deschanel, ASC. The collaboration between Burum and Coppola really hit its peak with Rumble Fish, however; the opportunity to shoot a low-budget picture outside of Hollywood seems to have liberated both men to take one artistic chance after another. Rumble Fish is a movie-lover’s dream that only gets better with each viewing. Like Citizen Kane and The Conformist, it’s a picture in which nearly every image is visually elegant, thematically expressive and audacious.

Rumble Fish shares the same writer, setting and some of the same actors with The Outsiders, but in most ways it is the earlier film’s diametric opposite. Whereas The Outsiders features vibrant color and dynamic widescreen framing, Rumble Fish is a stark black-and-white picture in which the 1.85:1 aspect ratio reflects the less expansive physical and emotional landscape of the troubled characters. And whereas The Outsiders is a traditional melodrama — Coppola has referred to it as “Gone With the Wind for teenagers” — Rumble Fish has more in common with the avant-garde films of Stan Brakhage and Chris Marker than anything made in Hollywood.

Yet the offbeat editing and sound design that characterize Rumble Fish enhance rather than detract from the emotional content, which is formidable. Aside from being a potent examination of teen alienation, the movie presents an intimate character study of two brothers (played by Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke). The complicated relationship between these two young men and their alcoholic father is brilliantly conveyed by Burum’s use of short focal lengths and deep-focus compositions, which keep all of the characters in the frame at once. Their spatial relationships reflect their emotions, and the constant visual expressions of the concept of time remind us at every moment that the clock is running out for these doomed youths.

Burum’s images look spectacular in this new DVD, which offers a new transfer that flawlessly captures the cinematographer’s tonal range — a range that, incidentally, allows the film to veer from tragedy to absurdist comedy to visceral action without ever seeming disjointed or cluttered. The dense visuals find their aural corollary in Richard Beggs’ innovative sound design, which has never sounded better than it does on this Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix.

Coppola supplies an engaging audio commentary, throughout which he makes his love for the picture quite clear. He has often said that Rumble Fish is his favorite of the films he directed, and his enthusiasm for the movie and his collaborators is infectious. He entertainingly discusses many facets of the film’s production, including performances, lighting and lens choices. If the commentary occasionally comes across as repetitive, it’s forgivable, because the repetitions stem from Coppola’s overwhelming affection for his cast and crew.

The DVD features two 11-minute featurettes that contain a surprising amount of information, given their short running times. The first is an overview of the film’s production for which Burum is interviewed at length. He provides some fascinating insights into his aesthetic approach and describes the advantages of working with black-and-white, such as the ability to paint artificial shadows on the walls to create expressionistic effects. Burum also reveals how the film’s few color images were integrated into the monochromatic whole, and there’s a terrific explanation of the previsualization strategies he and Coppola employed on the production.

The second featurette explores Stewart Copeland’s unusual, percussion-based score. Included are interviews with Copeland and Coppola that provide a concise but detailed study of the philosophy behind the picture’s music and sound design. Other supplements include a trailer, a music video, and six scenes that were deleted from the film. The collection of supplements nicely enhances the viewer’s appreciation of Rumble Fish, a film that is sure to inspire generations of filmmakers for years to come.

— Jim Hemphill

<< previous || next >>

© 2006 American Cinematographer.