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The Ineluctability of Time in Coppola Drama, 'Rumble Fish'

Mickey Rourke (all photos IMDB)

Rumble Fish suggests that in our complex relationship to time, we become the cartographies of our own misperceptions.

Rumble Fish

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Year: 1983
Blu-ray: Rumble Fish: A Film by Francis Ford Coppola
Release date: 2017-04-25

Our relationship to temporality is deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. We are creatures for whom time matters. Other animals, of course, live through time and experience its vicissitudes. They experience youth, maturation, and senescence. They engage in the lifecycle, seem to be aware of their own mortality (or at the very least, aware that their lives can be threatened), and seek to preserve themselves in the face of adversity. But insofar as human beings are characterized by the capacity for reflection, and insofar as reflection requires a lived experience of temporality, we find ourselves involved in time as an integral part of our humanity.

We build our lives upon the foundation of the past and in the sway of our hopes for the future. On the one hand, we can say that both past and future impinge upon our present. Our current actions, our worldviews, our sense of identity are all grounded in our experiences from the past registered in memory, inscribed within our corporeality. In this sense, we are palimpsests of past experiences, texts scrawled upon the surfaces of our bodies, the recesses of our affective dispositions, the depths of our conscious and unconscious minds.

But even while we are such palimpsests, we are also projections into the unforeseen, the untold, the yet-to-come. Even in our most hopeless moments, we live today in the anticipation of tomorrow, of its blandishments and its depredations, its giddy promises and its terrifying threats. To echo Jimi Hendrix in declaring “I don’t live today”, therefore, has the alarming ring of truth. I am the sedimentation of my yesterdays projecting into the unknowable future of my tomorrows.

On the other hand, while the past and future impinge upon the present, our reflective nature leads us to cast our minds back toward the past or forward into the future from the delimited space of our present. We are the sedimentation of our past, but we also strive to make sense of that past, to force it into the discursive, to implore it to speak the truth of ourselves, of what we are and why we are what we are. Equally, we look to the future for similar assurances but instead of seeking an answer to what we are, we ask of the future what possibilities remain to us, what we might become. We want a guarantee that present endeavor will reap future reward. We want reassurance that our narrative ends well.

Our sense of self, bound up in a past we cannot understand and a future that we will never truly see, is an undiscovered country, a mysterious land of self-contemplation mired in misapprehension. In this sense, we become the cartographies of our own misperceptions. The I that I am is always lost to me, always under construction and yet (paradoxically and painfully) always-already foreclosed. I try to read the palimpsest that I am, overwritten by past and future, but the language is obscure and I am at a loss to interpret it; and yet I must try.

Francis Ford Coppola suffuses his 1983 adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young-adult novel Rumble Fish with images and themes that demonstrate our ineluctable entwinement with time and the ways in which time shapes us while we endeavor to give meaning to it. Rumble Fish follows immediately on the heels of Coppola’s The Outsiders (also 1983) based on the first novel by Hinton and indeed Rumble Fish can be viewed as the dark companion to that earlier film -- even employing some of the same actors but placing them in a starkly different filmic environment imbued with a level of existentialist angst not only removed from The Outsiders but indeed quite foreign to most films of the era.

Whereas The Outsiders is shot in color and is a widely accessible narrative film, Rumble Fish features high-contrast black and white, stop-motion sequences of clouds and Tulsa, constant allusions to Weimar period films (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- including that era’s trick of painting shadows onto walls to heighten the surreality of the image), a musical soundtrack (brilliantly provided by Police drummer Stewart Copeland) that often obfuscates the dialogue along with other audio tricks (in an attempt to emulate the near-deafness of one of the characters) that obscure the text. Several scenes are choreographed or photographed in a manner that reminds the viewer of the cinematic apparatus. We are never meant to lose sight of the artificiality of the experience and yet I find this film far more affecting and effective than the naturalistic Outsiders.

We should not require much in the way of plot summary in order to address our concerns in this essay, so I will be brief. Rumble Fish focuses primarily on a relationship between two brothers. Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) is a high school student who leads a group of young toughs (including Chris Penn and Nicholas Cage). Rusty-James is not particularly intelligent but he is charismatic and is characterized by the heightened emotionality often attached to teenagers in film. He longs for the days in the recent past when there were true gangs that fought for territory and honor and he anticipates their return.

One of the gang leaders of that time was, of course, his older brother, known only as The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). The Motorcycle Boy, absent from town for several months, has now returned. Rusty-James hopes that this homecoming will lead to a rejuvenation of the gangs but Motorcycle Boy evinces no interest in that. Unlike Rusty-James, his brother is insightful, given to existentialist reflection (Coppola even dressed Rourke in the manner of Albert Camus), and world-weary. The brothers love each other, want to care for each other, but ultimately fail to comprehend the world from the other’s point of view.

Rumble Fish employs what we might see as a subset of experiential time: mythic time.
Time is a central but multivalent and destabilized theme of the film. In essence, there are two main approaches to time in Rumble Fish: what we might term clock-time versus mythic time, loosely according with Henri Bergson’s distinction between temps espace and temps durée. Clock-time, or temps espace, is the spatial notion of time as a thing that can be measured quantitatively and that breaks down into equal divisions and subdivisions. A day breaks into 24 hours, each dividing into 60 minutes, etc. This view of time appears to be objective and predictable, and it forms a homogenous multiplicity; that is, there are numerous seconds but they are all alike.

Clock-time is essentially empty. Think of each hour as a container waiting for the beings in the world to fill it with activity. I eat for half an hour, then watch television for two hours, exercise for an hour, etc. The activities differ but the units of time remain the same. Indeed, I measure the length of those activities and can compare them by virtue of the fact that all seconds are equal in value. Their indistinct relationships to each other afford the variety of events that occur in the world -- or more to the point, the homogeneity of this view of time allows one to account for the measurement of a wide diversity of happenstances.

But in itself, the emptiness of this view of time can be devastating. This is the manner in which clock-time appears in Rumble Fish. Clocks conspicuously appear throughout the film, ticking off seconds that typically find the protagonists waiting eagerly for something to happen or lost in a reverie, dreaming of a better possibility that would serve as an escape from time. But time in this film stretches on, infinitely, before Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy, reminding them of their finitude. In the opening scene, Rusty-James is informed that another young man wants to fight him. He is in a diner, playing pool, a clock looming in the background. He is told the fight will begin at 10PM. Clock-time in this film marks out the blank space of anticipation.

In two later scenes, separated by a brief discussion between the brothers, Rusty-James finds himself in class, fantasizing about his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane). She is perched provocatively déshabillé atop a bookshelf in the first scene and some lockers in the next, high above the class. In both scenes, she lies next to a clock, the hands traversing the circumference of the clock-face as she slowly disrobes. The clocks seem to represent the wasted time Rusty-James spends in school, not learning, not living. Meanwhile, the fantasy of Patty and the sensual bliss she promises provides Rusty-James with the vision of an alternative, a possibility of fulfillment that transcends the emptiness of time, a dream of repletion that disavows clock-time and its indignities.

Shortly thereafter, the owner of the diner Benny (Tom Waits) delivers a monologue about time shot from a vertiginous height that keeps the clock above the diner counter in constant, threatening view. When you are young, Benny avers, you carelessly throw time away only to find yourself realizing that you only have “35 more summers”. Time is ever-fleeting, inexorably ticking away in its relentless, even units of measurement, an endless counting that simply marks off an underlying nothingness -- until it ends altogether in the radical nothingness of death.

Perhaps the most arresting tableau of the film involves Rusty-James, the Motorcycle Boy, and a policeman (William Smith) who clearly has it out for the older brother standing in front of a huge clock loaded onto a truck bed and parked in the middle of the street. The Roman numeral one (that is, the “I” -- which seems like another nod to existentialist angst) is missing. The clock is dilapidated and has no hands. A void resides at the center of this clock, denoting the area where the mechanism should make the object work.

Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, and William Smith in Rumble Fish (1983)

The policeman confesses that he hates the Motorcycle Boy because the other kids in the town believe him to be a hero when he is not. The Motorcycle Boy says nothing but looks both defiant and distraught. The large and useless clock can no longer measure time. It stands in for the immensity of time, its ever-looming presence. Time here is an impediment, serving as a lurking reminder for this avatar of Camus of the absurdity of endeavor.

But there is another view of time offered by the film: what I am terming mythic time. It is related but not identical to Bergson’s notion of temps durée. Bergson attempted to articulate what we might call experiential or lived time. This view of time is not quantitative but rather qualitative. Where clock-time is homogenous (all seconds are the same), experiential time is radically heterogeneous; moments of experiential time are not equal -- each has its own qualitative presence, makes its own demands on our attention. Consider, for example, the distinction between a moment in which you are absorbed in an activity and one in which you are utterly bored. When we say that a minute feels like an hour, we are attempting to convey experiential time in the mensural terminology of clock-time. But ultimately this is not possible.

In clock-time, one moment leads to (and in a sense, causes) the next. But in experiential time, causality has no place. The moment of absorption did not lead to the moment of boredom (even if they are successive). Rather, they are heterogeneous durations within experience. Clock-time functions through extension. That is what allows it to serve as a means of measurement. Experiential time is not extended -- at least not in the manner in which we usually employ that term. It endures but is not extended. When I am absorbed in a game, I am not ticking off equal units of time. Rather time bends and shifts, tracking the qualities of my experience. My time “in the game” has the quality of an enduring singularity, not easily divisible into equal parts. In this sense, experiential time stands in stark opposition to clock-time.

Rumble Fish employs what we might see as a subset of experiential time: mythic time. It is invoked early in the film. When Rusty-James and his friends leave the diner, he rhapsodizes about the “good old times” when the gangs were vital and active. These good old times were roughly five to seven years in the past and yet Rusty-James extols them as though they were emblematic of a golden age, forever removed from the present, hallowed in memory and encased in the hazy glory of legend. Like experiential time, Rumble Fish’s presentation of mythic time is without extension and is marked by its qualitative richness rather than quantitative measure. It distance cannot be estimated; it was simply long ago. Moreover, in a sense, mythic time never ends. It endures but occupies a realm no longer accessible to those removed from its reassurances.

His subordinates and the Motorcycle Boy continually assure Rusty-James that this mythic era is forever gone and yet for Rusty-James this venerated past haunts the present, indeed it infects the present, rendering all current achievement bitter and distasteful. Rusty-James can never live up to the golden era he can only vaguely remember and the Motorcycle Boy can never live down those days of dubious glory that he remembers all too well. And yet the Motorcycle Boy is hardly immune to their blandishments. The motivating drive behind all of his actions seems to be the attempt to recapture some scrap, some vestige of the notoriety and stature he once enjoyed and now regrets.

And so, the brothers find themselves caught between a clock-time that stretches inexorably into the infinite expanse of the future (an unattainable, alienated future of empty and meaningless time, a future that promises little more than death) and a mythic time that lingers in the past, severed from the present moment but occupying the shadowy edges of memory and desire (a past that negates and poisons the present by showing it to be without depth, without meaning, the mere ticking away of seconds falling into the void of a pointless future). The ubiquitous presence of clocks force the protagonists to acknowledge temps espace while the time-lapse filming of clouds and passing shadows serves as an emblem of the fleeting nature of temps durée.

In Rumble Fish, Coppola, unlike Bergson, does not present one manner of understanding time as preferable to the other. Both are fraught with contradiction and emotional suffering. Both alienate and disappoint. The only salvation offered in this film -- the only redemption from a past that seduces but does not satisfy and a future that promises but does not fulfill -- is radical escape from time and place. The Motorcycle Boy chooses the former, Rusty-James the latter.

* * *

Criterion Collection presents a new Blu-ray edition of Coppola’s Rumble Fish laden with extras and displayed in a gorgeous, director-approved print. The amount of material included in this edition is frankly overwhelming. There is an audio commentary by Coppola, and new interviews with Coppola, Hinton, Coppola’s brother and associate producer, Dillon, and Lane. There are short discussions of the score, deleted scenes, a 2013 documentary on the film’s reception, a discussion of the existentialist motifs in the film, and several older interviews. Only the most devoted viewer could get through all of this material in a short amount of time. More likely, this edition will offer multiple experiences over a protracted period of time.

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