“Rumble Fish, 1983”

“Black & white TV, with the sound turned low.”

Rumble Fish, 1983 (Matt Dillon), MCA/Universal

Rumble Fish is a world unto itself; black & white with interesting splashes of color (represented in the Fish of the title).  Mickey Rourke’s “Motorcycle Boy” and his little brother, stare longingly into the underwater world and make play with colorful fish in an aquarium tank.  The characters long to be free, to be “in color” while we note the fish are not “free”, but trapped in the devices of Man.  Fish don’t rumble, therefore fish cannot be Man.  While S.E. Hinton’s excellent novel does not care for the fish, Francis Coppola’s exquisite, beautifully photographed (bearing striking similarity to live television production) seems preoccupied with the notion of using the fish as a metaphor for Man.

Laurence Fisburne walks into Tom Waite’s pool hall and tells young Rusty James (Matt Dillion) he’s gonna get killed by a rival.  Dillon’s buddies, Chris Penn and Nicolas Cage wonder about the Motorcycle Boy, and Dillon tells them he might as well be dead.  His four-eyed friend, Steve (Vincent Spano) doesn’t think he should get into any more fights, and exists as Rusty’s fractured psyche talking back to him.  Rusty has been living in the shadow of his older brother for a long time.  He makes out with his girl (Diane Lane) and fends off the advances of her younger sister (Sofia Coppola) as Fishburne and company wait for his arrival at the designated meeting place: the railroad tracks.

The ensuing “rumble” plays as a variation on West Side Story.  The opponents are dressed in stark blazers that recall mods and rockers.  The fight is overly choreographed to appear as dance.  At the climax of the fight, the Motorcycle Boy appears and tends to his wounds.  Motorcycle Boy explains he was in California, and it becomes obvious Rusty lives through his brother.  Mickey Rourke is such an unusual actor.  Not conventionally good-looking, he has a soft-spoken quality, and a great deal of torment in his eyes, that I could not think of a better actor to play this part.  He’s almost like a ghost in this movie.  Because of that, there were inevitable comparisons to Motorcycle Boy when he appeared in later films.

From this point, the movie is a series of episodes, usually involving Rusty’s misdirected anger, negotiating his uniform fantasies of his girlfriend, Motorcycle Boy’s strung-out substitute teacher girlfriend (pathetic Diana Scarwid) and his older brother’s impossibly high standards.  Turns out Motorcycle Boy has grown, perhaps become a man, and where he traded his violence, he learned enough humility to stay out of jail but not enough to mercilessly criticize Rusty for the same choices he made when he was younger.  You begin to understand why they are the way that they are when you meet their father (a wired Dennis Hopper).  I’m reminded of Apocalypse Now where we had Hopper’s drug-addled lunacy completely in tune with Coppola’s vision of war.

“You’re smart. You’re just not word-smart.”

I love the way Rumble Fish is photographed, but, even now, I can’t quite understand why Coppola chose to make this movie the way he did.  It harkens back to the first golden age of television with tight, stagey close-ups and scenery-chewing, but it’s a contemporary piece, with contemporary technology and automobiles.  Stewart Copeland’s interesting score is rife with sonic anachronisms.  The language is contemporary as well.  We try desperately to sympathize with Dillon’s character, but he’s a complete asshole, and he doesn’t deserve all the chances the people in his life give him.  Coppola made the much more successful The Outsiders (also based on an S.E. Hinton book) earlier in the year.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Little Darlings, 1980

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“Do you realize that I am almost the only virgin in camp? Every girl knows this secret life except me. Look at it this way. It’d be a learning experience.”

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Little Darlings, 1980 (Kristy McNichol), Paramount Pictures

On a strange hot summer night, I pop in the old Paramount tape of Little Darlings. I remember the juxtaposition of Kristy McNichol kicking a guy right in the nuts before hopping into a convertible on her way to the summer camp bus, and Tatum O’ Neal going to the same bus in a Rolls Royce. Angel is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s a jean-jacket-wearing little hottie with a chip on her shoulder. Ferris (Ferris?) is a spoiled little rich girl predisposed to shit-eating grins and compulsive lying, but more on that later.

The two girls hate each other, so you know they’re going to wind up best friends by the end of the movie. They even fight on the bus ride. It’s unusual watching girls display this kind of behavior. They push each other, they mix it up, compare the size of their burgeoning boobies, and talk openly about sex and birth control. Both girls find themselves harrassed (for different reasons) at the camp. Ferris and Angel are very quickly revealed (in ways I can’t quite explain) to be virgins, and one particular brat offers up $100 to the first girl who can lose her virginity before camp ends.

The girls engage in the usual summer camp antics; softball, boating (with dreamy counselor/stud Armand Assante – I keep using that word a lot lately), and hiking. Tatum hits it off with Assante (who seems to be flirting with her) as they discuss France and astrological signs. It’s times like this that I wonder if I have what it takes to be a camp counselor at a girls camp. Yes! Yes, I do! The girls choose their intended targets. Tatum, of course, choose dreamy Armand, and Kristy has her eyes on young Matt Dillon. Dillon is very much her speed and the kind of guy she would date anyway. While he seems tough with street-born good looks, he is revealed to be sensitive and vulnerable, and the way she sizes him up is fantastic.

This is an unusual film for 1980, coming out (pun!) at the peak of summer camp movies; at least comedies that didn’t involve super-human killers who wear hockey masks.  It’s an interesting reversal of gender motivations, where we have the girls acting as predators in the tribal ritual of lust, and the men are depicted as the prey; essentially clueless as to the intentions of Angel and Ferris.  The filmmakers are careful to not exploit the girls, and the clever scripting (by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young) plays to the strengths of McNichol and O’ Neal (I can understand why girls flocked to this movie when it was released), both utterly adorable in this film.  A very young Cynthia Nixon is hilarious as some kind of a crazy hippie flower girl.  McNichol, in particular, is a brilliant actress.

“Can two teenage girls go to summer camp together without driving each other crazy?”

In an interesting twist, Tatum, her face glowing, lies that she had sex with Assante (who politely brushes her off in a sweet scene), and Kristy lies that she did not have sex with Dillon.  In reality, Kristy understands all of the consequences of a sexual relationship, while Tatum romanticizes it to the point of losing all touch with her specific actuality.  I think what I learned from the movie is not that girls are objects to be lusted after (they most definitely are, in my view), but that girls are capable of the same kind of behaviors we normally attribute to the male of the species.  The men in this movie are photographed as objects of beauty and game to be conquered, and I find that to be refreshing.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.