There's a popular idea that Francis Ford Coppola disintegrated as a filmmaker after Apocalypse Now, but having moved all the way from He's a Big Boy Now through the great films of the '70s and now into his post-Apocalypse work, I have to say that in my heart I don't think that's true. I'm no film scholar; I'm a dilettante and a movie lover and that's it, but in the movies so far that follow his "great" period, I'm finding Coppola alive and well, if divided.
Coppola never wanted to make The Godfather. He believed that working within the studio system would wound his ability to make the kind of intimate, small-scale movies he fell in love with when he was young -- movies like The Rain People. The Godfather exists in a world between studio spectacle and personal film. It works precisely because of all the tensions that created it. Without Coppola's fierce desire to keep the film accessible and human, The Godfather would have been another forgettable gangster movie. But without the studio's need for spectacle and epic, it would have been another small, intimate movie along the lines of The Rain People.
In a letter to Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando wrote, "Success sings a deadly lullaby to most people." That was Coppola's greatest hope and deepest fear, and it certainly came to pass.
Coppola made The Outsiders, in a way, to please the studio, to make a popular film, and to begin his long journey to get out of the financial hole created by the awful box office failure of One from the Heart. But right after The Outsiders, Coppola made Rumble Fish. He used the same crew, shot in the same locations, and retained the talents and stories of S.E. Hinton. But while The Outsiders is in studio Technicolor, almost free of all violence, and is really about a family that doesn't ever face any kind of true danger, Rumble Fish is its B-side: strange, dangerous, violent and raw.
Just look at the two rumbles. In The Outsiders, there's never any feel of violence. The whole progression of the fight has a kind of comforting feel, in a way, because it's still about the family that the boys represent. In Rumble Fish, the fight's set up with an atmospheric progression of almost dreamlike images. The arrival of the antagonists, stepping out of nowhere as a train kicks up smoke in an industrial underground, feels like something out of Apocalypse Now transposed to an urban setting. The fight itself involves blood and some real vicious pleasure. In many ways, Rumble Fish is a visionary experimental film along the lines of what Coppola always wanted to make.
Then again, much like The Rain People, Rumble Fish lacks a certain satisfying rise and fall -- the narrative force and direction that a studio would demand, the kind of strong narrative that drives The Outsiders and The Godfather movies. As I watched Rumble Fish again, and then went back and looked at The Outsiders, I changed my initial opinion. They aren't the A- and B-sides to a pop single; they're one great Coppola movie split into two. There's desperate studio Coppola, making a movie to pay the bills, trying to hold to an artistic vision, and then there's Coppola in fully artistic mode, telling another story about brothers and fathers, turning suburbia into an emotional apocalypse.
For me, Rumble Fish is a beautiful, heart-wrenching movie, every bit as good, in its own way, as The Conversation. It takes the vision of S.E. Hinton and renders it in a unique aesthetic, pushing past the Technicolor whitewash of The Outsiders and into a deeper emotional place.