Teen Double Bill : The Outsiders & Rumble Fish

When I were a lad and it was all fields round here, I got a book token as a birthday present. (Younger readers may have heard of such things in song and legend). With it, I bought The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, two classic slices of cool teen drama by a young author called S.E. Hinton. Now, in those days, I wasn't the all-knowing, all-seeing cinematic nerd guru I am now, so I didn't even know they had made films of these books. Not only that, I didn't even know that they had been directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola and that they were responsible for launching the careers of a thousand Brat Packers in the process. But all that changed one fabled Saturday night when BBC2 showed the two films back-to-back, a memory that looms large from my formative years, along with the Big Snow of '84 and the night our neighbour went mad from bad drink and climbed on the roof of his house, wearing his pants on his head. As with the books, the two films made a big impact on my impressionable teenage mind. But that was then, this is now. Have they stood the test of time?

The Outsiders (1983) is the story of Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), a 'Greaser' from the wrong side of the tracks. Along with his brothers and friends, he is involved in a running gang-war with the rich kids, the 'Socs' (as in socialities, not socks). However, when one confrontation leads to a tragic death, Ponyboy must face up to some tough realities about life and responsibility.

Man, I wished I was even half this cool when I was young. To me, these characters were living the dream, free from parental responsibility and the normal 'rules' of society, a fact best demonstrated by the shocking exhibition of teen delinquency in which one character sits down to watch cartoons in the middle of the day whilst drinking beer and eating a cake. A whole cake! Only when I became a student did I realise such things were not just the stuff of movie dreams. Anyway, it's a lot more sentimental than I remember, with a fairly conventional plot and a slight whiff of 80s cheesiness in how it's presented. Despite this, it's really quite enjoyable as a heartfelt tale which effectively shows that teen angst is the same the world over, regardless of time, place or class. And it even made poetry sound cool. Impressive indeed. Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.
Star-spotting! Keep your eyes peeled for : Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez and Ralph Macchio, all of whom look remarkably young and fresh-faced. Except Macchio, who still looks the same as he did them. I bet he has a picture of himself in the attic that looks like shit. Little literary joke there, folks.

Rumble Fish (1983) was filmed back-to-back with The Outsiders, with Coppola co-writing the screenplay with Hinton on days off from The Outsiders shoot. It is a similar, but tougher gang tale focusing on Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a delinquent teenage hoodlum who idolises his older brother, the legendary Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) who has returned home to the streets he once ruled. But Rusty is not as smart as his brother and, like Ponyboy in The Outsiders, he too finds he has some growing up to do.

This was a very personal project for Coppola who identified with the fraternal hero-worship theme of the novel - the film is dedicated to Coppola's older brother August. It was intended by Coppola to be an "art film for teenagers", with nods towards German Expressionism and the French New Wave film-making in its composition. As a result, it is a much artier, more stylish affair than The Outsiders, filmed in B&W with skewed camera angles, time-lapse photography and with a deliberately off-kilter soundtrack (by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland). Some of the stylistic flourishes look a bit dated now and it does come across as the film-making experiment it was made as, but there's some good stuff to enjoy, with Dennis Hopper turning up as Rusty's alcoholic father to lend it some star power. Although I prefer The Outsiders, this is probably a better film, with deeper themes and a punchier storyline. There's also a striking scene in which Siamese fighting fish in a tank provide a flash of glorious colour in the otherwise monochrome film. But the real shock watching it now is to be reminded just how astonishingly good-looking Mickey Rourke was back then. Every time he sees this he must cringe at how he bollixed up his looks over the next 25 years.
Star-spotting! Keep your eyes peeled for: Nicolas Cage, Diane Lane, Chris Penn, Lawrence Fishburne, Sofia Coppola and Tom Waits.

Well, that was a nice wander down memory lane. From an objective point of view, I'm not going to pretend these films are anywhere near the standard of Coppola's 70s output, but they're an interesting addition to the big man's film catalogue. More importantly, I have fond memories of them and thankfully it wasn't a case of them not being as good as I remembered. And if truth be told, although they made a bigger impression on the teenage me, I did find that the elements of both films that deal with the inexorable passing of time have more of an impact now on the adult me. As one character in Rumble Fish says:

"Time is a funny thing....You see when you're young, you're a kid, you 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 thirty-five summers left.' Think about it. Thirty-five summers."

Yeah, that's a sobering thought, and makes me a little sad about times gone by, when I watched double-bills on TV, played in the snow and laughed at the madman on the roof with Y-fronts on his head. Maybe I'll make a point of doing those things again soon. And if there's nobody else to climb up on the roof, then By God, I'll do it myself. I know just the man to get some bad drink - goes by the name of Mickey Rourke.

Buy The Outsiders on Amazon
Buy Rumble Fish on Amazon

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