Bright Lights Film Journal

A Double Dysfunctional Mickey Xmas

I’ve survived the family Xmas, and what saved us was the power of the movies. This got me to thinking about all the best dysfunctional family holiday films–I don’t mean the ones where everyone’s just got some cute quirk or shouts a lot–I’m talking about the ones where addiction, insanity and weird masculine paranoia run riot, down to the dark, deep generational core and everyone tolerates it or nitpicks it but doesn’t suddenly bust three years of therapy on their ass. The thing every child of a dysfunctional family needs to learn is to love and accept the clownery… without succumbing to the dark side, if you will. Go crazy, get drunk or get the hell out of there before you explode, but anyway you choose, you’re still gonna die, and so are they, and love isn’t love if it’s got conditions.

Good films can acknowledge the drug use, the alcoholism, the violence, all without judging; the films’ characters may judge, but not the actors, not the director… Sidney Lumet’s film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of my favorites in this regard. But I’ve just seen another one, or rather two:

RUMBLE FISH (1983) and BULLET (1996) – While I pump up to go see the Wrestler, I’m catching up on my Rourke films. Rumble Fish and Bullet each seem to cast a weird shadow over the grave of James Dean. What if Dean survived but just became trapped in a cycle of Rebel Without a Cause-style AIP (American International Pictures, home of Roger Corman) JD (Juvenile Delinquent) films? Dean would make sure to add enough of his own ideas to make the films memorable and sporadically great, but they wouldn’t add up. Instead of three classics, there’d be a slew of colorful trash, with little nuggets of Dean brilliance peppered throughout. Did this happen with Mickey Rourke?

Such is the case with Bullet, especially, which I like because I really I.D.’d (AA slang for “Identified”). Mickey’s hard-edged Jewish doper has a crazy survivalist brother (Tedd “Put the Fuckin’ Lotion in the Basket” Levine) who is very into guns and home defense, like my brother! I also identified in the scenes where Levine trains the neighborhood kids in the OJ Simpson deadly arts, or manipulates his mother into buying tasers from the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. My friend Alan and I were just like that in the early Reagan years!

The other brother is played by a very young Adrien Brody, barely recognizable under a callow tan. He’s stuck with the burden of “artistic potential” which means the more fucked up older brother (as Jason Robards played him in Journey) refuses to let him get high, cause he gotta make something of his self. Damn, who needs that sort of pressure? Especially when Mickey makes becoming a streetwise, punch-drunk junkie seem like such a grace. But even so, Brody’s art is actually damned good. Is there nothing this film gets wrong? It’s worth its weight in Dark Knight hooplah, I’ll tell you that much. The way Rourke takes a punch reminds me of Heath Ledger in DARK KNIGHT. While the rest of the super “heroes” hide behind armor and high tech gadgets, these guys just Fight Club it out with their bare fists, til their faces are unrecognizable.

Meanwhile, Tupac Shakur drives around in a limo and cuts off the drug flow to the white Coney Island area pushers because he’s pissed Rourke stuck him in the eye. It’s a stock heavy role, by 2pac has fun with it, and everyone digs on Isaac Hayes songs, which Rourke himself used to score the film with–probably direct from his own car’s 8-track, to fine effect.

BULLET is one of those movies that could so easily suck, but Rourke co-wrote the script and clearly knows the mileu, and the the big muscle-bound Steven Bauer-style sidekick actually gets outed by Rourke! How much more Xmas can you get? Mickey tries to show him how he’s a repressed, latent homosexual, all without judging and while practicing in a batting cage and hitting pretty good. It’s the Mickey Rourke equivalent of Long Day’s Journey into Night or a more family-themed version of Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, and, if you like the Wrestler–or Christian Bale’s Harsh Times–it comes highly recommended.

In Rumble Fish, Coppola’s heavily stylized, seemingly improv-ed adaptation of the S.E. Hinton novel, Coppola’s “distancing” techniques and the percussive score and the gorgeous black and white and the gorgeous Matt Dillon and the gorgeous legs of Diane Lane can’t hide the fact that Mickey’s “proto-1980s” look is just… sad. You can smell the death of the 1970s on his skin, even with the silver screen between you. hen, at the end, he frees the fighting fish in the pet store, I could only shrug… training wheel symbolism! Mickey and his fish pull it off, of course, but just like Coppola’s zero-tropes and whistles, the Rourke magic is more underlined than felt, by me at least, and the characters are all sketched in with nowhere to go.

Even so, they rock, and as the signs all say: “The Motorcycle Boy reigns” (who is going to trust a graffiti artist that can actually spell the word “reigns”?) And when Dillon’s slack-jawed rumbler follows Motorcycle Boy Rourke around like little brothers do, you begin to understand how men create themselves from whatever material is around, and can turn straw into gold, or vice versa, just by watching their older brother play pool.

In all these cases, the mom suffers admirably, or in the case of Rumble, is gone, but drunken daddy Dennis Hopper seems actually pretty cool, so it’s all going to be okay. There’s a fun feeling of improv between Dillon, Hopper and Rourke in their few scenes together in Fish, which reminds me of the great interplay between Robards, Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell in Journey, and it’s too bad that Paul Schrader couldn’t have done more with Nolte and Coburn in similar scenes in Affliction. If you only get the drunken alienation and miss the love, you miss the whole fucking point. There’s real eccentric dysfunctional love all across the board in both these fucked up pictures, and that’s a rarity worth scoping, even if your own family’s relatively sane.

And speaking of punching the mirror, damn does Mickey do a lot of that both in Bullet and Rumble. There’s even some “rat” symbolism (as in the placing of a rat on the body of a dead pigeon). Rumble Fish and Bullet are really great on a double bill, and I should know since I just watched them both for the first time back to back, thanks to the awesome recommendation of Kim Morgan. May I mention her name again? Kim Morgan! She’s my “The Motorcycle Boy.” Read her great piece, Seven Screwy Santas, and burn the lest vestige of Xmas out of you! Now excuse me while I kiss the sky, I mean, punch some mirrors!