Film

Politics, Protest, and “Running on Empty”

There is a point in Running on Empty where Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), a fugitive who has been on the run for more than a decade, risks getting caught by having lunch wit her father. Obviously upset that he has not seen her nor her family since 1971, he also still carries anger about her crime–she and her husband Artie (Judd Hirsch) were part of a Weathermen-type antiwar group that bombed a napalm-making facility, a bombing that seriously injured a person. Frustrated at him for bringing up the crime, she says, “I didn’t come to talk politics.”

This line stuck with me after I watched the film, not because Annie is trying to shut down an argument so that she can ask her son to take her son Danny (River Phoenix), but because it’s also as if Sidney Lumet was making his thesis statement for the film. The politics of the Pope family are obviously on display for Running on Empty‘s two hours, but the point is not to show how the correctness of a certain point of view; instead, it’s to show how children an bear the burden of their parents’ actions. Make the Popes a right-wing extremist family who bombed an abortion clinic and the circumstances surrounding their lives might be similar. People on the run are interesting; a family on the run is intriguing, and this is a moment where Lahti has to portray desperation because her son is caught between the life that her and Artie have brought him into and the one he can have as a virtuoso pianist. So when you have this conversation in this film, questions come up: How do we address the violence in protest against violence? Is violence only okay when “your side” is doing it? And how do you deal with being the child of one of those people?

There was a point after I watched the film where I regretted not covering it when I was doing the “In Country” podcast, although in all fairness, I didn’t know what Running on Empty was about when I was hosting that show. All I knew is what I remembered from back in the day–it was a River Phoenix movie and one of three (the others being Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho) that showcased his raw acting talent. That it had anything to do with the antiwar movement or that movement’s violent side escaped me.

Despite her insistence that we don’t think about the politics, at least in that moment, I can’t help but wonder about the Reagan Eighties and how that is being portrayed here. This was the era of a more conservative approach to American ideals, and while there was a bit of nostalgia for the flower power hippie part of the 1960s, the more violent aspects of the antiwar movement were still viewed with disdain.

Which is how we see all violent protest movements, epecially those that look to upend the status quo. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I can recognize that our culture has become purposely embused witha rigid mindset of the “right” way to protest. It’s nonvient, and perhaps features the holding of hands and singing of songs. And there is nothing wrong with that picture, as they are some of the most iconic protest images we have of the twentieth century. But there’s a gentility that’s pushed when those are the primary images we see, and is certainly the narrative that right-wing pundits insist upon, as they are quick to decry the violence committed in the name of any liberal or progressive movement, labeling it terrorism without any note of the irony that their own followers have committed actual acts of terrorism and treason.

You pick that sentiment up in Running on Empty, but in the conversation that Annie has with her father–a wealthy industrialist–and the bits of media coverage that are present while the family is on the run, some of which cause them to pack up and flee once again. For instance, at one point in the film, an old friend/compatriot comes to visit and is later caught robbing a bank. When the story breaks, the media employs a subtle tone of reminding the public that these people may have said they were antiwar, but they are actually bad.

And yet, Sydney Lumet (who directed the film) doesn’t want us to think that. If anything, that sentiment is there to show us the toll that being on the run can take. I’d say, in fact, that he wants us to sympathize with the Popes and is even setting up a subtle indictment of the Eighties’ inherent conservatism, or at least our culture’s want for a closed narrative. The Reagan Eighties mirrored the Eisenhower Fifties in many ways, and while those Fifties ended with Kennedy, they were ultimately upended by the Vietnam War. When Reagan declared “Morning in America”, the message was one of a return to a sense of pride; conservatism of the day sought to begin the rewriting of the Sixties as a problem and a mistake. The antiwar movement was the reason we lost the war, they spit on the troops when they got home, and were by all of their definitions “anti-American.” That idea trickled down in some ways into history curricula, and was used to an exceptional degree in drumming up support for our wars in the Middle East.

And that’s just an overtly white antiwar group. What I described was used to try and discredit the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties and is still being done today with right-wing pundits and politicians falsely equating Black Lives Matter and white supremacist terrorsists.

Ultimately, I root for the Popes because they make the right decision and find a way to get Danny out of their cycle, knowing that he is a victim of circumstance. This is aided by the deeply written characters and the layered performances. Judd Hirsch–who always looked at least 45 and perpetually bothered–struggles with the conflict between his son’s independence and the need for their “mission”. Lahti plays a caring mother (and as an aside, is damn sexy in this film) who has more agency than most mothers in Eighties films. But the film belongs to River Phoenix–in fact, it garnered him an Oscar nomination. He spends the two hours of the film smoldering with angst while avoiding the scenery chewing that in lesser hands would have been terribly melodramatic, a two-hour version of Judd Nelson’s yelling through The Breakfast Club or the hammier points of Christian Slater’s monologues in Pump Up the Volume (both of which are favorites of mine). He loves his parents and believes in them, but also wants to be his own person and strike out on his own. Balancing coming of age with politics in a decade known for its flash is very tough and Running on Empty is a gem of a film that should have literary status.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 119: Talk Hard

Talk Hard! Steal the air! In 1990, the cult film Pump Up the Volume was released and it proved to be a formative movie experience for many teenagers of the time. So, 31 years after it came out, I sat down with Michael Bailey to take apart the film and see if Hard Harry’s words of rebellion still hold up.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some extras for you ..

The Ringer article “Talk Hard: The Making of the Teen-Angst Classic ‘Pump Up the Volume'”

The theatrical trailer:

A Spotify Pump Up the Volume Soundtrack Playlist:

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 98

IC 98 Website CoverTwo episodes and a wake-up are left!

This time around, I take one last trip to Vietnam at the movies by looking at the final film in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, 1993’s Heaven and Earth.  I review the film and also take a look at its source material, two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War Woman of Peace.

You can download the episode via Apple Podcasts or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 98 direct link

Some extras for you.

First, a link to Thrive Networks, Le Ly Hayslip’s charitable organization that began as the East Meets West Foundation:  Thrivenetworks.org

The trailer for the film …

Heaven & Earth

 

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 93

IC 93 Website CoverSeven episodes and a wake-up!

This time around, I take a break from my regular coverage of the comic to bring you one of the landmark films about the Vietnam War, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, which stars Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep.  For my look at the film, I’m joined by fellow TTF podcaster, Luke Jaconetti.  We talk about Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner by looking at the plot and characters but also its symbolic/metaphorical meanings; and its reputation and resonance as a film about Vietnam, war, and America.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 93 direct link

Some extras for you …

A trailer for the film:

The theme to The Deer Hunter, which was composed by John Williams:

Deer Hunter

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 95: Stayin’ Alive in 1995

Episode 95 Website CoverIt’s the first of two “milestone year” episodes where Amanda and I sit down and take a pretty thorough look at what was going on in a particular year of the 1990s. First up, 1995. Join us as we talk about where we were in our lives in ’95 and then run through the television shows, movies, and music of that year.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

5 Things to Love and 5 Things to Hate About Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump PosterI could not spend a whole year talking about 1994 and calling it “the most important year of the Nineties” if I didn’t take the time to talk about the film from 1994 that would go on to win best picture: Forrest Gump.  Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is the story of a simple-minded man (the un-PC term would be “mentally retarded”) who winds up living an extraordinary life.  Told through mostly flashbacks, the story concerns Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), who is sitting on a bus stop bench in 1982 on his way to see Jenny, who as we learn over the course of the movie, is the love of his life.  He tells his life story to anyone who happens to be sitting next to him (as well as the audience):  born in Alabama, Forrest has a low I.Q. and had to wear braces on his legs as a kid until one day he learned how to run.  This served him well more than once, as he played for the University of Alabama football team, served in Vietnam, played diplomatic ping pong, opened a shrimping company, and started a running craze.  Along the way, we also see the life of his girl, Jenny (Robin Wright), who had a life that directly contrasts Hanks’s characcter: she was abused as a child, became a hippie, and spent much of her formative years in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze until finally coming home to Alabama and living with Forrest before leaving (which prompts Forrest to start running and the creation of his running craze).  When Forrest and Jenny meet up after he’s done telling his story, she tells him that she is dying and that she has a son named Forrest, who is the result of the one night that the two of them slept together.  By the end of the film Jenny has passed away and Forrest is now raising his son in his childhood home in Alabama.

That’s a gross simplification of the movie’s plot (after all, I didn’t mention Bubba or Lt. Dan), but most of the people reading this post are probably at least familiar enough with the film to follow along (and if you’re not, the film is available for streaming via Netflix).    Or you can check out the trailer:

So, with the plot out of the way, I thought I’d get to what I wanted to say about this movie, which has not been one of my favorites; in fact, I’ve long contended that with both The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction nominated for best picture that year, I can’t understand how this won best picture.  Okay, I can see why it was a popular choice for best picture, what with its sentimentality and emotional impact; I can’t understand how the Academy thought that this was more worthy of that particular honor than those two films, the latter of which had a major influence on filmmaking for at least the better part of the rest of the decade (and possibly beyond).

You know, never mind that I saw this three times in the theater, bought the soundtrack, and own a copy on VHS (although for the life of me I have no idea where that copy is).  In fact, I liked the movie when it came out.  It was beautifully shot, was pretty funny, and the music was great.  But it did not age well, especially after I saw Pulp Fiction and read Winston Groom’s novel upon which the film is based.  The novel turned me against the film in a big way, as Groom’s Forrest is a lot less likable than the buffoon with a heart of gold that Hanks plays on screen (and for which he won Best Actor).  Prior to writing this post, I hadn’t watched the film since 1996 and decided to give it a fair shake.  I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would, although I still think it wasn’t worth the Best Picture honor (and I still maintain that it’s right up there with the oft-derided Ordinary People’s victory as Oscar larceny).  So what I did was do what any lazy good blogger does, and that’s made a list.  So here are the top five things I liked and the top five things I hated about Forrest Gump. (more…)