The '60s are past, and the Vietnam War they struggled against is long over, but the Popes have been on the run from the FBI for fifteen years, choosing to live as [sic] family of fugitives rather than be separated. Now 17-year-old musical prodigy Danny Pope must decide whether to accept a scholarship to Julliard or deny his talent to remain with his family, as his mother did for him.Which, nevermind the missing article, this thing SPOILS so different parts of Act Three of the film.
But, I didn't want to talk about HBO. I just happened to notice that description as I went to play the film tonight and it bugged me. What I wanted to talk about was the larger sort of message the film suggests to me. The problems of one generation put upon the next. In the case of the film, it's the criminal act of Arthur and Annie put upon their sons Danny and Harry. In the case of, you know, reality, it's systemic racism, climate change, the minimum wage not keeping up with inflation, conservatism, Donald Trump, and probably so many other things that I don't even notice because I'm in my 40s now and annoyingly comfortable despite a raging pandemic and protests and riots and police having far too much when it comes to lethal and sublethal weaponry and far too much leeway when it comes to what we let them get away with. But, we can hope a new generation can fix our problems, but did we fix the problems of the generation(s) before us? Not really. I mean, we made some improvements, but it's like they blew up some shit, and we've just been living in that shadow all our lives. I know I have. My parents were born just barely before the boomers, and I was late Gen X. With six sisters before me to split the difference. We were a Cold War family, as I've mentioned in this blog many times before. Grew up in a church that was essentially an end-of-the-world cult to boot. Throw some Ronald Reagan conservative bullshit into the mix, and coming now into 1988
(Though, as I continue with this movie life excursion, I will backtrack into 1987 because I accidentally got Running On Empty out of order on my list.)I'm 12-years-old and I need some rebellion in my life. The whole Danny Pope thing, interestingly, is rebellion against the rebellious. In order to be a little conservative maybe. I can't remember what my parents thought of this movie when we first saw it in the theater. Was it okay that we were following criminals and liars because the son kinda turns mainstream in the end? Does the second rebellion reverse the first? Or does it just get worse, the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation? Do the problems compound? My parents and their parents not backing up the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the Chicano movement, the anti-war movement--what did that mean for their kids, from my oldest sister, 14 years my senior, to me? How do we navigate the world they leave for us? How did they navigate the world left for them?
Walking in the woods with Danny, Lorna says of her parents, "They see what they want to see." The point being, in my reference, that one generation might see promise in the next, or might see a rebellious set of children with music that is no good, idols that are ruining culture, and an all around worsening of things. But, it doesn't really matter what you see so much as what actually is.
As I write that bit, Danny tells Lorna who he really is, and I notice an interesting detail. Early in the film, when Danny spots the FBI combing the neighborhood for his parents, he hides in the grass near their house, removes his shoe, and sends the dog inside with it to get Harry to come out. The shoe is a sign of trouble, a sign of transition, a sign of being able to, and being forced to go somewhere. And, now when he gets Lorna to come outside to talk, she has no shoes, so he immediately sits down, removes his shoes and puts them on her feet. He's been, metaphorically speaking, walking in his parents footsteps all his life, but he is a teenager now, ready to remove those shoes when it makes sense for him to do so. On a personal level. He stops being--I'm not sure his name at the beginning of the film, actually--one kid and becomes Michael Manfield. And now, with the shoes as a sort of echo, he stops being Danny Manfield, except he doesn't move forward into some new fictional identity; he instead shifts backward by revealing to Lorna his real name. He chooses to walk barefoot into this conversation. He chooses his future. And, as parents, we can only hope that our children do the same.
(There was probably some mixed metaphors in there, but oh well. I think you get it.)And that's what Running on Empty is about, really. Living not with your own choices but the choices of those who came before you. And, vice versa, making the decision to force others to live with your choices or giving them the room to move on. Or, if there's hope, room for them to fix your mistakes, make up for the choices you made that were, at least in retrospect, not the right ones. Given the title of this blog, generally, it's worth noting, "You make choices and you live with them." Or maybe you run from them. You drag others along with you. And, the change you imagined you might create never happens because you get stuck in the past, and now you're dragging the past along with you rather than ever be in the present, and you certainly never get to the future.
And that doesn't work for anyone.