One of my favorite movies is Running on Empty. I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but it never fails to move me. It’s about a couple who are 15 years on from a bombing of a napalm factory. They’re on the run, wanted as terrorists. The wrinkle is that they have two kids, boys, one is maybe 10, the other 17. The movie is about the older boy’s struggle with living in a world he did not make. It’s one of River Phoenix’s best roles.
I identify with the movie. Not just one character, the whole movie.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid. We were itinerant. Always moving. The father reminds me of my dad. And the father reminds me of me. He’s circumspect, he’s cautious, he tries to defend the family. He does what he needs to because it’s what’s right. But he’s inflexible, and he always knows best.
My father moved us around a lot when I was a kid. I think I often felt like I had not made my world. What kid does? In retrospect I think I never felt in charge of my own destiny. I think maybe I never felt in charge of my own destiny until I hit my twenties.
The first time I felt intimidated by and proud of my independence was talking on the phone with my sister. I had moved away, to Charlottesville, to work at the University of Virginia. My sister called me, and she was crying. I remember her saying “it’s bad.” My parents were fighting and separated, and it was tearing my sister up. I was 22, and she was 15. I told her she could come and stay with me. I remember hanging up the phone and being shocked at the realization that I had an income, and if she wanted it, she really could move up and stay with me. As I write this I feel sad, thinking about that moment. My parents somehow got through that time in their lives, and together.
Back to the movie. River’s character plays music, and he wants to play music. He’s urged to apply to Juliard. He wants both things, a life outside, and his family.
But the setup of the movie, his family is on the run from the FBI. It’s a great story, and not an impossible scenario. I know there were activists from the 1960s on the run from their crimincal activities as late as the mid-1990s. It’s also a great archetype to use for the struggle between the loyalty to oneself versus loyalty to family.
This is a movie I want to share with the whole family.
The movie makes me cry. The father tells the kid what to do, and the kid doesn’t do it. The father is fun and charming and smart, and he can steamroller the son. The kid is wary of everyone. Taught to be paranoid, taught to NEVER TRUST ANYONE. I still have these threads in my personality.
This is a not much of a movie review, is it?
It’s said that our strengths are our weaknesses, and this is most certainly true. My youth and teen years were the foundation of my life, and in that sense I love them. But I hate them too. So much I regret and am angry about. I look at this film and I see a mataphor for my life. There’s hope in this movie, hope that one can move from the life one has, to the life one wants. And in no small part, this requires the help of family, and forces outside the family. And it requires there to be some trust. And of course, such transitions are always painful.
It’s a good movie. Nobody’s a caricature. They seem like they’re real people, with real motivations and real complexities. Movies distort life. One dimensional characters simplify things in a way that people aren’t. We’re dynamic in ways even we don’t seem to kow about.
The past few months I’ve been getting to know myself again, and not everything is stuff I like. However, I’ve been changing and evolving, growing and learning. Life moves on. As ever, I say “onward” as a way to recognize that life is a journey, a complicated one. A hard one. A wonderful one.