Running On Empty

The older I get, the more I can’t stop myself from crying when I see an emotional scene while watching a movie. It doesn’t matter what the film is, if there is something in the drama crafted to manipulate the emotions, I fall for it every time. I seem to have no control over it. Last night I tuned into the Criterion Channel and watched Sidney Lumet’s heart-tug, Running on Empty with River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti. For christsakes, I cried all the way through the movie. This is the great tear-jerker for my generation, or at least a certain part of my generation. The world has, in the past several years, come to view the boomers as the villains of our domestic political epoch, the selfish generation that took all they could get and left nothing for the generations to follow. Some of us boomers have it all wrong in our heads. We thought that we, the anti-war, anti-racist, anti-sexist movement builders were the embodiment of our generation. Of course, looking back, we were completely wrong about that, now realizing we were a tiny minority that fell between the cracks and ended up the odd gray weird old ladies and dudes who show up and stand at the perimeters of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations wondering what happened to the anti-war movement, SDS and the Black Panthers. In the movie, the 60s radical couple on the lam for blowing up a university building many years ago that contained a lab that developed napalm bombs are trying to live their ideals and raise two boys who are unwilling fugitives in a loving nuclear family. It’s a tragedy, of course. The couple knows they didn’t stop the war and realized a long time ago that the revolution spilled out like sand through their fingers without ever getting started. Watching the scenes in the film, it’s impossible for someone like me to not think of the background, the horrible frustration we felt over not being to stop the war crimes our government committed in Vietnam. But worse, we also know that those crimes have continued through every government since then, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans and continue to this day. While the nation is rightfully up in arms about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are silent about our own country’s crimes that are happening at the very moment that I type these words. When I foolishly break down during scenes made of tricks of cinema and drama; a kiss, a touch, a word of unexpected kindness, the emotion on the surface is supported by something deeper behind it. Watching Running On Empty brought small, not quite suppressed sobs for our failures to affect the kind of change that might have prevented the new cold war that is now descending on us, the streets empty of protesters against our own wars of sanctions and arms sales that result in the painful death of children in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. In the final scene of the movie, as the Hirsch and Lahti characters pull out of parking lot, leaving their eldest son to find his own way, it felt as if they were leaving us tired old lefty boomers behind as well. And yeah, I cried silently as I got up to do the dishes, wondering if we could ever stop a war. Time passes. We’re now 70ish or 80ish, most of the Weathermen out of jail or dead, the rest of us collecting social security, and the title of the movie, released in 1988, now takes on a new meaning. I suppose that’s where the real sobs come from, even though tomorrow morning I’ll get up and it will be a new day and a new petition will arrive in my email inbox.

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