Outstreched arm

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

They call them the breeze

I'm a six-foot-two guy with a beard and long hair, and this qualifies me for two things: a sympathy for the shirtless political revolutionism of the 60s, and a statistical unlikeliness to cry at the movies. The two were married today as I made another step on my path of familiarization with the work of Sidney Lumet, whose movies tend to fall into one of two categories: masterpieces, and very very good. Yes, I definitely felt some moisture on my cheek during at least two scenes of his 1988 film Running on Empty.

Before I start listing the characters, I will save some space by noting that absolutely everyone does a fantastic job. Really, pick anyone off the credits and they're great - from the obvious heartbreaks (Phoenix) to the surprising against-types (Hirsch). They're son and father, joined by a mother and another, younger son, doing what any American family does as the 70s turn into the 80s - running from the FBI because of their anti-Vietnam lab bombing that, unintentionally, left a man blind and paralyzed. They move whenever the "shoes" are on their trail, and this exercise they're pros at is questioned as the seventeen-year old Danny (Phoenix) sees some opportunities for a more normal life for himself.

Lumet - what to say of him? The man can do it all: a story an eight-year old could follow, texture, heart, and wonderful two-actor scenes. It's not just the dialogue; in scenes like Christine Lahti meeting her father for the first time after fourteen years, it's often the lack of it, or the way cliched-but-necessary lines seem to deliver themselves. In Danny's failed sexual encounter with a too-good-for-her-age Martha Plimpton (did I mention the acting was superb?) it's barely anything; but it's there nevertheless.

There is almost no talk of activism, politics, and right-vs-wrong in the film. Surprised? Sure, there's a moment or two where the father starts to eagerly recite pamphlets, but it's almost endearing; he might as well be lecturing Danny about how to keep a car running past 200,000 miles. The family unit here is a bit odd, sure, but allow me to quote David Cronenberg (said of his new movie A History of Violence): to make a story general, you have to make it very specific; it's happening here, to these people, now.

If I can be pardoned another personal note: my family lived through a war in the early 90s, and I can testify to the precision and subtleness of Lumet's portrayal of such a group under social stress. I wish I could also add that I identify with Phoenix's character; alas, Danny/Michael will forever be one of the cool kids (with the cool sort of a problem) I always aspired to be. If some day I'm told that I indeed had skills of a sort in high school, that won't change the fact that they never got me noticed or hit on. Music is so much hotter than my marginal artistic and technologic abilities.

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