I was one of many people saddened by the news over the weekend of the death of Sidney Lumet, a favourite film director of mine. The observable lack of meretricious flashiness in his films betokens the filmmaker of great sensitivity and intelligence that he was. On Sunday I watched his harrowing drama The Pawnbroker, notable for a riveting central performance by Rod Steiger as a repressed concentration camp survivor and an excellent Quincy Jones score (his first). I followed it up, foolishly, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film which seems to embody everything Lumet was not about: spectacle, noise, and vacuity.
The obituaries list the same celebrated films over and over – 12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon – but a particularly fine example of Lumet’s craft has been omitted from all those I have read, even Roger Ebert’s reminiscence, though Ebert gave it the highest rating of four stars in his original review when it came out. The film is Running on Empty.
Released in 1988, it’s now most often thought of as one of the small legacy of films left behind by River Phoenix, and watching it one feels a sense of tragedy at the premature death of this man who was not merely beautiful but also talented in multiple directions. His performance was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, though he is very much at the film’s centre. He plays Danny, the elder son of Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti). As young radicals the Popes were involved in the bombing of a napalm laboratory in an anti-Vietnam protest, and nearly 20 years later they are still on the run from the police. They love their sons dearly, but are compelled to give them an unstable upbringing, moving on every few months or years as their past catches up with them, and creating new identities and appearances for themselves.
This fugitive life is all that Danny and his little brother Harry have ever known, but now Danny is growing up, and two complications have arisen: firstly, he is a talented pianist who wishes to audition for the Juilliard School, which, if successful, would mean a break with his family, perhaps permanently (one has to suspend one’s critical faculties here – Danny is a good pianist, and so was Phoenix judging by the evidence, but none of the pieces he plays is sufficiently demanding to demonstrate whether or not he is Juilliard material – and who ever became a virtuoso with only a dummy keyboard for practice, apart perhaps from Joe Cooper?); secondly, he has fallen in love, with Lorna (Martha Plimpton), the daughter of his school music teacher.
One of many touching scenes is that of Lorna’s visit to Danny’s house for a meal. His father is suspicious of her at first, as he is of everyone outside the family. They turn on the radio while they do the washing up, and James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’ comes on. Arthur begins to sing along, and Lorna joins in. The two of them begin to dance together, and soon the whole family follows suit. Danny’s parents see in Lorna the free, rebellious spirit of their own youth, and, for all the eccentricities of Danny’s home life, Lorna finds something in his family that she does not have in her own, which is austere, though not devoid of love.
It’s a well judged and tenderly handled scene, but there is also a simple joy in seeing these people singing spontaneously. In musicals, impromptu bursting into song doesn’t mean anything, but in the context of an otherwise non-musical film, whether it makes contextual sense (as it does here), or doesn’t (as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, where the central characters sing along with Aimee Mann’s song ‘Wise Up’), I can rarely forbear to smile when watching. Perhaps the success of such musical interludes depends on their unpredictability. The sense of spontaneity in the Running on Empty scene is reinforced by the song appearing unbidden, coming by chance from the radio rather than from an expressly selected record.
It’s easy to see why the two scenes I mention above are a rarity in films, at least in films operating at the level of reality that Running on Empty occupies: a communal singing scene can come across as unwelcomely gratuitous (as some would argue the Magnolia scene does) or as a distraction from the thrust of the film. Shakespeare didn’t have these reservations, I find myself thinking. A well placed song can be a very effective punctuation mark in the scheme of a drama, equivalent to an aria in opera (which is how the Magnolia scene functions, as an ensemble piece uniting several characters at individual crisis points, in a moment of reflection while the action pauses). The song scene in Running on Empty, by contrast, is more like recitative – it’s not merely a song for its own sake, but also a plot device to show the Pope family’s acceptance of Lorna into their life and her acceptance of them.
While Running on Empty was broadly acclaimed on its release, there were dissenting views (see Hal Hinson’s mean-spirited review from the Washington Post for a taster). As far as I’m concerned, it’s a most sensitively judged drama, with the dynamics of the family as a single unit and as constituent elements beautifully played. Hirsch, an actor with more versatility than he is often given credit for, and Lahti, whose meeting with her estranged father, played by Steven Hill, provides the most moving scene in the film, are both superb, and those viewers not nauseated by adolescent romance will find the scenes between Phoenix and Plimpton touching.
Lumet, unlike Spielberg, generally succeeds admirably in keeping sentimentality in check. This is a film where his hand wavers slightly, but I think the viewer would have to have a hard heart indeed not to feel both moved and exhilarated by the climax. If it’s not his absolute finest work, then it’s a typical example of what he was capable of – an involving, considered and poignant drama. I still rate 12 Angry Men as his greatest achievement, if not his most ambitious, but in addition to the titles already mentioned above I would put in a good word for his film of Eugene O’Neill’s stark Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is quite mesmerising.