With her two documentaries about the American labor movement, 1976’s Harlan County, U.S.A. and 1990’s American Dream, Barbara Kopple gave us a pair of deathless classics, films by turns inspiring and devastating and always brutally revealing about the state of American capitalism. These films, which take us deep inside the struggles of a pair of labor strikes not only remain electrifying cinema, but together represent the heartbreaking downward trajectory of organized labor’s influence in the United States, moving us from the pyrrhic victory of the striking miners in Harlan County, U.S.A. to the utter defeat of the Hormel plant workers in American Dream.
So why has so much of Kopple’s work since felt so lackluster? It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that she’s incapable of making riveting cinema about anything besides labor disputes. But her subsequent efforts too often feel undisciplined, given too frequently to leisurely fly-on-the-wall moments at the expense of a sturdier structure. This strategy worked fine when her story had a built-in narrative trajectory (worker’s strike followed by some form of resolution) to keep it grounded, and when the exclusive glimpses she provided were inherently dramatic, but when she’s filling out her films by simply watching the Dixie Chicks backstage or, in her latest film, filming former actress Mariel Hemingway and her boyfriend going on a road trip, things are far less involving.
In its way, Running from Crazy, aspires to depict the same sort of a tragedy that defined American Dream, though on the personal rather than political level. The story of Mariel attempting to overcome her inherited familial legacy of mental illness, alcoholism, and suicide, most famously embodied by her legendary grandfather, Ernest, but present as well in her two older sisters, the film charts its subject’s compensatory efforts in healthy living and suicide-awareness activism. As a result, too much of the film feels like a not terribly interesting home movie, as Mariel remains an intelligent, reflective, but hardly very dynamic cinematic subject whose story is likely to be chiefly of interest to her and her family.
It’s rather another set of home movies, Mariel’s late sister Margaux’s mid-’80s-lensed video project to retrace the steps of her grandfather, snippets of which are liberally interspersed throughout Kopple’s film, that provide the project with a disproportionate share of memorable moments. Whether showing Margaux taking in a particularly brutal bullfight in Spain, while self-identifying via voiceover with the fate of the bull, or having a chat with her father, who speaks semi-reluctantly about his upbringing under the shadow of his legendary “Papa,” it’s these instances that make clear the mixed blessing of the tragic Hemingway legacy.
By contrast, the modern-day sections with Mariel, while detailing the redemptive promise of the title, too often come across as either indulgent time-filler or overflow with PSA-level superficiality. This latter quality comes through most readily in the film’s finale, a suicide-awareness event in New York which is moving in its evocation of people lost to mental illness, but only on the most basic levels of audience involvement. Whereas American Dream ended with a moment of genuine devastation, Running from Crazy offers little more than surface-level tear-wringing.