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Falling Down

posted by Paul on 11/03/03

Falling Down involves itself with the disuniting of America and the disintegration of modern man.

Like Taxi Driver and Fight Club, Joel Schumacher's Falling Down serves as a sharp indictment of modern society. Two of its central themes are loneliness and disengagement, yet it is also an unflinching odyssey through the less desirable aspects of clinical American society. The movie, in many ways a metaphor for all that is wrong with modern America, portrays a lonely, disenfranchised white American who reaches breaking point. If it was just a story about human frailty, Falling Down would not resonate as intensely as it does. The movie concerns itself more with man's weakening relationship with his peers and the precariousness of the American Dream. It's not only about intense personal sadness, but the failings of an entire society.

Taken as a whole, Falling Down demonstrates the literal “falling down” of belief systems and suggests the American Dream as something of a sham. Namely, no-one is actually living it. From its opening shot of a fraught Los Angeles traffic jam, the movie establishes itself as a grim portrait of modern living. With the fog rising from the roads and the flies buzzing in people's ears, we are presented with the image of a contemporary hell. The movie's universe is one of depravity and greed, a universe of equally desperate contradictions.

The movie's protagonist is William Foster, played by Michael Douglas. The casting and performance of Douglas is pivotal to the movie's success; as an actor, he represents the quintessential “all-American” celebrity. With his rigid and business-like fashion, Douglas' protagonist is presented as the typical, honest-living American worker. Throughout the movie he is referred to simply as D-Fens, because he worked in a Defense plant and has a car number plate which reads “D-Fens”. The fact that he has the plate shows that he takes pride in his (former) job and even defines himself by it. In actual fact, the name is merely symbolic of the defensive white male, a trait which Foster imbues in the movie. It also suggests how, in the end, it is quite easy to attach labels to people and rely on stereotypes. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that D-Fens is a rounded character and not just another unhinged worker.

The movie is not subtle in some of its messages, but that does not weaken any of its points. D-Fens, like so many disenchanted White Americans, is defending his beliefs, his country and his principles. It is crucial to the central irony of the movie that Foster works in Defence. After all, he is defending a country which does not ultimately defend him. He is clearly a loving father, but he does not have custody of his daughter and he has been laid off his job. In many ways, Falling Down is what happens when someone has a set system for living, tries to live up to society's expectations but soon discovers that everything in which they believed was a fraud.

eighty-fie cent for da coke, asshoe!

The tragic plight of this character is not uncommon, so the movie takes a very realist approach to its subject matter. Estranged from his wife and recently made redundant, D-Fens reacts to the palpable chaos around him. Similarly, Robert Duvall's cop (Prendergast) has to endure a nagging, emotionally crippled wife and disrespectful colleagues. D-Fens is Prendergast gone over the edge: without the job and the security of marriage. The two men even have similar styles of dress – bland, colourless, yet functional. While Prendergast is cuckolded and repressed, D-Fens echoes much of his internal anger. The suggestion here, one senses, is that many Americans (indeed, mankind) are close to breaking point and that despair is never too far away. Joel Schumacher has made a host of bad movies and watered his movies down with too much homoerotica and overt nastiness, but Falling Down hits a lot of high notes. Preachy? A little. Vacant? Certainly not.

Understanding the context of the movie is vital in trying to decipher its many layers. In other words, it is making a broad statement about a corporate, disparate world. It is set in L.A in 1993. Los Angeles was the centre of the L.A riots of 1992. As such, it was a hotbed of civil unrest. It is also, due to overcrowding, one of the grimiest cities in the United States. Here, the fog and the noticeable humidity represent not only the polluted air, but also the polluted humanity in the city. Many illegal citizens settle on L.A and the city is rife with interracial tension. Furthermore, Los Angeles belongs to the State of California, home of excess and "Hollywood dreams". The State epitomises the desperation of get-rich-quick and instant fame. Yet it still has quite a diverse group of citizens and races, many of whom exist uncomfortably with one another.

In one scene, D-Fens finds himself in the domain of a plastic surgeon and feels truly repulsed by the "undeserved" wealth around him: even the barb wire, the crudest form of protection, guards the surgeon's mansion . Plastic surgeons, it could be argued, represent everything that is wrong with American society. Not only do they operate an extremely lucrative business, their job involves manufacturing artificiality. They assist people in deliberately transforming their appearances and falsifying themselves. This highlights the growing suspicion, evident in Falling Down, that no-one is happy with their life and few are content to exist as they were created, proud of their heritage and inevitable flaws. More tellingly, everything seems to be centred upon image and superficiality. Even D-Fens is trying to project an image, that of the hard-working American and family man. For him, a Plastic Surgeon would still represent the most grotesque form of micro-celebrity. In many ways, it is unfair that a man who wanted to work hard and earn an honest living was not respected for it.

"Can't an uppity white guy just chill in the ghetto?"

Critically, we should note this importance of status and money in the American society. Having no job and being estranged has robbed D-Fens of an identity and purpose. Consequently, he feels enraged at people who he sees as "unmerican" abusing their privileges. What does escape D-Fens until late into the movie is that he is equally expendable and unvalued as the people he views as inferior. It's this realization that really facilitates his descent. I mean, D-Fens is the bad guy in a society where racists, illiterates and phonies can prosper freely. How is that fair?

Although some scenes appear to place the protagonist as a racist, that would seem to be a simplistic reading. Admittedly, he is extremely angry with the world, but this anger is directed at many quarters. When the neo-Nazi suggests that he and D-Fens are alike, the thought repulses him. He does not consider himself a racist, just an American who is tired of being pushed around. There is a definite distinction here and it is one that eludes many people. By definition, it is not racist to question societal justice. At no point during the movie does D-Fens make any racial slurs or overly political statements. He is just bemused that so many people can continue practising their petty evils and questionable morality.

"What do you call a cheeseburger in France? Better value than this. LOL!"

The movie exemplifies this growing lack of morality by showing just how prevalent weapons are in America. The ethnic groups intimidate D-Fens by wielding baseball bats and brandishing guns. D-Fens, on the other hand, uses the guns to take control. The people in the Whammy Burger only take his grievances seriously when he shows that he is armed. Otherwise, they presume that he is merely another anal retentive customer who they can easily pass off with trite cliches and bland company "rules". The scene in the burger bar shows how pervasive weapons are in American society. It also underlines how powerful intimidation can be, and how actions often boom louder than words.

Weapons give power to those who are powerless, and a voice to those who cannot communicate. Looked at in this way, weapons imply a status all by themselves. They are a new language, transcending mere speech and with the ability to create a schism in society. This point would certainly hold true in recent times when there has been much controversy caused by school shootings, ongoing gang warfare and the escalation of television violence. It has divided society into two camps: those who think we deserve to arm ourselves, and those who think it is wholly immoral.

Unfortunately, weapons are used in Falling Down to denote intimidation. They are not so much used for protection but for warfare, as though everyday life is some sort of battlefield. The Korean shop owner wields a baseball bat at D-Fens because, feeling threatened, he cannot articulate his point or justify his thinking. His point obviously is that he does not want to give in to D-Fens demands, even though all D-Fens wants is small change for a phone call. Rather, the Korean demands that D-Fens pay the store's inflated prices. It is this sort of exploitation which inflames D-Fens, but the baseball bat makes the shopkeeper's intentions perfectly clear. Such a scene also shows how each race views the other with suspicion. D-Fens has no trust for the shopkeeper, the shopkeeper immediately jumps to conclusions about his white customer and any reasoning that may have existed is immediately diminished. In much the same way, the gang who threaten D-Fens see him as encroaching on their territory. This territorialism only aids in breaking down the barriers of racial harmony.

The baseball bat is a blatant American motif, and it could be argued that being brandished by an “other” is enough to vex D-Fens. Yet he is similarly annoyed when the very “American” Neo-Nazi threatens him. Looking at both scenes, it could be said that D-Fens is merely defensive against unnecessary belligerence. After all, he only wants to get home to see his daughter, yet he is repeatedly picked on by people with whom he has no business. Then, his rage finally boils over and he seems to revel in wreaking havoc.

"Yeah, you're right, I probably shouldn't stock shades in a big heterosexual store like this!"

To be fair, a lot of people could relate to most of D-Fens' gripes and his overall sense of injustice. His despair at the end, when he wonders “I'd the bad guy?”, reflects the working-class white man's growing sense of isolation in America. One does not come away from Falling Down thinking that D-Fens is good or bad, but a symbol of the struggle for justice in an unjust world. Many of the people he encounters are not inherently good citizens, and most of them are downright cancerous. It is something of a working-class fantasy to disempower these types of people, and D-Fens is a working-class anti-hero for much of the movie. By that, it can be taken that he is deeply flawed, but that he has a legitimate grievance and he takes action when most people remain passive. He is a reactionary, yet he embodies much of the rage and sense of grief that anyone told that they are no longer valuable would feel. His reactions to the staff in the Whammy Burger show that he is tired of being treated like just another commodity.

Although Falling Down exhibits a multi-cultural society, most of the country is clearly disunited and disjointed. There is little evidence of trust, while greed runs rampant. The movie succeeds because it does not take any particular view. D-Fens certainly is not always right, but he does have legitimate grounds for discontentment. That discontentment undercuts the movie and is true for many other characters: the Korean worker is only doing what he can to enjoy a comfortable existence in a foreign land, and the fast food staff are not servicing Capitalism by choice. Falling Down really suggests that life is race. Those who aren't prepared to play by the rules or accept the gross injustices are most likely to "fall down".

A street film critic gives his view on the new Tom Berenger sitcom.

One scene in the movie shows an African American man holding a placard, complaining because he cannot get a loan. It emphasises just how unjust American society is, and how everyone is at the mercy of the larger establishments and their unfair prejudice. And while it is easy to fall back on simple stereotypes, most of the ethnic groups depicted here only do the things they do because it creates a sense of belonging and purpose. The gangs who roam the streets are disenfranchised and bitter; D-Fens' wife is wounded and insecure; the wealthy golfers are disconnected from their world. Falling Down proffers a bleak picture of American society. Whites fear blacks, blacks resent whites and the rich capitalists exploit all races to their own hedonistic advantage. When it came to Oscar nominations and plaudits, Falling Down was suspiciously and unjustly overlooked. But then, any movie that is deemed too subversive or that offers an uncomfortable reflection is likely to be buried. It's impossible not to be moved by this movie, so go pick it up if you haven't seen it. Because, as a commentary on American ideals, it is unrelenting, illuminating and extremely haunting. But then:

Falling Down does involve itself with the disuniting of America and the disintegration of modern man.


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