Falling Down  1993 Dir Joel Schumacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falling Down was very much a product of its time. It was set in the early 1990s when America was in the midst of social, economic, and political uncertainty. Jobs were being lost to factories overseas. Racial tensions were in the news (and in fact erupted into the worst riots Los Angeles had ever seen, just days after filming stopped). People who worked hard to achieve the American Dream were realizing that they had been disenfranchised. The rich were getting richer, and everyone else felt left behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down tells the story of a seemingly genteel defense engineer’s violent day-long adventure in the Los Angelas of the early ’90s. The film is a wide-ranging criticism of contemporary culture, raising issues of social justice, civility, the decay of Western society, and the evanescing of the “American Dream.”

 

William Foster – portrayed by Michael Douglas – is a recently unemployed engineer living in Los Angeles. He has been divorced from his wife for some time, with his daughter under his wife’s custody. Stuck in traffic on the hottest day of the year – incidentally also his daughter’s birthday – he suddenly abandons his vehicle and decides to “go home,” despite his wife having a restraining order against him. Making his way across the city of Los Angeles on foot, he encounters various social ills, and having decided that he would no longer tolerate them, violently lashes out at all of them. Committing various crimes in the process, he gains the attention of Detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a police officer on his last day of work before retirement. Married to a very disturbed woman who was apparently responsible for the death of their only child, Prendergast abandons his office job that he never really enjoyed and pursues Foster. The film culminates with a confrontation between Foster and Prendergast, in which Foster commits “suicide by cop.”

 

Los Angeles is depicted as dystopia: the city is polluted and unclean, dominated by criminal gangs, ruled by corrupt bureaucrats, inhabited by the diseased and homeless, with a severe gap between the haves and the have-nots. Essentially, Schumacher uses Los Angeles as a microcosm of American society at large, which in the early 1990s was experiencing numerous negative social indicators, including recession and high crime rates.

 

One of the strongest themes in the movie is the decline of civility in society, which contemporary social scientists prefer to call “social capital.” Throughout the film, Foster is confronted by intolerant, angry, and arrogant characters that show no politeness or courteousness whatsoever. Foster’s reaction varies in each of these situation, but his patience with them declines as his day continues, and the resolution of each one is increasingly violent in character. Ironically, the only man who speaks to him intelligently and with respect, Prendergast, would be the man that kills him. The implication of this theme is that civility is crucial for the survival of any society.

 

Another theme is the severe gap emerging between the upper and lower classes in America. Having traveled through low-income districts of the city and encountering the violence and crime prevalent in such areas, Foster then crosses into high-income regions and is faced with the shameless arrogance of the upper class. As Foster attempts to cross a golf course, an elderly golfer who was so angered by his momentary encounter with someone from the lower orders attempts to strike him with a golf ball. Foster responds by retrieving a shotgun from his bag, giving the old man a heart attack in the process. Outraged, Foster screams at the golfer,

 

What the hell are you trying to do? Kill me with a golf ball? It’s not enough you have all these beautiful acres fenced in for your little game, but you gotta kill me with a golf ball? You should have children playing here, you should have families having picnics, you should have a goddamn petting zoo. But instead you’ve got these stupid electric carts for you old men with nothing better to do.

 

After this encounter, Foster jumps the fence of an upscale estate as he continues his journey. Injuring himself on the barb wire, he exclaims to those he finds on the other side, “Why are you putting barbed wire on that fence? Is this how you rich people amuse yourselves? You put barbed wire on the fence so innocent people like me can hurt themselves looking in?” Thus, the film has a strong theme within it that is highly critical of the economic situation facing society, with a growing divide between the rich and poor.

 

 

Tying into this theme is a strong commentary on social justice. Los Angeles is depicted as a place where one’s value to society is determined solely by their financial worth. While traveling through the city, Foster witnesses a black man protesting a bank which refused him a loan on the grounds that he was “not economically viable.” Foster adopts the term to describe his own situation; having no employment, he discovers that society assigns absolutely no value to him, a particularly tormenting realization. Unable to pay child support, not even his estranged family values him anymore. Overall, this theme resonates especially strong with the audience, raising disturbing questions about how others regard the value of our own lives.

 

A final theme that is the culmination of all the others is Foster’s realization that the “American Dream” – an idea that he believed in and remained loyal to – had never really existed, or worse yet, had betrayed him. When he is finally confronted by Prendergast, he whimsically complains, “I helped build missiles. I helped protect this country. You should be rewarded for that. But instead they give it to the plastic surgeons. You know, they lied to me.” Prendergast replies that had been lied to as well, but that didn’t give him any special right to lash out as Foster did. Prendergast’s line in this exchange was delivered with the sincerity of a disclaimer that was inserted by the filmmakers in an effort to discourage the audience from acting out in the manner they witnessed in the film.

 

Despite the presence of Prendergast’s character – a man who acknowledges the injustices of society yet is able to adapt himself and survive in a productive manner – Falling Down remains a scathing criticism of contemporary society. Furthermore, the film effectively points out aspects of American political thought that, while still valued in the minds of many Americans, may not exist in reality.

In many ways, Falling Down is about the last gasp of the 1950s in the face of the savagery borne of the early 1990s recession, set at that culture’s ground zero: the gang-ravaged, at-one-another’s-throat “melting pot” of Los Angeles. While proponents of 1950s social values had been given a “second chance” in the form of the Reagan 1980s, the economic collapse that came to define the early 1990s, and the resultant societal backlash, proved to be the final nails in the coffin of mid-century Americanism as an acceptable, mainstream ideal. In another era, D-Fens would have been the ideal American: A hard-working husband and father with unwavering loyalty to his job, country, and beliefs. (Amidst the climate of anti-government sentiment that defines conservative politics in 2013, it may be hard for younger readers to believe that in post-war America, loyalty to the government was synonymous with patriotism). The “lies” told to D-Fens were the standard line given to an entire generation of American men, all led to believe that getting up in the morning and going to work were all that was necessary for a lieftime of financial security and prosperity.

It’s appropriate, then, that the glasses that came to symbolize the outdatedness of the 1950s generation were chosen by Falling Down Costume Designer Marlene Stewart as Foster’s glasses. Not only do they put his character into context as a “leftover” from another era, but they are literally how he sees the world: A portal which warps his environment and leaves him perceiving of life as still existing as it did during another time. And, of course, the crack that appears in his glasses partway through the film symbolizes his own fragmented and fractured vision not only of America but indeed of his own life.

 

Foster’s journey is both geographical and emotional; home is not merely a location, it is a nostalgic state of mind. He wants to return to the days when he was happy and employed and married—before economic uncertainly and emotional instability tore his life apart. That nostalgia is shared by Foster’s nemesis Det. Prendergast as well; during the confrontation at the end of the film the two agree that the world is in decay, reminiscing about the good old days before water pollution contaminated the fish. The scene takes place at the end of the Venice Pier—literally and metaphorically the end of the line; there is nowhere else for Foster to go.

At the end of the film Foster realizes that he will not be going home after all. He finally made it home, only to find that there was no home. The home he so desired and spent his day (indeed his life) searching for didn’t exist except as a phantom product of false nostalgia. Beth would not be reuniting with him; his daughter Adele, though happy to see her father, would not be close to him. He was not welcome anywhere else in the city or in the world, and he finally realized that he was not welcome with Beth and Adele either. Home was a mirage, a false promise inherent in the larger lie of the American dream.

   In an article titled “Definitely Falling Down: 8-1/2, Falling Down, and the Death of Fantasy” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, J.P. Telotte notes that unlike Foster, Prendergast “retains the ability to move between the hard, cynical world of the police and the dangerous fantasies and psychoses of the people on the street. He can soothe his wife’s imaginings about a prowler over the telephone, sort out the Korean grocer’s exaggerated account, persuade the Chicana girl Angie to talk about her gang’s guns and describe Bill, prod Bill’s mother to talk about her son as if he were one of her fragile glass figurines, and even draw Bill into a conversation in order to save Bill’s family from his [potentially] homicidal plans. Prendergast is, quite simply, able to understand and deal with the various sorts of fantasies that have become endemic in the world…”

Prendergast validates (and indeed shares) Foster’s understanding about what happened to him, about the unfairness of the economy and life in general. But he appeals to Foster to rise above his disappointment and disillusionment and realize that he’s not the only one:  everyone’s hopes and dreams fall short.

Indeed Foster does recognize that he’s not the only victim of the economy and social pathology—others have been hurt too, including the Black protestor at the Savings and Loan, whose phrase Foster repeats as he explains his situation to Prendergast: “I’m not economically viable.” (The “economically viable” phrase is, of course, a dehumanizing corporate banker euphemism for “poor.”) His job has been lost, his self-respect has been taken, and his status as a husband and father have been stripped. In a final, resigned realization Foster recognizes that his only value lies in his own death. Through his life insurance policy he can offer his wife and child the economic viability that he could not provide in life. He has nothing left to offer, so he sacrifices himself by forcing Prendergast to kill him. If Falling Down is the story of an ordinary man at war, the everyday world won and Bill Foster—just like the rest of us—is only one victim.

Falling Down was very much a product of its time. It was set in the early 1990s when America was in the midst of social, economic, and political uncertainty. Jobs were being lost to factories overseas. Racial tensions were in the news (and in fact erupted into the worst riots Los Angeles had ever seen, just days after filming stopped). People who worked hard to achieve the American Dream were realizing that they had been disenfranchised. The rich were getting richer, and everyone else felt left behind.

America and its ideals play a significant role in the film.  In several places in the film, the American flag is shown. One of the first things to break in Mr. Lee’s shop is a glass bowl of small plastic flags, which scatter onto the floor. The setting—urban decay in Los Angeles—is a metaphor for the crumbling of the American Dream, the disillusionment that comes from realizing how deep and wide the gulf is between the glossy promises and mundane realities of American life. In his journey, D-FENS goes from the worst neighborhoods to the best, from a small wooden shack across from where gangsters meet him, to a plastic surgeon’s posh mansion. The audience is shown the hypocrisy embedded in a country whose founding principles include the idealistic phrase “All men are created equal.”

As for D-FENS himself, he certainly has bought into the American Dream. His father was awarded a Purple Heart for military service (in Korea, recalling the confrontation with Korean grocer Mr. Lee). He obviously went to college and got a job serving his country making missiles. He does not smoke, drink, or do drugs. Everything about him is conventional, from his haircut to his clothes to his car. Although we are given hints of a possibly stormy marriage, we are told explicitly that he never abused his family. He looks at himself and sees a failure, yet he is at a loss to understand why. What did he do wrong? How can he fix things? The problem is that he is fighting phantoms. His layoff was not due to poor performance or absenteeism. The end of the cold war, Budget cuts in the late 1980s and early 1990s probably led to his layoff. A family is, among other things, an intrapersonal arrangement, and, of course, it takes two to keep it together. There is no evidence that he is entirely to blame for the failure of the marriage, although we do hear that D-FENS was unreliable about custody after the divorce. D-FENS blames his mother, in fact, for the failure of his marriage. The audience is not given evidence to support or refute this, although the claim seems unlikely.

As for D-FENS himself, he certainly has bought into the American Dream. His father was awarded a Purple Heart for military service (in Korea, recalling the confrontation with Korean grocer Mr. Lee). He obviously went to college and got a job serving his country making missiles. He does not smoke, drink, or do drugs. Everything about him is conventional, from his haircut to his clothes to his car. Although we are given hints of a possibly stormy marriage, we are told explicitly that he never abused his family. He looks at himself and sees a failure, yet he is at a loss to understand why. What did he do wrong? How can he fix things? The problem is that he is fighting phantoms. His layoff was not due to poor performance or absenteeism. The end of the cold war, Budget cuts in the late 1980s and early 1990s probably led to his layoff. A family is, among other things, an intrapersonal arrangement, and, of course, it takes two to keep it together. There is no evidence that he is entirely to blame for the failure of the marriage, although we do hear that D-FENS was unreliable about custody after the divorce. D-FENS blames his mother, in fact, for the failure of his marriage. The audience is not given evidence to support or refute this, although the claim seems unlikely.

Portrayal of Minorities in Falling Down

Much has been made of the role of minorities in the film, usually contending that they are portrayed negatively.  This would include not only Foster’s view of them, but also the overall tone of the film.  Aside from how the main character views minorities, how does the filmmaker (and, by extension, the audience) feel toward them?  Is Foster’s rampage an exercise in ethnic cleansing and minority-bashing?

 

D-FENS takes aim at claims of racism

Here’s the list of minorities portrayed in the film, followed by the Caucasians, and how they are seen:

Mr. Lee, shopkeeper (Korean): negative
Brian, police officer (Japanese): neutral or positive
Detective Sanchez (Hispanic): positive
Officer Sandra Torrez (Hispanic): positive
Not Economically Viable man (Black): positive
Unnamed shopkeeper (East Indian): neutral or positive
Gang Thugs (Hispanic): negative
Two Gays (Gay): positive
Kid on Street on bike (Black): positive

Construction guy (White): negative
Seedy Guy in Park (White): negative
Rick, Whammyburger (White): negative
Man at Phone Booth (White): negative
Street Worker (White): negative
Construction Worker (White): negative
Nick, racist surplus owner (White): negative
Frank, golfer (White): negative

Of the eleven minority characters, only three are portrayed negatively, the two gangster thugs and the Korean shopkeeper, Mr. Lee. The rest are shown either neutrally or positively. I have included sympathetic treatments (such as for the gay men and the Not Economically Viable Man) in the Positive category.  When you consider the racial breakdown of Foster’s antagonists, the claim of minority bashing becomes even more clearly inaccurate.  Along with the total of three minority antagonists, we have another seven White males who abuse Foster.  In fact, there is not a single White male that he meets that day who does not abuse or irritate him in some way.  By contrast, there are several minorities he talks and jokes with. And if you view the minorities quantitatively—i.e. the two Hispanic police (positive portrayals) “cancel out” the two thugs (negative portrayals)—then we are left with only one “unanswered” negative minority character in the whole film.

 

I would not go to such lengths to make this point were it not for many people’s mistaken view that Falling Down is in some way a racist revenge fantasy.  Aside from the protesters, at least four reviews termed it “racist.”  This perception probably comes from the scene in Mr. Lee’s shop where Foster mocks Mr. Lee’s accent by asking “Don’t you have V’s in China?” The conversation that follows has tinges of racism, but nothing else of that sort is seen in the rest of the film; he certainly does not spend the next ten hours shooting minorities.

While Foster’s comment about Lee’s accent could be interpreted as racist, a closer look reveals that it is actually less about Lee’s race than his language abilities; in fact Foster states this explicitly by pointing out that minorities like Lee don’t “even have the grace” to learn English. The same issues are heard today in some areas where critics complain about immigrants (sometimes even third-and fourth-generation American citizen immigrants) who don’t speak English (or don’t speak it very well). They believe that it is respectful and courteous to adopt the dominant language of a person’s adopted country. (I’m not offering an opinion about the validity of the argument, simply pointing out that it’s a common topic subject to legitimate debate.)

In fact Foster’s complaint about Mr. Lee’s accent (and indeed not being able to understand what he says) is symbolic of the film’s larger themes of alienation and miscommunication. Note that another miscommunication occurs soon after the encounter with Mr. Lee, when Foster pauses on a concrete slab, and two thugs point to what they see as a posted warning:

Falling Down was very much a product of its time. It was set in the early 1990s when America was in the midst of social, economic, and political uncertainty. Jobs were being lost to factories overseas. Racial tensions were in the news (and in fact erupted into the worst riots Los Angeles had ever seen, just days after filming stopped). People who worked hard to achieve the American Dream were realizing that they had been disenfranchised. The rich were getting richer, and everyone else felt left behind.

Many things have changed in the 20 years since the film was released; and many things are exactly the same. The economic uncertainty, fear and insecurity are still very much with us. Corporations got bailed out by the billions while average hardworking people work harder and harder for less and less. Americans are disillusioned and angry. Class tensions are still very much with us; the recent Occupy Wall Street movement (whose slogan is “We Are The 99%”) is only one sign of this outrage. Racial tensions, also, are still part of the daily social fabric, as the current (May 2012) Trayvon Martin shooting case in Florida clearly shows. In that case a common slogan is “We Are All Trayvon Martin”—the clear message is that the majority of people symbolically reflect the (real or perceived) social and economic abuses visited upon the few.

America and its ideals play a significant role in the film.  In several places in the film, the American flag is shown. One of the first things to break in Mr. Lee’s shop is a glass bowl of small plastic flags, which scatter onto the floor. The setting—urban decay in Los Angeles—is a metaphor for the crumbling of the American Dream, the disillusionment that comes from realizing how deep and wide the gulf is between the glossy promises and mundane realities of American life. In his journey, D-FENS goes from the worst neighborhoods to the best, from a small wooden shack across from where gangsters meet him, to a plastic surgeon’s posh mansion. The audience is shown the hypocrisy embedded in a country whose founding principles include the idealistic phrase “All men are created equal.”

As for D-FENS himself, he certainly has bought into the American Dream. His father was awarded a Purple Heart for military service (in Korea, recalling the confrontation with Korean grocer Mr. Lee). He obviously went to college and got a job serving his country making missiles. He does not smoke, drink, or do drugs. Everything about him is conventional, from his haircut to his clothes to his car. Although we are given hints of a possibly stormy marriage, we are told explicitly that he never abused his family. He looks at himself and sees a failure, yet he is at a loss to understand why. What did he do wrong? How can he fix things? The problem is that he is fighting phantoms. His layoff was not due to poor performance or absenteeism. Budget cuts in the late 1980s and early 1990s probably led to his layoff. A family is, among other things, an intrapersonal arrangement, and, of course, it takes two to keep it together. There is no evidence that he is entirely to blame for the failure of the marriage, although we do hear that D-FENS was unreliable about custody after the divorce. D-FENS blames his mother, in fact, for the failure of his marriage. The audience is not given evidence to support or refute this, although the claim seems unlikely.

He has lost his family, and now he has lost his job.  He is let go for being “overeducated, underskilled,” or the reverse.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the details are: He is unemployed. “I am obsolete,” he says sadly and bitterly, “‘Not economically viable.’” In our society, men are closely identified with the type of job they do. It’s one of the first things brought up in a conversation: ’What do you do?’.  A job means not only an income, but some degree of prestige and status, not to mention sex appeal. Women tend to be attracted to men with wealth, resources, and status; he has none of those. After seven and a half years at the defense plant, making missiles, he still calls his boss “Mister,” indicating a very formal relationship.  No friends, close or otherwise, are mentioned at all in the film. Although we are told that D-FENS could be “possibly violent,” Beth is vague about the nature of his threats. She says he has never hit either of them, but “thinks he could.” It is hard to tell whether or not she overreacts to him, though he certainly becomes menacing in some of his conversations. At any rate, by the time D-FENS walks off the freeway, he is unusually vulnerable to the city’s harms and annoyances. Due to circumstances mostly beyond his control, he has been stripped of his prestige, his power, and his family.

As for the police officer pursuing him, Detective Prendergast experiences many of the same feelings and losses. We do not see as many daily frustrations he encounters, but we can certainly see his problems and pressures.  His unstable wife calls continuously to bother him at work, her calls obviously more a demand for attention than anything else.  Although he loves her, there is a fair amount of guilt between them; she lost her figure for him (and their child); he gave up being a street cop because she couldn’t handle it.  Their one child died from a known but unexplained cause, SIDS.  And now he is retiring early for his wife.

 

Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down tells the story of a seemingly genteel defense engineer’s violent day-long adventure in the Los Angelas of the early ’90s. The film is a wide-ranging criticism of contemporary culture, raising issues of social justice, civility, the decay of Western society, and the evanescing of the “American Dream.”

William Foster – portrayed by Michael Douglas – is a recently unemployed engineer living in Los Angeles. He has been divorced from his wife for some time, with his daughter under his wife’s custody. Stuck in traffic on the hottest day of the year – incidentally also his daughter’s birthday – he suddenly abandons his vehicle and decides to “go home,” despite his wife having a restraining order against him. Making his way across the city of Los Angeles on foot, he encounters various social ills, and having decided that he would no longer tolerate them, violently lashes out at all of them. Committing various crimes in the process, he gains the attention of Detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a police officer on his last day of work before retirement. Married to a very disturbed woman who was apparently responsible for the death of their only child, Prendergast abandons his office job that he never really enjoyed and pursues Foster. The film culminates with a confrontation between Foster and Prendergast, in which Foster commits “suicide by cop.”

Los Angeles is depicted as dystopia: the city is polluted and unclean, dominated by criminal gangs, ruled by corrupt bureaucrats, inhabited by the diseased and homeless, with a severe gap between the haves and the have-nots. Essentially, Schumacher uses Los Angeles as a microcosm of American society at large, which in the early 1990s was experiencing numerous negative social indicators, including recession and high crime rates.

One of the strongest themes in the movie is the decline of civility in society, which contemporary social scientists prefer to call “social capital.” Throughout the film, Foster is confronted by intolerant, angry, and arrogant characters that show no politeness or courteousness whatsoever. Foster’s reaction varies in each of these situation, but his patience with them declines as his day continues, and the resolution of each one is increasingly violent in character. Ironically, the only man who speaks to him intelligently and with respect, Prendergast, would be the man that kills him. The implication of this theme is that civility is crucial for the survival of any society.

Another theme is the severe gap emerging between the upper and lower classes in America. Having traveled through low-income districts of the city and encountering the violence and crime prevalent in such areas, Foster then crosses into high-income regions and is faced with the shameless arrogance of the upper class. As Foster attempts to cross a golf course, an elderly golfer who was so angered by his momentary encounter with someone from the lower orders attempts to strike him with a golf ball. Foster responds by retrieving a shotgun from his bag, giving the old man a heart attack in the process. Outraged, Foster screams at the golfer,

What the hell are you trying to do? Kill me with a golf ball? It’s not enough you have all these beautiful acres fenced in for your little game, but you gotta kill me with a golf ball? You should have children playing here, you should have families having picnics, you should have a goddamn petting zoo. But instead you’ve got these stupid electric carts for you old men with nothing better to do.

After this encounter, Foster jumps the fence of an upscale estate as he continues his journey. Injuring himself on the barb wire, he exclaims to those he finds on the other side, “Why are you putting barbed wire on that fence? Is this how you rich people amuse yourselves? You put barbed wire on the fence so innocent people like me can hurt themselves looking in?” Thus, the film has a strong theme within it that is highly critical of the economic situation facing society, with a growing divide between the rich and poor.

Tying into this theme is a strong commentary on social justice. Los Angeles is depicted as a place where one’s value to society is determined solely by their financial worth. While traveling through the city, Foster witnesses a black man protesting a bank which refused him a loan on the grounds that he was “not economically viable.” Foster adopts the term to describe his own situation; having no employment, he discovers that society assigns absolutely no value to him, a particularly tormenting realization. Unable to pay child support, not even his estranged family values him anymore. Overall, this theme resonates especially strong with the audience, raising disturbing questions about how others regard the value of our own lives.

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