Tuesday, December 8, 2015

what's wrong with this picture?

The opening of Falling Down reminds me of two very different things.

(And, no, neither one is Fellini's 8 1/2 because, for some reason, that film has slipped through the cracks of my moviewatching experience... Which seems wrong, now that I think about it.

I'm sure both Joel Schumacher and Jake Scott had the opening to 8 1/2 in mind, but I just cannot speak to Fellini's film... yet.)

The first thing is the music video to REM's "Everybody Hurts" (directed by the parenthetically aforementioned Jake Scott)--which I just had to doublecheck was out around the same time this film was. All those people stuck in traffic, all the different, sometimes vague, ways that they are hurting. Until they separate themselves from the monotony of that unfortunate part of everyday life in Los Angeles (and Chicago when it's funny), Like D-FENS (Michael Douglas) does in Falling Down.

The other thing is the "We'll Follow the Sun" episode of Married... With Children. Directed by Gerry Cohen, but I'm not so sure he was trying to invoke Fellini. Or maybe he was, also. Maybe we all are every time we get stuck in traffic. Dream of getting out and walking, dream of flying away, dream of taking up a baseball bat or a gun and rampaging through the city...

D-FENS' "actual" name is offered at one point in the film, but mostly he's known by his license plate. Davies (1995)--

(who I don't think I have cited in a while... Davies is in the first Groundhog Day Project binder as his essay is about Falling Down and Groundhog Day. I've used the latter portion before--for example, Day 124 - i thought we were going back--but never the former.)

Anyway, Davies suggests that the film leaves D-FENS' name aside because "Bill Foster sounds Anglo or black, while D-FENS is non-gendered and racially nonspecific" (p. 216).

Since I've been neglecting that content here, I'll let Davies summarize the basics:

En route, in between increasingly threatening telephone calls to his ex-wife, D-FENS encounters the 'everyday' frustrations presented by the city. A Korean shopkeeper refuses to make change for the telephone and charges high prices; the smiling unhelpful staff of a burger bar refuse to serve him the breakfast menu because he is a few seconds late; he 'trespasses' on territories claimed by gang-members, a homeless beggar, construction workers and a pair of wealthy golfers. D-FENS responds to all this with ever-increasing violence... (pp. 218-219).

The strange thing about this movie is that it straddles the line between putting you on D-FENS' side because his complaints, however far he takes them, are grounded in the real bullshit problems we all face in urban life, and finding him utterly reprehensible because he turns a little too easily to anger and to violence.

Or maybe that's why this movie did well. We Americans love a movie hero who will stand up for himself, speak out against the inane crap. I mean, this is the movie that knocked Groundhog Day out of the #1 slot. America had two weeks with Phil Connors becoming a better man and then switched right over to D-FENS pulling a sub machine gun out when Whammyburger wouldn't serve him breakfast.

(I am deliberately not being fair, here, just for the record. Groundhog Day was a close #2 and would fall slower than Falling Down as the weeks went on.)

Like S.F.W. gives us Morrow so Spab doesn't seem so bad, Falling Down gives us the Surplus Store Owner (Frederic Forrest) so D-FENS doesn't seem so bad anymore. At least he's not a neo-Nazi racist.

But then, there's the troubling visual--in context--of a cartoon lion swinging a bat around while D-FENS' daughter shoots the TV screen with her water pistol. The next scene: D-FENS dressed in military garb. And this is the scene in which D-FENS gets instruction on how to fire a bazooka from a passing kid and the kid thinks the explosion that follows is cool. The juxtaposition of cartoon violence and D-FENS violence turning far more real. He has killed now and will soon be indirectly responsible for another death.

Whether we should just have sympathy for D-FENS or cheer him on... It's a dangerous line. The movie rides it well.

REFERENCES

Davies, J. (1995). Gender, ethnicity and cultural crisis in Falling Down and Groundhog Day. Screen, 36:3, 214-232.

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