So there I am, watching the trailer for Falling Down and I'm wondering a few things: 1) did every trailer in 1993 have really annoying voiceover? 2) sure, the film has moments that make it a very, very, very, very were people seeing it in the theater expecting an outright comedy about "urban reality"? 3) was this the perfect companion piece for / counterpart to Groundhog Day? and 4) is this film--or rather the main character of D-FENS (Michael Douglas) just a metaphor for America... 5) I don't mean in an obvious, Americans are angry and fed up with all the bullshit problems in the modern world... 6) hell, I don't even mean that he's a stand-in for Americans at all, but rather 7) he is America itself, and Falling Down can be mapped onto a sort of moral history of America.
And, I'm not that impressed with America's morals lately, so this might turn into a rant. (Mal, you can check out now, because the word "patriarchy" might show up.)
My problem with the tone of that trailer, and a lot of the film for that matter, is that it insists that we be on D-FENS' side. Seriously, we start with an extreme closeup on his mouth, then his face, then we move outside his car and we see the other people--8 1/2-style or Everybody Hurts-styles we covered this yesterday. And, there is already hints that Schumacher--and/or the writer Ebbe Roe Smith (he? she? also wrote Turner & Hooch, which I'm sure you all know is a serious indictment of the political climate of America coming out of the Cold War... That's a joke. It's a comedy about a cop and a dog that slobbers too much, the more comedic, and (probably) better of the 1989 "twin film" movies about cops and dogs...The other was K9, you amateurs.)... Where was I?
Schumacher or Smith clearly wanted us to side with D-FENS. In the opening sequence alone--the Everybody Hurts portion of the film--we're offered up some yuppie bastards (and this is how the movie makes me want to label them, or maybe I just don't care for the type because I grew up in the 80s) on their gigantic cellphones, arguing about.... Something about clients; we're not supposed to actually care. We're supposed to be bothered by these guys because this isn't the age of ubiquitous cellphones. There's the woman putting on her makeup in her side view mirror, and she's got an entirely non-ironic angry-looking Garfield suction cupped to her window. There's a busload of brats (again, the movie makes me want to label them this way) on their way to summer camp. And, they've got a US flag dangling down the side of their bus because, that is what this movie is going to be about. Pan down and this is where we get to the guys with the cellphone, in their convertible, and one of them has just done cocaine right before he is in frame, because, you know, yuppies Wall Street stereotypes.
We get bumper stickers before D-FENS finally gets fed up with the traffic jam and gets out of his car. First one that says FINANCIAL FREEDOM with a phone number, then HE DIED FOR OUR SINS with a nice cross on it, and finally
How am I Driving?
Because that is America--or at least, traffic-America--coming out of the 1980s: money, religion, and bullshit requests for other people's opinions. Add the heat and the fly that keeps buzzing around in D-FENS' car and you just gotta escape. Because, what else is there to do? Keep living the same day-to-day, meaningless existence you already got going? D-FENS--we will learn later... SPOILERS--lost his job a month ago. His job was some government defense office job that he is no longer qualified before because "education" has taken precedence over experience and I think we're supposed to lament for him because American's don't appreciate education--hell, just... Was it today? Or yesterday? News headlines blend and bleed together and I'm not always sure when one thing happens because political debates on Facebook make the headlines linger longer than they sometimes should. Congress approved a bill that would make Common Core not be mandatory, or something. When I opted to head for teaching at the college level instead of high school, I stopped really arguing with people about whether or not Common Core is good, or useful, or if it might finally put American students on part with other countries in, at least, their math scores. But, after so little time with Common Core--seriously, Tyack and Cuban (1995) point out (citing Mort (1964)) that there can be half a century between a new practice implemented through education reform and actual widespread implementation, and it can take years to even know if a particular reform is working. For good or for bad. But, no, Common Core freaks out parents and confuses kids who have been learning in an entirely different way for years, so let us just scrap it and go back to what we were doing before because clearly that was working wonderfully.
"I'm going home," D-FENS keeps insisting. This is an easy euphemism for the conservative urge to get back to the good ol' days.
To be fair, there are some liberal angles in this film too. The gang members are (deliberately) dressed in red and blue, no specificity of gangs, just a nice hodgepodge because, hey, it's the early 90s and "Can't we all just get along?" and all that. And, while there are racist inclinations a few times in the film--the Korean shopkeeper, the Hispanic gangmembers, the film seems to deliberately position African-Americans differently. Like Phil Connors relating to the economically disenfranchised (Daughton, 1996, p. 146), D-FENS can relate to the black guy (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who has been told by the bank that he was "not economically viable" anymore...
White males disenfranchised. It's an easy in for a white audience. Recently, in a discussion about affirmative action, I was told--in all seriousness--by a white guy that he was passed up for jobs because he was white. And, I had to bite my lip because, suggesting that a) it is really unlikely that the employer explained that reasoning for the decision, b) it is really unlikely that he knows all of the criteria that went into the decision and c) that is some nearsighted, racist bullshit to assume if both and a and b are true.
And, as I type that bit, Seedy Guy in Park (John Fleck) tries to get money from D-FENS and of course the usual paranoid line that he doesn't really need the money (and the implicit addendum that he's just going to use it for alcohol or drugs) just has to be true in this movie. He's lying about his broken down car and his status as a Vet and how he hasn't eaten in days, and this deliberate buying into the paranoia reeks of something awful to me. The same impulse we have to distrust all homeless people--Protestant Work Ethic suggests, of course, that it's their damn fault they're homeless, so why should we care, right?--to distrust foreigners (like that stingy Korean shopkeeper in the film, or Syrian refugees today), to distrust rich people or anyone trying to, you know, run a business (when that last bit should be something D-FENS supports).
Let us ignore the fact that Joel Schumacher is Jewish (at least his mother was, anyway), and so is Michael Douglas--his father, Kirk was born Issur Danielovitch, his parents immigrants from Russia. Let us forget quite deliberately (when it is convenient) that this country was built by immigrants first occupying someone else's land, then proclaiming it theirs as if it has always been, so they could, in turn, reject the Irish, the Germans, Italians, Jews, African-Americans (but certainly never Africans, because we needed those to build the foundation of this country), Mexicans, and lately Muslims. It's always presented as if this is how it has always been and those people are threatening our way of life... As if we all aren't trying to live our lives pretty much the same way when you boil it down to the day-to-day.
That's why we can relate to Phil Connors, can relate to D-FENS (and to Detective Prendergast (Robert Duvall), or any of, say, the 80s action heroes, suggests that we all are sick and tired of the tedium of the day-to-day. And, we all dream of the action. (Which--not that I'm shifting gears into gun control--is the basis for the whole "good guy with a gun" illusion.) Just like we dream about getting out of our humdrum lives through some fantastic score--the lottery or a promotion at work, or society finally noticing that we're brilliant and should be in charge of... something. Die Hard is the quintessential 80s film because--and, we must increasingly dismiss the sequels for fucking this up--it takes a relatively ordinary guy and forces him into a corner, and there he fights back, steps up and does what needs done. At the start of that film, John McClane is not a superhero. Hell, we might forget it watching the movie today, but Bruce Willis was not even a movie star yet; he was pretty much a nobody unless you watched Moonlighting on TV. John McClane was not some super cop like Harry Callahan; he was just a regular guy who happened to be a cop. Like D-FENS is a regular guy who just happens to have (or had) an office job. And, who has anger issues, but that's just the American way of life, the way this film presents so many other people around Los Angeles... or maybe this is just an indictment of Angelenos.
And, I have missed my point a little. D-FENS as America, Falling Down as American history. Davies boils the film down to "two mutually exclusive readings":
1. D-FENS, ordinary guy, makes righteous stand for everyone's rights, but is transformed by corrupt society into a dangerous maniac with whom, nevertheless, we have some sympathy.
2. D-FENS, white male, adopts liberal version of US ideology to shore up his power, but shows his true colours when the chips are down. (p. 222)
I'm not so sure that these are mutually exclusive. This is just what I'm talking about when I suggest that D-FENS is America. We make our righteous stands for individual rights, until the chips are down and we need to get some violence going. We adopt liberal ideology until it doesn't seem to be working for us, or rather seems to be working better for someone else and then we might as well be dangerous maniacs as much as our rhetoric turns to that of such a beast. We're the nation of immigrants until some foreigner acts out and we gotta scapegoat his entire race or his nationality or his religion because individuals only matter when we're talking in the first person, never the third.
D-FENS begins the film with a righteous stand. His violence against the Korean shopkeeper is inappropriate but his point... We can understand his point. You know, damn the shopkeeper for charging enough money that he can make a profit. Nevermind that we would do the same if it were our shop. D-FENS' conflict with the gangmembers is also understandable. Act one is all about D-FENS being the righteous guy standing up against the injustices of modern life. Until he calls his wife. Right after he gets the guns, he talks to her. He's called her earlier in the film, but said nothing. Empowered by guns, he can talk. Later after he has actually killed someone--another righteous act--he again can talk to his wife, threaten her. Violence fuels D-FENS. In between those two phone calls, in act two, D-FENS has gradually become less the righteous man and more the dangerous maniac. His killing of the new-Nazi surplus store owner is an anomaly to distract from his downward trajectory.
Pulling the gun in the Whammyburger--that is the key to understanding the film and ourselves, watching it, and America. We want to rage at the injustice of breakfast service having a cutoff time as if it matters in the same way that a black man can be termed "not economically viable" by a bank. But, at the same time, pulling out a gun and threatening people--and scaring them all by accidentally firing bullets into the ceiling--should pulls us away from D-FENS. The real problem is that, I'm guessing, for the most part, it just doesn't pull us away. In fact, it ends on a cute note with the kid raising his hand to answer when D-FENS complains about the real burger not matching the image on the menu. We've seen a (presumably) homeless guy desperate for cash, a black man rejected by a bank then arrested for picketing in front of it, we've seen gangmembers driven to gun violence, a neo-Nazi driven to, well, being a neo-Nazi, and here we are worrying about what a fast food burger looks like? If that imbalance of concern doesn't define America, I'm not sure what does.
Daughton, S.M. (1996). The spiritual power of repetitive form: Steps toward transcendence in Groundhog Day. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 13, 138-154.
Davies, J. (1995). Gender, ethnicity and cultural crisis in Falling Down and Groundhog Day. Screen, 36:3, 214-232.
Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.