Monday, May 1, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Falling Down


Joel Schumacher's 1992 film Falling Down has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems to have predicted a certain white-male-as-victim narrative that's playing out all over the United States today. April Wolfe looked back at the film recently for LA Weekly. It's a terrific article, examining both why the film works so well and how that may have contributed to audiences cheering on the main character ("D-Fens," played by a buzz-cut, bespectacled Michael Douglas). Yet, as Wolfe writes, he's clearly the villain, and that's only become more evident over the past twenty-five years.

What I didn't know before reading Wolfe's article was that Schumacher was filming Falling Down concurrently with the L.A. riots, in April '92. The smog in the opening traffic jam sequence? That's actually smoke from the raging fires less than a mile from where cast and crew were filming. Wolfe eloquently notes:
That Falling Down was filmed in L.A. amid the riots is both ironic and telling: D-Fens’ entire narrative is driven by his misconception that he is the true victim, even as he marauds through the city, terrifying fast-food cashiers, construction workers and immigrants — people who have far less privilege than the white, college-educated D-Fens does. The riots, of course, were a reaction to the jury’s and public’s sympathy for the white police officers who beat Rodney King; the cops were portrayed by some media outlets as the real victims with everything to lose, even as King himself suffered unquantifiable brain damage. The film itself is a caricature, but it carries the stain of this reality in every frame.
Wolfe sums up how this misconstrued white male rage against perceived enemies can intensify:
That opening scene — mimicking Fellini’s — is an object lesson in editing tension: A close-up shot of D-Fens’ sweaty upper lip cuts to a Latina child listening to Spanish radio cuts to rowdy children in a school bus draped in the American flag and on to two rich, white assholes yelling into a car phone. Then come insert shots of bumper stickers reading “Financial Freedom?” and “He died for our sins” and “How am I driving — call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Full dissertations could stem just from the glimpses we get of a Tropic Sun billboard emblazoned with the company’s 1990 tagline: “White is for laundry.” Schumacher continually zips back to D-Fens to get his agitated reactions to each new outrage in this buffet of symbolism. To be clear, this is the world from D-Fens’ claustrophobic POV — not reality — and the message he thinks he’s receiving is that he’s no longer welcome in this country.
D-Fens and other American men of his ilk feel threatened, even though facts and evidence flatly reject their histrionic misconceptions of reality. Their jobs aren't being stolen by non-whites or "illegals"; the digital age and shifting global socioeconomic factors have combined to create an entirely new landscape, one in which these men can't seem to find footing. So they lash out, blaming everyone else for their misfortune.

In the case of D-Fens, he's suffered enough, to his way of thinking. He abandons his car in traffic, declaring "I'm going home." Wolfe sums up the significance of that reference to home:

Going home becomes a central theme of Schumacher’s film, and as D-Fens travels across Los Angeles, we come to understand that “home” means the past, that simpler, fictitious time politicians invoke when they want to win elections, and pundits hammer on when they want to drum up fear and paranoia.
What follows is a series of disturbing confrontations between D-Fens and those he cannot tolerate: a Korean convenience store owner, fast-food employees, and even a white supremacist. These scenes show Schumacher confounding audience expectations—are we meant to side with D-Fens, or be revolted by him? Clearly, it's the latter, but the film regularly complicate matters. Wolfe explains:
D-Fens, disgusted by overt racism, eventually kills the white supremacist, but only after the man has smashed D-Fens’ daughter’s snow globe (a conspicuously symbolic gift). D-Fens can’t — and won’t — face the fact that he, too, is a caricature of white male rage. He won’t speak the slurs but he’ll seethe with anger when he hears that Korean store owner’s broken English. Today, we might see D-Fens and the white supremacist as the infighting sides of the far right — one couches racism in coded words like “thug,” while the other wants an outright ethnic cleanse. Ultimately, what both want is to return to their idea of a purer America, unburdened by the concerns of minorities and women.
Later we learn more about D-Fens' past with his family. Watching an old VHS tape of his daughter's birthday, we witness his explosive temper, aimed directly at his then-wife and child. This terrifying moment, from that fictionalized, bullshit "purer America"—when he was happily married and gainfully employed—exposes the lie behind his rage, which existed long before his wife left him, or the Korean store owner raised prices. Still, D-Fens is occasionally positioned as a sympathetic antihero in the film, or given more leeway by other characters than he deserves.

There's a reason for that. White men are allowed to express their anger, be abusive to their spouses, lament the loss of a way of life that never actually existed, and blame everyone else for their problems. Despite all of that, they'll continually be afforded more chances to redeem themselves than their female or non-white counterparts. 
If you doubt this, just flip on Fox News, or passively follow the NFL, for example. That some audiences have celebrated D-Fens and his actions is an indictment on a decades-long fomenting of hate and division in our country that certain politicians and media personalities have stoked and exploited in order to win votes or ratings.

Falling Down captured a moment in time: the racially charged powder-keg that was Los Angeles, circa 1992. It also provided an early glimpse at the white male victim lingering on the fringe, a character who would only inch closer to the mainstream over time. Wolfe succinctly points out, "Falling Down remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right." That's the scary part: it hasn't lost any of its relevancy and in fact may now be more relevant than ever.

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