Lost in the Sauce
Decades of Imperialism and empire-building promised Americans a more peaceful, prosperous world, but "Falling Down" teaches us that this was never true.
In Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down, the story is told of a laid-off defense contractor (D-FENS) who, simply, snaps and goes on a rampage through Los Angeles, on his way “home” (to his daughter’s birthday party at his ex-wife’s house), but as with most things in this film, it’s not as straightforward as this otherwise innocuous motive might seem, if you simply view this story as a professional being set-upon by urban blight while trying to get home (which this is not), but that’s the film; the story of how low our expectations have become, even internally, in what it means to coexist with humanity.
The film is criticized for attempting to make a nuanced point about how much of our national DNA is tied up in white supremacy, but is widely regarded to have failed, however, I’d argue to come away feeling empathy for the anti-hero of the story, Michael Douglas, would be to miss the point; one can empathize with his confusion, but not his entitlement, certainly not his actions, but from this third-person view, you can understand how widespread a fraud was perpetuated against the American people by the military-industrial complex when it failed to deliver anything but perpetual pain and suffering and ongoing dependence on the rest of our society. It embitters everyone to one extent or another in this film. I’d argue the film fails as racial commentary, but succeeds in demonstrating that imperialism made promises it could not keep, and the society we ended up with after “winning” the Cold War remains, to this day, in deep denial about why.
In 1993, we’d run out of enemies; the Soviet Union was gone, and we were left with the perfect world where Western democracy has prevailed. What had it yielded? Well, for D-FENS (played by Michael Douglas), he seems this as the ungrateful response of our society towards people like himself— everyone from the immigrant store owner who demanded he pay in exchange for goods, the fast food employees who have stopped serving breakfast, the gang members he encounters. It’s all being set-up to cast Douglas as a victim, however, this is the entitlement the American middle class was told would be theirs once Communism was defeated; they were sold, in short, a white nationalist fantasy, not a vision of a functioning, equitible democracy.
You’re, to this point, left wondering if Douglas is the protagonist; he’s portrayed as overcoming these things, sure, but the demands he makes of society begin at merely the imperialist-racist-paternalistic intersection of assaulting an immigrant, followed by shooting some teenage gang members during a scarity-induced hold-up, and firing an automatic weapon in a fast food restaurant that didn’t serve him breakfast; an escalatingly petty and childish demands that elicit escalatingly violent outbursts from Douglas. By the end of the film, he is in military fatigues, and heavily armed, but is facing only a single LAPD officer on the Venice Beach Pier, and only then, in the face of “well-meaning” authority, realize he’s being irrational, that he is “the bad guy”. Not just him, but what he represents.
The point in the film where this inversion occurs, earlier, where Douglas goes from indignant rage to malicious harm is when he’s being harassed by a homeless Vietnam veteran to whom he gives up his briefcase, and is then confronted by a Neo-Nazi who protects him from the ensuing LAPD manhunt, he sees far too much of himself, even once the Neo-Nazi turns on him when realizing he is unsympathetic to his goals (a precursor to the type of far-right conspiracist movements in 2020 that began with the Tea Party movement in the 2010 election cycle, before which had been largely underground); he defended this country at a high level, but was never boots-on-the-ground, and this man was. This is a culture, in this moment, he realizes he has created, and spends the rest of the film in unhinged denial of this fact until he is stopped at the end.
This is as cogent a metaphor for the imperialist harm of how depersonalized we’ve made warfare in foreign countries; Douglas’ character has produced a nation of homeless, hungry veterans; deranged nationalists; and corrupt police officers intent upon shutting down (and in 2020, one can imagine, repudiating) any officer who does dissent and attempts to engage in good faith (not a “good cop”, but one who, at least inadvertently, on his last day, attempts to do the right thing— the kind of whistleblower who ends up in real danger, usually).
Perhaps, correctly, because Douglas is still portrayed somewhat sympathetically, even if the viewer is not inclined to empathize with him, a lot of the criticism of the film centers on its treatment of being self-aware of how every white character depicts a different kind of racism. However, I think in Douglas, it’s most acute; he’s an imperialist, but also the racism one might normally describe as “under the surface” or simmering, is actually on full display the whole time— we have to examine how this has become normalized in our successful “democracy” where Western capitalist was supposed to liberate all, not just Americans, and yet, only Michaels (comparatively) and the other wealthy white men (the golf course guys, on the course mid-day during the week, for example) are at leisure during all of this strife, while, for example, even the “model minority” black man of the film is protesting a bank for deeming him “not economically viable” to start a business, yet this society will penalize him for not having done so anyway.
I agree it’s an incomplete, and not totally clear message about racial inequality or the effect of systemic oppression on racially marginalized, economically marginalized, or both, people, but I think, for all this criticism, it shows something deeply horrifying about what was supposed to be America’s victory lap. Bill Clinton, ““our first black president””, was in office, the Soviets were gone, defense contractors suddenly having nothing to do should seem like the least of our problems as a society, given the real harm of this military-industrial complex on civilians, however, we’re treated to 2 hours of pity parties for Michael Douglas, and again, I believe this intentional for rhetorical effect, even if it does fail to make this point clear that you are meant to feel attacked for not knowing, explicitly, that you’re being blinded by (and need to unpack) ethnocentric ideology if you empathize.
”I build missles. I help protect America”, Douglas tells Prendergast of the LAPD in their final showdown before the films ends, as if this explains everything— his motives, his integrity, what he is owed; he says he “did everything” right. He feels entitled to more, even after a day spent seeing how his job created a permanent class of those without in this country. He’s no victim, but as Prendergrast tells him “you have a choice”, but in Douglas’ (and, indeed, that of the class who enacted a state agenda of militarization and adversarial thinking on behalf of a fictional national identity) mind, he doesn’t; he elects to suicide-by-cop rather than face the consequences of his actions. In this, it is disappointing— rather than acknowledge all of these truths about the entitlement of the real men and women like this character, he is martyred at the last second, this farce depicted as tragedy, and maybe through some class conscious lens, it is tragic, but not for the reasons one could come away from this movie thinking. He’s ultimately still not the victim of this story, and that’s somewhat lost in the telling of it, and perhaps, unconsciously on the part of the director, for us as an audience.
On the one hand, this can be seen a making excuses for this state of affairs, but on the other, and I believe more realistic, hand it is acknowledging a long-ignored/derailed truth that the public was sold on a vision of the future that was all things to all people while intended to be only things for a privileged, elite class and an intention to give some just enough to remain committed to the ideological war of Western capitalism as we, then, headed into the new millennium. Reductionist? perhaps somewhat, but untrue, and the start of a much larger discussion than before? certainly not. The extremely recent past has much to teach us about today. This is the class consciousness avoidance we were warned about; the lumpenproletariat, if we’re reducing this down to just the better-articulated class element of this film, in conflict with each other, but not the state, not until the man with the most access, Douglas, disrupted the order in demanding what, delusionally, this white nationalist fantasy promised him for his role in the decimation of the rest of the world. He feels no alienation from his labor; in fact, he identifies so completely that he believes it entitles him, and that’s, unfortunately, the true nature of authoritarian nationalism to a destructive end.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
Teaching German Queerly: An Integrative Approach
Philip Glass - Evening Song Act III Pt. 3 (Satyagraha)
Debugging Incidents in Google's Distributed Systems - Charisma Chan and Beth Cooper