Falling Down is a 1993 thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Ebbe Roe Smith, and starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, and Barbara Hershey; it costars Frederick Forrest, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Lois Smith, and Raymond J. Barry.
Douglas plays Bill Foster (whose car’s personalized plate says “D-FENS,” hence the ending credits name him thus), an unemployed, divorced former weapons builder who has a mental breakdown in Los Angeles during a sweltering day in summer. He is the stereotypical “angry white male,” feeling shafted by a system that’s actually far more unfair to those other than his socioeconomic category.
I’d have to agree with Kirk Douglas and say that his son’s performance as D-FENS is his best yet. Though D-FENS represents a lot of disagreeable aspects of conservative American men, Michael Douglas humanizes the character and his many faults, making us sympathize with him, however indefensible his acts and thoughts may be.
Here are some quotes:
[Bill Foster exits his car in the middle of the highway]
Man on Freeway: Hey, where do you think you’re going?
Bill Foster: I’m going home! (his first line in the film) […]
“I’m rolling prices back to 1965!” –Bill, to Lee, the Korean store owner
“I am not a vigilante. I am just trying to get home to my little girl’s birthday. Now if everyone will just stay out of my way, then nobody will get hurt.” Bill, to Nick, the neo-Nazi surplus store owner (Forrest)
“I lost my job. Actually I didn’t lose it. It lost me. I’m overeducated, underskilled—Maybe it’s the other way around. I forget—but I’m obsolete. I’m not economically viable. I can’t even support my own kid.” –Bill
“You know what was in this? Zyklon-B! You remember? What the Nazis had! Listen! [shakes can, a slight rattle is heard] Empty! This was used, man! This was actually used! I wonder how many kikes this little can took out? Huh?! Think about it!” –Nick, to Bill
“Fuck you, Captain Yardley. Fuck you very much.” –Prendergast (Duvall)
Rick: Yes, sir?
Bill Foster: Hi. I’d like some breakfast?
Rick: We stopped serving breakfast.
Bill Foster: I know you stopped serving breakfast Rick, Sheila told me that you… why am I calling you by your first names? I don’t even know you. I still call my boss ‘Mister’ even though I’ve been working with him for seven years, but all of a sudden I walk in here and I’m calling you Rick and Sheila like we’re in some kind of AA meeting and…I don’t want to be your buddy, Rick. I just want a little breakfast?
Sheila: You can call me Miss Folsom if you want.
Rick: Sheila. We stopped serving breakfast at 11:30.[Foster looks at his watch to find it’s 3 minutes past the deadline. He places his gym bag full of guns on the counter.]
Bill Foster: Rick, have you ever heard the expression “the customer is always right”?
Rick: (sighs) Yeah.
Bill Foster: Well, here I am. The customer.
Rick: (still smiling) That’s not our policy. You’ll have to order something from the lunch menu.
Bill Foster: I don’t want lunch. I want breakfast.
Rick: Yeah, well hey, I’m really sorry.
Bill Foster: (smiles back) Yeah, well hey, I’m real sorry too. (pulls out a TEC-9) […]
Bill Foster: You’re Korean? Do you have any idea how much money my country has given your country?
Mr. Lee: How much?
Bill Foster: I don’t know, but it’s gotta be a lot. […]
Nick: We’re the same, you and me. We’re the same, don’t you see?
Bill Foster: We are not the same. I’m an American, you’re a sick asshole. […]
“I am just disagreeing with you! In America, we have the freedom of SPEECH! The right to DISAGREE!” –Bill, to Nick
“Good! Good, freedom of religion. Now you get the swing of it. Feels good to exercise your rights, doesn’t it?” –Bill, then opening fire on Nick, shooting him through a mirror
“Beth, did you know that in some South American countries it’s legal to kill your wife if she insults you?” –Bill
Sergeant Prendergast: Let’s meet a couple of police officers. They’re all good guys.
Bill Foster: I’m the bad guy?
Bill Foster: How did that happen? I did everything they told me to. Did you know I build missiles?
Bill Foster: I help to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Then they give it to the plastic surgeon. You know, they lied to me.
Prendergast: Is that what this is about? You’re angry because you got lied to? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? Hey, they lie to everybody. They lie to the fish! But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.
How D-FENS dresses and looks is significant. With a crew cut, glasses, and a white shirt and tie, he looks like a man straight out of the late Fifties, or early Sixties. In fact, he’s stuck in the Sixties, but not the way a hippie is; he is a don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty kind of man from the Sixties, having built missiles “to protect us from the communists,” as his mother tells Prendergast. D-FENS thus represents straight America.
Now, D-FENS, like straight America, has always had problems. His ex-wife, Beth (Hershey) has always sensed his potential for violence; like Travis Bickle, Bill Foster is a ticking time bomb.
Similarly, the US has, throughout her history, been a bomb waiting to explode; we know this because she has already exploded so many times before. But now that the Cold War is over, and she doesn’t have the convenient enemy of the USSR, America needs a new enemy, and has been seeking them out eagerly; so now her explosive tendencies have grown so much more dangerous…as have Bill’s. On this hot summer day, his war with LA is no cold one.
His problem–a “horrendous temper,” as Beth calls it–is on a continuum with most of the other characters, and this is significant, given his being a personification of conservative America. Indeed, a number of characters, especially Prendergast, parallel D-FENS to at least some extent, in terms of their pain, anger, alienation, and how varyingly functional or dysfunctional their ways are of coping with their problems.
When we see D-FENS in his car at the beginning of the movie, stuck in bumper-t0-bumper traffic on such a hot day, his air conditioning not working, and a fly buzzing all around him, we see him sweating, growing increasingly agitated, and finally losing it and abandoning his car. He goes from this agitation to a complete mental breakdown within the next half-hour.
He seems, on the face of it, so normal, so ‘straight,’ yet he goes crazy and violent in such short order. Seeing this, we ask ourselves, ‘Could I do that one day? What will it take to push me over the edge?’ After all, we don’t yet know much about him, until we get his ex-wife’s perspective; so Bill could be any ordinary American, for all we know.
This potential to become–this changing from one kind of man to another, two kinds so seemingly opposed, from ‘the good guy’ to the bad guy, is what makes D-FENS so scary to us. This contrast seems stronger when we learn from his mother, who’s terrified of him, that he has built weapons for American defence–“D-FENS!”–and when he’s lost his job, it’s the rest of us who need defence from D-FENS.
Now that he’s stopped building missiles, he’s become a kind of missile himself. As a weapons builder, Bill represents more than just straight America: he also represents the military-industrial complex (MIC). His accumulation of weapons (a bat, a switchblade, a gym bag full of guns, and a rocket launcher) thus represents the frightening growth of the MIC. The phallic nature of those amassed weapons also symbolizes Bill’s growing hyper-masculinity.
The MIC has always been in the service of imperialism, which is the extension of capitalist hegemony into other countries. The capitalist imperialist tends, however, to project his intrusiveness onto his victims (e.g., ‘the terrorists are going to get us,’ so we must bomb the Middle East, or, ‘we must stop the Red menace,’ so any killing of communists around the world is considered justified), just as Bill projects his aggression onto those he runs into. He attacks, yet he imagines it’s all…D-FENS.
So when he walks into the grocery store for change for the pay phone, and he finds Mr. Lee (Michael Paul Chan), the Korean owner, uncooperative, he busts up the place, as the US military did when the North Korean communists refused to cooperate with capitalism. Bill’s paying for a can of Coke–rolled back to 1960s prices–represents the capitalist imperialist short-changing the global proletariat. His taking of Mr. Lee’s bat represents imperialism’s attempts (if not successes) at depriving countries like the DPRK of the ability to defend themselves, a depriving that the US considers…D-FENS!
Capitalism breeds alienation, which includes the inability to communicate; therefore it’s no surprise that Bill finds it difficult to say anything when Beth answers his phone calls. He says nothing during those first few calls, but she knows it’s him on the other end.
She explains to the police that she has a restraining order against Bill–which she admits may have done more harm than good (it has!)–because she (justifiably, we learn) fears the possibility, the potential, of his rage to blow up into physical violence. She can see the psychopathy in Bill’s eyes; just as we on the left can see the potential for the moderate right to develop into outright fascism.
Still, we viewers of the film find ourselves sympathizing with D-FENS, in spite of his increasing violence and instability, since almost everyone he encounters is rude and obnoxious. Our sympathizing with him, however, is dangerous in how we make ourselves complicit, if only in thought, in his excesses.
Indeed, when we see him encounter the two Latinos in gangland, their bullying of him makes it hard to sympathize with them; but when you see this film as an allegory of US imperialism‘s dealings with Third World countries (e.g., those of Central and South America), the two Latinos’ aggression against gringo Bill becomes more than understandable.
They claim he’s “trespassing on private property,” a turning of the tables of what’s usually the white man telling the poor and people of colour to get off his property. Seen in this light, Bill’s D-FENSiveness becomes far less D-FENSible.
Now, as we ignorantly sympathize with Bill, we feel less and less sympathy for those who annoy him, including the poor. A homeless man trying to get a handout from him bumbles and stumbles over his absurdly transparent lies, making us want to laugh at his stupidity rather than pity him for his plight. Bill, of course, icily rejects him, and we find ourselves agreeing with him that the man should just “try to get a job.” (We probably forget our having agreed with him when we later realize Bill himself has no job, which has already been implied by his suitcase having only his lunch, and no business papers.)
Such an uncaring attitude toward the poor is dangerous, though, given the American gutting of welfare just a few years after this movie was made, one of many neoliberal moves resulting in, among other problems, the current epidemic of homelessness, not only in LA, but also in such places as San Francisco, Toronto, and the UK.
His confrontation with the staff in the Whammyburger is instructive of how employees are treated in capitalist society. Granted, we customers can’t help being annoyed when we enter a fast food restaurant hoping for breakfast, but we’re only a few minutes late, and they’ve switched to the lunch menu; still, it’s hard for the workers in the hot kitchen, cluttered with both breakfast and lunch cooking equipment, to prepare both kinds of meals at the same busy, hectic time. A strict ending of the one, to facilitate the switch to the other, may be inconvenient, but it’s perfectly understandable, as any past or present worker at places like McDonald’s will know.
Bill’s brandishing of the semi-automatic weapon, firing into the ceiling, is symbolic not only of the rudeness customers show to those suffering in silence in the food service industry (and I am guilty of such rudeness, too, far more often than I care to admit), but also of the boss’s bullying of his striking workers, getting the police to fire on them. Recall in this connection that, since “the customer is always right,” he is the boss even of the boss and managers.
As our Odysseus continues on his journey home (and recall that Odysseus returned home after invading Troy with his army, as Bill’s America invades countries all the time), seeing poor people all around him and caring little about their plight, one far greater than his personal frustrations, he buys a gift for his daughter and sees a black man (short hair, white shirt and tie!) complaining outside a savings-and-loan that won’t give him a loan because he’s “not economically viable!” Bill can sympathize with this man, because he’s clearly middle class by his clothes. The man is one of several doubles of Bill seen throughout the film.
Speaking of Bill doubles, Prendergast has his own family frustrations, including a difficult wife and a daughter he can’t see…because she’s dead. Instead of losing his job, he’s about to retire; and after leaving fighting crime on the streets to work at a desk, he has to endure the taunts of the other cops for supposedly being a coward, when getting off the streets is the only way he can stop his wife from being hysterical.
Still, with all of his problems, he’s able to deal with them in a controlled, reasonable way, unlike D-FENS. The most violent he gets is punching a particularly obnoxious cop in his department for insulting his wife, and shooting D-FENS when goaded into killing him. Part of the p0int of Prendergast and the “not economically viable” man is to show that we can express our anger without making it escalate into frightening proportions.
We hear so many tragic stories about unstable Americans (usually white men) with guns a-blazing. The US, as the nerve centre of global capitalism, “the belly of the beast,” as Che Guevara once called her, is also one of the worst places as far as alienation is concerned. Added to this is the toxic mixture of violent hyper-masculinity (a combination of biological factors and sex role socialization) and gun culture, including such absurdities as open carry. Then, there’s the growing problem of “white nationalism,” which leads me to Bill’s next major confrontation.
After Nick, the surplus store owner who’s been emboldened by Bill (and whom he says he’s “the same” as), taunts two gay men, he protects Bill from the “officeress” and gives him a rocket launcher. When Bill sees just how far to the right neo-Nazi Nick is, he refuses to identify with him.
Conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves about not being at least comparable to fascists. The only difference between a centre-rightist and a far-rightist is how much rage and frustration each feels with society. Both support the hierarchical, capitalist establishment; the fascist resorts to violence when that establishment is, or at least seems to be, threatened–the moderate conservative sees no threat…yet.
We must remember that the world isn’t a static, unchanging thing. All things flow dialectically, as I argued in my ouroboros posts. The social democrat shifts counterclockwise to the liberal centrist, who in turn shifts centre-right–or neoliberal/neocon–when such things as political correctness frustrate him; and this centre-rightist shifts to a pro-fascist position when the heat’s on even more.
This is why, when D-FENS says to Nick, “I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole,” he’s being more than disingenuous. Conservative Americans like to rationalize their reactionary ideology by imagining they’re defending freedom, including freedom of speech and of religion…and who did many of these conservatives vote into office? Someone who cages migrants, has banned travel from six Muslim-majority countries, and dismisses criticisms of him as “fake news.” Because the DNC establishment is largely no better than he, he’ll probably get reelected in 2020, too.
When D-FENS shoots and kills the neo-Nazi, what’s interesting is how the latter is in front of a mirror. Bill is projecting his own fascistic tendencies onto Nick, pretending that his own evil potential is something alien to himself, when that Lacanian mirror shows Bill’s and Nick’s reflections together, a merging of the moderate right that is forever in danger of phasing into the extreme right. Whether Bill wants to admit it or not, Nick’s right-wing authoritarian ideal ego is Bill’s, too.
Just before D-FENS kills Nick, he falls down, which of course refers back to the film’s title (contrast this with Prendergast’s singing of “London Bridge is falling down…” to soothe and comfort his wife). Here is the point where Bill is falling down,…the point of no return. Up until this point, his aggressions have fallen short of lethal. He shot the Latino gang member in the leg, and the switchblade stab in Nick’s neck isn’t quite enough to kill him; but then Bill points Nick’s pistol at him with a shaky, spastic hand while looking at Nick and himself in Lacan’s mirror. Bill is fragmented and alienated from himself and his Nazi doppelgänger, as well as from the world. This murder is symbolic suicide (he shoots a hole in the mirror, at a point connecting with his reflection), for Bill hates what he can see himself turning into.
He’s at the point of no return; having killed the violent, fascist authoritarian, he’s become what he killed–the potential has become the reality. Accordingly, he threatens Beth on the phone. So much for the ‘American’ right to disagree: she disagrees with him, in his unstable state, when he asserts his right to see his daughter on her birthday; he implies he’ll kill Beth if she “insults” him.
Normally, one would sympathize with divorced men who are discriminated against in child custody cases; but Bill is clearly one of those kind of men who are unfit to raise a child. His embrace of his daughter at the end of the film would begin a process of emotional healing for him, but he’s nonetheless reached the point of no return…
Now “dressed like GI Joe,” which is symbolic of his militaristic, quasi-fascist frame of mind, D-FENS leaves the surplus store with the rocket launcher in the gym bag and confronts a group of construction workers, like those whose blockage of the road set him off at the beginning of the movie. Again, as with the Whammyburger incident, we may be annoyed with government bureaucracy and all of its rules, regulations, and interference in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we can assume they’re never justified.
When Bill is told there’s “nothing” wrong with the road, this could just be the worker’s exasperated attempt to placate him, since Bill won’t accept being told there’s a legitimate reason for digging up the road. Government bureaucracy, rules, and intrusions are sometimes without justification, but sometimes they can’t be avoided. Bill, as right-libertarians all too often do, refuse to accept this reality.
The right-winger despises unionized workers, but sometimes he despises the rich, too. That’s why D-FENS gets mad at rich golfers and plastic surgeons. Right-libertarians blame the state for propping up the super-rich while they insist on preserving the class system and ‘free market’ that inevitably result in the current oligarchy. Fascists and Nazis have sometimes paid lip service to opposing capitalism, but Hitler was content to get financial aid from big business, including from foreign capitalists. Both of these kinds of right-wing thinkers are wilfully blind to their own hypocrisy. Capitalism is fine when it’s convenient for their selfish interests; if not, it’s just ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism,’ and not ‘real’ capitalism.
Still, we whites are made to sympathize with Bill. Such sympathy is dangerous, leading to such real-life violence as the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting (whose suspect was fixated on this movie). Whites often tend to lack sympathy for the justified anger of such people as the black rioters in LA in 1992, which disrupted the filming of Falling Down. When Bill breaks down and cries before the family in the backyard of the plastic surgeon, we’re touched by the expression of his pain (superbly played by Michael Douglas); but we mustn’t let that blind us to all the wrong D-FENS has been doing. Having a little residual humanity isn’t enough when the rest is all viciousness and brutality.
Speaking of the mix of residual humanity with brutality, consider the world that D-FENS wishes would come back. As a builder of missiles “to protect us from the communists,” he had work centred around the Cold War. This means, on the one hand, he helped the American war machine undermine the efforts of the USSR, Maoist China, Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc to free the world of imperialism. To Bill, that’s “D-FENS!” To us anti-imperialists, it’s viciousness.
On the other hand, the very presence of those Red countries prodded Western countries to provide quasi-social-democratic programs to help the Western working class feel at least somewhat comfortable under capitalism, thus stemming the tide of communist revolution. This ‘pinkish capitalism,’ if you will, was at its zenith from the post-WWII era to 1973. This was that bit of ‘residual humanity’ symbolized in those sympathetic moments in Bill; to us Marxists, that ‘humanity’ did little of substance for the world.
You see, those postwar, social-democratic benefits were largely for white working class men. The story was different for women who, during WWII, had had their first taste of bringing home a good pay-check doing their husbands’ jobs, but then had to go back in the kitchen, or to traditional, lower-paying jobs, once their husbands returned; and secondly, increasing divorce, especially during the Sixties, threw many women back into the workplace, where they’d experience discrimination. I hardly need to review what blacks were going through at the time.
Still, this postwar prosperity, with the American assurance that Bill et al were on the side of freedom, was a world that gave a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. By the time of this movie, though, the USSR has already dissolved with almost all the other socialist states, and ‘freedom’ has prevailed. But as Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom observed, the experience of ‘freedom from’ tyranny leads to a vacuum that needs to be filled with a new sense of structure, since no ‘freedom to’ develop one’s human potential has been provided to fill the void.
Bill has been in this predicament ever since his divorce from Beth and the loss of his job. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, without any structure or purpose in his life. All he can do is resort to increasing violence, as did the Nazis, of whom Fromm wrote.
Similarly, the Western victory over communism left the US without an enemy, and with a NATO hungry for expansion. Terrorism satisfied that need for an enemy during the 2000s, and Russia and China have satisfied it recently. The US, like D-FENS, has been growing more and more bellicose by the year. Many foresee American self-destruction within the next ten to fifteen years, comparable to Bill’s goaded suicide at the end of the film. (Recall what I said above, that Bill is straight America personified.)
All those angry white men, by the way, who cheer on D-FENS’s aggression fail to understand the film’s real intentions. We’re not meant to condone his actions, however much we may sympathize with him for how he’s suffered. Just because he’s gone through so much hardship, “doesn’t give [him] any special right to do what [he] did,” as Prendergast–who has also suffered terribly, yet handled his problems far better–says.
Now, for those on the right side of the political spectrum who are reading this, and are shaking their heads at what I’ve written here, I’ll give you all a full confession. I too went through an ‘angry white male’ phase, from my mid-twenties up until my late thirties, from about the mid-1990s to about 2010, before coming to my senses, shifting from the centre-right–little by little–to the left where I am comfortable now. I know your anger, right-leaning readers: I’m not some latte-sipping liberal who lives in the ivory tower of a university life; I’ve known for many years how mean and nasty the real world is.
So, to all you fans of D-FENS out there: please come to your senses and realize that he isn’t meant to be emulated, as Craig Stephen Hicks emulated him. You don’t want to find yourself falling down with people like this. It’s a fall from grace you might not be able to pick yourself back up from.