30 Years Later, "Falling Down" Still Shows the Shallowness of Suburbanites' Views of the CityRoundup
tags: film, violence, Los Angeles, urban history, popular culture, science fiction, Dystopia
Carl Abbott is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and the author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (2016).
FALLING DOWN opened in American theaters on February 26, 1993, introducing moviegoers to unemployed defense industry worker William Foster (Michael Douglas), whose frustration boils over when construction jams a freeway access ramp during a brutal Los Angeles heat wave. The air conditioning in his Chevy Chevette doesn’t work; the handle breaks when he tries to roll down the window; he can’t tell how long the stoppage will last. The inciting incident of Foster’s volatile spiral is his decision to abandon the car and start walking toward the Venice home of his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey), as he is determined to see his daughter on her birthday. Nobody joins him for an exuberant La La Land frolic — he walks off to the tune of heckling and honking, fated to traverse the city alone.
The film’s narrative spine is Foster’s trek from East Los Angeles to the Pacific. On the 20-mile slog, he has increasingly violent encounters with Angelenos who obstruct his path with ordinary nuisances, including a Korean convenience store owner who won’t give him a discount, Latinx street youth who hassle him for loitering on their turf, a fast-food restaurant manager who won’t serve him breakfast, and a neo-Nazi surplus shop owner whose bigotry disturbs him (and whom he ultimately kills). Intertwined with his journey is the effort of LAPD detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall) to track a series of strange incident reports, identify Foster, and pursue his arrest. The film ends on Venice Pier with suicide by cop: Foster, cornered by the detective, pulls what proves to be his daughter’s water pistol, forcing Duvall to shoot him.
Falling Down, directed by Joel Schumacher, arrived at a traumatic moment for the United States, released on the same day that international terrorists detonated a car bomb at the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring hundreds more. Two days later, federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, setting off a siege that ended with the fiery deaths of 82 cult members. It was also a troubled time in Los Angeles. The 1992 L.A. riots, following the acquittal of the police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King, led to 63 deaths and devastated entire neighborhoods, and incidentally interrupted Falling Down’s final days of filming. The revolt was a painful manifestation of the persistent racial tensions and class inequality that Mike Davis dissected in his passionate polemic City of Quartz (1990). The end of the Cold War also sent the aerospace industry into steep decline in the early 1990s, providing a backdrop for Foster’s story.
Much of the film’s early criticism centered on its racial stereotyping and near vindication of vigilante violence in response to the perceived injustice experienced by a self-centered white American. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan called it a “greedy picture” that was “eager to get credit for the way it uses serious social problems as shallow window dressing in an urban fantasy” where the everyman transforms into the Terminator. This violent American everyman is trying to restore his personal sense of order. The reality that Foster, and men like him, might not be “economically viable” (a phrase repeated throughout the film) challenges his idea about what he is due as a middle-class white male. Struggling against his downward mobility, he assumes the privilege to enforce class conditions and social niceties that he thinks should be guaranteed. His grievances resonate with the fearful suburbanites in City of Quartz who are “against traffic congestion, mini-mall development, airport expansion, […] the erection of a mosque, an arts park, […] trailers for the homeless, the disappearance of horse stables, and the construction of a tortilla factory.” Foster protests obstacles that he feels he doesn’t deserve, like the loss of his job, and his ex-wife’s restraining order. In his self-righteousness, however, he becomes an agent of chaos whose violence escalates from swinging a baseball bat in one corner shop to murdering the proprietor of another. For balance, Duvall’s detective character represents the sort of calm and rational order that Foster thinks he is upholding.