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BOOKS & THE CULTURE A Walk on the Riled Side BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN FALLING DOWN Directed by Joel Schumacher THE MIDDLE CLASS IS, insists Robinson Crusoe, “the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanick part of mankind, and not embarrass’ d with the pride, luxury, ambition and envy of the upper part of mankind.” The avant-garde would later revile the bourgeoisie as the bastion of philistine mediocrity, of middling muddle, but for Crusoe’s creator, Daniel Defoe, the new class of merchants and managers promised a virtuous blend of industry and temperance. In 1703, Defoe was convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to spend three days in the pillory. His crime was authorship of The Shortest Way With the Dissenters, a mordant mimicry of High Church bigotry toward other Christians like Defoe himself. It was not the last time that a satirist was pilloried for the very beliefs he lampoons. For the way it takes the temperature of the American middle class, with an oversized anal thermometer, Falling Down has been pilloried by otherwise progressive critics. Caryn James, in the New York Times, dismissed it as “the last big Bush-era movie, custom-made for the rabidly conservative Rush Limbaugh crowd that sees social blight as proof that America is lost in a liberal wilderness.” Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic for the Dallas Observer, also rushes in to complain this is not the way things ought to be; Falling Down, he claims, is “an alternately silly and offensive concoction that reads like Rush Limbaugh’s letter to Penthouse Forum.” The description is as apt for All in the Family but only if you view the show as an ode to Archie Bunker. What is falling down in Joel Schumacher’s film, based on a screenplay by Ebbe Roe Smith, is a homicidal maniac. To construct it as a right-wing diatribe, you have to imagine Michael Douglas as a vigilante hero, not the crew-cut nerd he in fact portrays. We begin with an excruciatingly extreme closeup of him in acute discomfort. It is a scalding June morning on a gridlocked L.A. freeway, and, like its unemployed owner, the Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas at San Antonio car’s air conditioner is not working. “DPENS,” reads the customized license plate, but William Foster was released more than a month ago from his job at Notech, a defense contractor. “I’m obsolete,” he comments later, and, though we can sympathize with the victims of industrial obsolescence, the assault rifles and rocket launchers that shoot up Falling Down demonstrate that a thriving armaments business creates even more victims. “I’m going home,” proclaims Foster in his first words, as he abandons his car on the cluttered downtown highway. Falling Down is designed as a one-day urban odyssey, an acrid reenactment of Odysseus’ journey home to his royal seaside hearth. Foster makes his way on foot across Los Angeles, to the modest house in coastal Venice where he left his wife and child. But unlike faithful Penelope awaiting the return of her man, Beth \(Barbara court order to keep him away. “This isn’t your home anymore,” she tells her former spouse during one of his harassing phone calls. “You’re sick,” she insists when he persists in trying to restore their family. “You wanna see sick?” he replies. “Take a walk around this town.” That is what we do for most of Falling Down. The film offers a walk on the riled side, a bitter pilgrim’s progress through current urban woes. Foster, denied breakfast at kitschy Whammyburger because he arrived three minutes late, passes an angry black man denied a bank loan because of his color. He survives attacks of price-gouging, mugging, drive-by shooting, and even assassination by golf ball. The road to death in Venice is paved with violence, homelessness, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other ills that Hollywood confections customarily ignore or sentimentalize. The characters are caricatures and the plot implausible, but Falling Down makes vivid the deadly difficulties of fin-du-sicle survival. Schumacher has said that Falling Down might have been set in almost any city, as though Foster were an Everyman afoot in Anywhere. Yet California has long embodied and shaped the American Dream, and Schumacher recycles that collective myth as nightmare. If California is our bellwether state, the weather forecast by Falling Down is belligerent. Since 1990, the Golden State has lost 915,000 jobs, more than 100,000 of them, like Foster’s, in defense. The latest round of base closures is estimated to cost California another 31,000. Falling Down, offered in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, joins Chinatown, Alien Nation, Boyz N the Hood, Grand Canyon, and American Me, among others, in projecting ShangriLaLa as dystopia. In the grotesque spectacle that is Falling Down, the angels of Los Angeles are all fallen ones In Coming Home, Bruce Dern played what became a cinematic staple the Vietnam vet gone berserk, programmed to kill and illprepared for life at peace. Military retrenchment also aborts Foster’s homecoming, and it nudges him into an explosive bundle of grudges. “We’re the same,” gloats the itary surplus store is a shrine to the brutal glories of the Third Reich. “I’m an American,” replies Foster, refusing to recognize his own complicity with evil. “You’re a sick asshole.” Foster’s sickness is a perversion of the honest civic virtues that Falling Down endorses. Even while terrorizing a Korean grocer because his prices are excessive, Foster is careful to give him 50 not 85 cents for the Coke he takes. He sympathizes with a poor family poaching on the posh estate of its absent owner, and it is easy to sympathize with Foster’s disappointment at a world in which decency and civility have disappeared. But the film’s central, compelling irony is that, for all his quaint idealism, Foster has become the very horror he abhors. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks his police pursuer, and anyone but a tendentious critic can recognize him for the ogre that he is. Detective Martin Prendergast \(Robert man who exhibits precisely that grace under pressure that his doppelganger Foster lacks. While Foster makes his eventful way home, Prendergast, despite formidable obstacles, shadows Foster. The entire film aims toward a culminating confrontation between the two on the pier in Venice. Prendergast confuses Koreans with Japanese, and, hopelessly in love with a neurotic wife, he prefers chivalry to equal rights. But, when .he defies the scorn of macho colleagues and, without a gun, confronts a perilous foe, the mutant monster of his own culture, it is almost enough to vindicate Defoe. 20 MARCH 26, 1993