White noise: Carol Clover on Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down

In this cover feature from our May 1993 issue, posted here in tribute to the late Joel Schumacher, Carol Clover reflects on the director’s controversial film Falling Down, in which a middle-aged white male, armed with a bag full of weapons, takes revenge on a world he believes oppresses him.

23 June 2020

By Carol Clover

Michael Douglas as D-Fens in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993)
Sight and Sound

Falling Down tells the story of one day in the life of a laid-off defence worker (Michael Douglas). The eerie opening shots show him sitting in his car in a standstill traffic jam on a sweltering Los Angeles morning. Jaw set, face emotionless, forehead trickling with sweat, he takes in the sights and sounds around him – car stereos, a woman putting on lipstick, someone shouting into a cellular phone, a billboard, people arguing.

Finally he moves: opens the door, gets out of his car, clambers over an embankment and sets off on foot across tracts of LA not usually seen by freeway commuters. Like Odysseus, he is heading home, except that instead of Scylla and Charybdis there are chicano gangs and homeless people, and instead of Penelope waiting patiently in Ithaca there is a former wife with a restraining order in Venice Beach.

D-Fens, as he comes to be known after his license plate, always had a short fuse, and this is the morning he blew. “This is not a bad guy,” director Joel Schumacher says, “but he’s had it.” He cuts a ragged swath through the urban wilderness, leaving behind him a trail of corpses and frightened witnesses. A cop named Prendergast (Robert Duvall), who has tracked his movements since morning, finally stops him on the Venice pier. Arms raised in surrender, D-Fens utters his final, incredulous question: “I’m the bad guy?”

This piece originally appeared in our May 1993 issue

The critical reaction in the US to Falling Down is itself a study in confusion. A few reviewers have praised the film. Most, however, have dismissed it as yet another mean-spirited product of the Reagan-Bush backlash, underneath its glitz nothing more than a crude vigilante picture, appealing to the worst in us all.

The New York Times carried two reviews: an appreciative one by Vincent Canby, who thought the film smart satire, and a scathing one by Caryn James, who pronounced it irritating nonsense. The one thing that is clear is that audiences are going to see it in large numbers and, once there, are responding with shouts and applause. For better or for worse, Falling Down is one of those films (and Michael Douglas has acted in more than his fair share of them) that has hit an American nerve. But which nerve is it this time?

There is an old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto atop a hill, surrounded on all sides by thousands of armed Indian warriors heading straight for them. “What should we do now, Tonto?” the Lone Ranger asks. Tonto is silent for a moment, and then answers, grimly, “What do you mean ‘we’, white man?”

It is a joke that still resonates in American social discourse, haunting, among other things, the current concern over the fracturing of the polity into identity-based groups – a concern summed up in the question “how wide the circle of we?” That concern, and some form of that question, haunts Falling Down. D-Fens’s “I’m the bad guy?” is as packed with social meanings as his gym bag is with weapons. The question is: who is the “I” in that sentence, and why is he so upset?

Midway into the picture. D-Fens goes into an army surplus store to buy a pair of boots. The owner scrutinises him as he enters and, taking off his dark glasses and earphones, follows him to the back of the store. “I’m Nick,” he says. “What can I do you for?” Moments later, a police car pulls up and an officer enters and asks the owner whether he has seen a white man wearing a white shirt and tie and carrying a gym bag. No, the owner says, as D-Fens lies low in a dressing room.

When the officer is gone. D-Fens asks the owner why he lied. “You’re my friend,” the owner says, a little too intensely. The rest of the sequence will reveal the owner as a homophobic, racist, anti-environmental, misogynist neo-Nazi and will end with D-Fens calling him a “sick asshole”, shooting him, and going back out on to the street to continue his way home.

The police came because Prendergast, looking at his maps down at the station, figured something out. First there was a report that a Korean grocer’s store had been smashed up – but not robbed – by a white man wearing a white shirt and tie. Prendergast is intrigued by the description and when a report of an equally odd incident in an adjacent neighbourhood comes in, he guesses immediately that its perpetrator too was a white man in a white shirt and tie. When his partner Sandra goes to investigate a hold-up at the Whammyburger restaurant – where again nothing is stolen – Prendergast tells her to call him immediately if it is a white man in a white shirt and tie.

Prendergast and the neo-Nazi have something in common: they both ‘know’ D-Fens even before they meet him. The fact that the neo-Nazi’s knowledge is not quite right (for D-Fens is not a card-carrying Nazi) should not detract from the fact that he thinks he knows him. Prendergast, however, knows exactly, and is able to deduce not only D-Fens’s direction and destination, but also what no one else can fathom from his unorthodox actions: their motivation.

Joey Singer and Robert Duvall in Falling Down

The set-up brings to mind a Dutch film of some years ago, A Question of Silence (directed by Marleen Gorris), in which some women browsing in a dress shop suddenly, on the slightest of provocations, join together and beat to death the male owner. The women have never met before this moment; what joins them in common cause is their silent and sudden recognition of themselves as members of the category ‘Woman’, and therefore as angry victims of the category ‘Man’, of which the crowing shopkeeper seems such an exemplary representative.

Falling Down has been widely reviewed as an Everyman tale and D-Fens characterised as “Joe Normal”, “average citizen”, “universal hero”, or  simply “all of us”. Many of the irritations and social ills in D-Fens’s awful day are indeed things that can affect and offend anyone: the traffic jam, the annoying bumper stickers (“How Am I Driving? Call 1-800-EAT SHIT”), the ludicrous uniforms and protocol of the Whammyburger restaurant, the shopkeeper’s refusal to give change, the general rudeness of all towards all.

These are Everyone scenes, and they provide some of the film’s most trenchant moments. But to let Falling Down go at that misses a crucial point – in much the way that the state authorities in A Question of Silence miss the point when they construe the shopkeeper’s murder as motivated by insanity or class anger. Would the neo-Nazi and Prendergast have ‘known’ a woman who had done the same things, or a non-white man, or a disabled person, or whatever?

Three white men, three zones on a continuum. Reviewers have stumbled over the figure of the neo-Nazi, whose pathological hatreds seem so hyperbolically drawn. The excess comes into focus if we imagine the story without him. He secures a position we might otherwise be inclined to ascribe to D-Fens, whose words and deeds we might construe as too close to fascism for comfort. By locating genocidal viciousness and insanity in the neo-Nazi (and indeed having D-Fens kill him, moralising about freedom of speech as he does so), the film can define D-Fens as your average short-tempered neighbour who just happened to break one day. And what blows then is his self-control, not his sense of reality. No Travis Bickle, this.

Falling Down’s story is precisely not that of Taxi Driver (with which it has been widely compared): for better or worse, its whole effect depends on seeing D-Fens not as a vet descending into madness, but as a tax-paying citizen whose anger allows him to see, with preternatural clarity, the madness in the society around him. The neo-Nazi is established as a “sick asshole”, to make it clear that D-Fens is neither an asshole nor sick. He may be out of control, but he is “not a bad guy” (again Schumacher), and he does see truly.

Falling Down (1993)

As with the neo-Nazi and D-Fens, so in muted form with D-Fens and Prendergast. D-Fens is extreme and dies and Prendergast is moderate and survives, but they are doubles in the same play, and it is D-Fens’s ballistic reaction that enables Prendergast to let off a little steam. But Prendergast’s relation to whiteness and maleness is no less decisive for being more gently drawn. The first time we lay eyes on him, he too is sitting in the same traffic jam staring fixedly through his windshield at a billboard. The left side is obscured by trees, but the exposed part features a tanned woman in a bikini next to the rubric “White is for laundry”.

Presumably some product like sun lotion or a Hawaiian vacation is on the hidden side of the billboard, but without that as a material anchor, the words drift into a bellicose racial register. If that were not enough, a graffiti artist has drawn on to the female figure’s formidable cleavage, as if trapped there, a tiny cartoon man calling out “Help me!” It is this billboard, much later in the film, that Prendergast will spot again and that will serve as the missing piece of the investigation, the key to the pattern of behaviour that to everyone else seems random or insane or both.

Along this double axis of race and sex, Prendergast’s story too plays itself out. Certainly Prendergast’s relation to his wife, a needy woman who has manipulated him into sacrificing his reputation at work and agreeing to a retirement he does not want, is neatly captured in the cartoon man’s plight. And Prendergast’s too is a day of racial encounters, starting with his being chided by an Asian colleague for asking him what the Korean grocer is saying (“I happen to be a Japanese, in case you didn’t notice!”).

Lest we miss the equation between him and D-Fens, it is spelled out for us in the scene in which the girl Angelina is being interrogated about the incident in which her chicano gangster friends are killed. None of her interlocutors believes her when she says the man in question was a white guy with a baseball bat. Except for Prendergast. Moving in closer, he asks for a description. “He was like you,” she replies, “except taller and he had hair.” “Did he have a white shirt and tie?” Prendergast asks. He is, at that moment and throughout most of a film in which “white shirt and tie” has the status of a leitmotif, wearing a white shirt and tie.

Falling Down is hardly the first movie to feature a white man flailing self-righteously in a sea of people who are either not male or not white or neither and who are messing up his game. What distinguishes it from the run-of-the-mill backlash fantasy is the demographic precision with which it defines that man’s consciousness.

Barbara Hershey, Joey Singer and Michael Douglas

It goes something like this. The Average White Male is the guy everybody is mad at and wants compensation from – the guy who pays the bills whether he personally deserves to or not and whether he can afford to or not. The Average White Male is surrounded by people who have claimed themselves as his social victims and clamour for entitlement. By women who kick men out of the family and the home and expect child support (put aside for a moment the fact that D-Fens was evidently something of a problem husband and father), and by women who (like Prendergast’s wife) play femininity (and feminism) for all it is worth to keep their husbands in a state of guilt and control.

By chicano gang members who demand a ‘toll’ from anyone who chances into those chunks of Los Angeles they have claimed as their own. By old people kept alive by the miracles of modern medicine, drawing Social Security all the way. (When D-Fens lets the elderly golfer die of a heart attack by keeping him from his pills, he pulls an imaginary plug on all old people living beyond their time and on the Average White Male’s chit.)

By Asian shopkeepers who self-righteously overcharge. By homeless people who bully and lie through their teeth. By gay men. (Lesbians and disabled people are oddly missing from D-Fens’s hit list.) By blacks who shout racism whenever they don’t get what they want. (The black man picketing the Savings and Loan believes that the phrase used on his loan denial, “not economically viable”, is code for racial discrimination, but it soon becomes dear that D-Fens qualifies for the same designation.) Indeed, if we are to trust the neo-Nazi’s phantasmatic account, by “black bucks” who pin the Average White Male to the ground and shout “Give it to me! Give it to me! Give it to me!” as they literally rape him.

Likewise property. The Average White Male is the guy who theoretically owns the world but in practice, in this account, not only has no turf of his own but has been closed out of the turf of others. D-Fens breaches two high walls in the course of his long walk home. One is the wall of a country club, where he meets with elderly golfers (arguably coded Jewish) who shout “Get off my golf course! What am I paying my fucking dues for if guys can walk all over my golf course?”

The other is the wall outside a plastic surgeon’s mansion, where he encounters a caretaker he mistakes for the owner and who in turn mistakes him for the “security man”. (Even Average White Males have trouble telling each other from the enemy, it seems. When D-Fens learns that the man he is facing is a trespasser like himself – the caretaker is using the plastic surgeon’s barbecue on the sly for a picnic with his wife and child – his rage evaporates and he slips into confessional tone.)

But it’s not only the rich who have walled him out: it’s the poor as well. What he thought was graffiti art – on the rubble on which he is sitting to rest his feet – is in fact a sign, his chicano interlocutors inform him: “Private fucking property, no fucking trespassing.” (“A pissing ground, is that what it is?” D-Fens responds.) Even the homeless man claims territory: “What right do you have to walk through my park? I live here. This is my home, this is my park, what right do you have walking through it?”

Falling Down (1993)

And, of course, the home towards which D-Fens is so single-mindedly making his way is also off limits: “This is my house now,” his former wife tells him, buttressed by an order that stipulates that he may not come within 100 feet (or maybe yards – the wife can’t remember). For this, the white male fought for his country? As D-Fens himself sums it up to the caretaker: “I lost my job. Actually I didn’t lose it; it lost me. I’m overeducated and underskilled – or maybe it’s the other way around, I forget. I’m obsolete. I’m ‘not economically viable’. I can’t even support my own kid.” In the end, the Average White Male amounts to nothing more than a life-insurance policy, and in the film’s climactic scene, as a last wretched act of support, he arranges for that to be liquidated too.

It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with this picture. Even Average White Males are better off than their Average White Wives or than Average Black Males or whatever; hold for class, in other words, and they still come out on top. But what interests me here is not the fairness or unfairness of the portrait. It is the simple fact that a portrait has been drawn and that the lines are where they are.

For the group of which this group is construed as a part is not just any category. It is the great unmarked or default category of western culture, the one that never needed to define itself, the standard against which other categories have calculated their difference. In much the same way that  Protestants of Anglo-Saxon stock were once synonymous with ‘Americans’ but came, at some point in this century, to be marked as one category among many, with its own peculiarities and eventually its own name (WASP), so now guys like D-Fens (and his worse version the neo-Nazi and his better version Prendergast) are being separated from the master category and outfitted with an identity and consciousness of their own.

Not all white shirts are alike. Some are short-sleeved and have “nerd packs” in the pocket. And if we are to take seriously D-Fens’s change of clothing at the army surplus store, white shirts of this kind are just one temper tantrum away from becoming brown shirts.

How exactly does one go about carving an interest group out of the default category? The same way as other interest groups made themselves: by claiming oppression. Victim status is the coin of the realm as far as identity is concerned. The Average White Male claim is bankruptcy, both fiscal and spiritual.

In the Whammyburger scene, D-Fens holds up the flaccid, colourless burger he has been handed and, gesturing to the juicy version on the sign, puts the question to his captive audience: “What is wrong with this picture?” (After a long pause, a small black boy raises his hand.) So too the Average White Male: in the public imagination infinitely endowed with wealth and privilege, but in the real individual case, running on fumes: nerves fraying, guilt wearing thin, and down to an insurance policy.

To dismiss this as Reagan-Bush attitudinising, as most reviewers have done, does not do justice to the real sense of anger, grievance and pathos that attends the D-Fens story and that clearly affects audiences. There is, I think, something like Average White Male consciousness in the making out there. The men’s movement is part of it (especially the throwing off the shackles of responsibility and guilt part), Joe Bob Briggs is part of it, and publications like Heterodoxy are part of it. A recent issue of this last speaks of the Clinton administration’s mentality as one that “is forgiving of America-bashing because it has been nurtured on a vision of the rampant white, heterosexual male – a synecdoche for America the bad – running roughshod over the country and the world.”

Falling Down (1993)

It declares that a certain man was a “walking bull’s eye” for charges of child abuse “because he was a white middle-aged male and a serviceman in addition to his other defects.” It fantasises a PBS series, hosted by Bill Moyers, entitled Damn You White Man, which iterates in 13 hours the annihilation of all the “rich and varied cultures” of North America by white men (“guaranteed to induce intense guilt in anyone of Northern European ancestry”).

Heterodoxy is not a neo-Nazi publication (though some readers may find it a short stretch). It is reasonably articulate (within the mode of heavy mockery) and sometimes trenchantly hits the point, though arguably it is just as self-righteous as the PC-nesses it broadsides. “The cultural equivalent of a drive-by shooting,” it calls itself. Falling Down is pretty much the cinematic equivalent of the same thing – and from the vantage of pretty much the same constituency.

Canby regards Falling Down as quintessentially American, a film that “couldn’t possibly have been made anywhere else in the world today.” It is more particularly Californian – California being not only a traditional hotbed of identity politics (notable recent examples: the gay/lesbian and disabled movements), but an economy especially hard hit by unemployment (much of it related to defence cutbacks), and also, of course, a population in the process of dramatic ‘colouring’ (within the next six years, whites will constitute less than half of its 32 million inhabitants). If ever a place were ripe for popular fantasies about Average White Males resigning from public responsibility, 90s California is it.

In his new book Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, Robert Hughes writes that “Never before in human history were so many acronyms pursuing identity. It’s as though all human encounter were one big sore spot, inflamed with opportunities to unwittingly give, and truculently receive, offence.” Contradictorily enough, however, the book goes on to enact the very process it decries, in claiming an identity and victim status for yet another group – the group that was supposed to be beyond the fray.

Hughes ventures the possibility that “By the time whites get guilty enough to call themselves ‘European-Americans,’ it will be time to junk the whole lingo of nervous divisionism; everyone, black, yellow, red and white, can revert to being plain ‘Americans’ again, as well they might.” If Falling Down is any measure, the moment is upon us – but there is no discernible guilt here, only fury, and there is no sense whatsoever of reversal and regrouping in the offing. Falling Down’s answer to the question “how wide the circle of we?” would seem to be both “narrower than ever” and “what do you mean, we?” – spoken by more and more people, in increasingly snarling tones, echoing into the future.