Skip to main content

The Road to Nowhere

A note on a film: Falling Down (1993)

The film begins, atypically, with an intense pullback shot from the character's half-opened mouth. It's a hideous close-up; distorted by the use of a wide-angle lens, which seems to exaggerate the as yet still concealed repugnance of this character. His propensity for violence, his racism and frustrations with the modern world - which will soon spill-out; defining both the narrative and the character's ensuing journey into the darkness of his own despair - are already transforming him into something not quite human. A monster maybe? Although not the literal type of monster as defined by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, or a Count Dracula even, but as something more recognisable to the concerns and general disposition of America in the last half of the twentieth century.

In this first image, the mouth - less a conduit for food, water and air; less a means for verbal expression - seems transformed into an open wound...

Falling Down [Joel Schumacher, 1993]:

The way the camera pulls back from this mouth is itself like an act of revulsion. In a sense, we, as the viewer, are too close to the wound of it; the stench, the hatred; the snarl of aggression is too much for the audience to bear at this point in the narrative. But the shot also represents a kind of visual exhalation of breath. The character breathes out, in time with the movement of the camera, and in this gesture the entire film is like the last gasp expression of all of the different anxieties and frustrations that compel the character to make his final stand.

From here the camera ascends. It moves over his nose, where sweat drips from the tip like a slow faucet leak, to his eyes piercing behind horn-rimmed spectacles; a meek and officious look that seems incongruous to that rictus-like rend that the camera had previously pulled away from. As the title appears on-screen, the character's now closed eyes suggest a state of trance, as if a primal force, once dormant, is about to be awoken. The suggestion that this character - this sleeping tiger - is about to be shaken from his complacency; from the deceitful delusion of the American dream.

Here, the iconic 'stars and stripes' appearing in the background of the shot seem significant. A sort-of symbol that defines the character (or his own conception of "the self"), as well as becoming a part of the film's essentially heavy-handed social commentary; which only becomes more hysterical and histrionic as the film plays out.

The same shot continues, unbroken. It movies down, over the character's hands - now gripped tight to the steering wheel, as if trying to anchor himself to this moment of mundane actuality - and further, along the body of the car now trapped in this social deadlock (the combination of the traffic jam and the tracking shot now recalling the iconography of Jean-Luc Godard's similarly controversial 1967 film Weekend - although the comparison is no doubt unintentional).

Weekend [Jean-Luc Godard, 1967]:
In Godard's film, the traffic jam/tracking shot seems to offer a reflection of the then-contemporary French culture at a kind of impasse. The cars are no longer moving, just stuck in one place, unable to progress or move forwards, but as ever, a semblance of life goes on. The two protagonists from the film, married couple Roland and Corrine, eventually break free from the inactive lifestyle represented by these cars, complacent in their immovable stagnation, and cut their own path towards anarchy, revolution and eventual destruction.

8½ [Federico Fellini, 1963]:
A more accurate but still perhaps unintentional point-of-reference to the scene from Falling Down could be this sequence from Fellini's masterwork 8½, where the idea of a traffic-jam as microcosm of modern-life is once more viewed through the eyes of a white, middle-aged, male protagonist on the brink of some kind of crisis or collapse.

Schumacher's camera keeps moving; a slow prowl across an overheated radiator - venting steam as a preface of things to come (the engine of the vehicle signifying the growing fury of the character off-screen?) - before tilting upwards and tracking closer towards the rear of the car in front.

Falling Down [Joel Schumacher, 1993]:

Here, the little girl with the plastic doll peers back at the protagonist with dead eyes that seem devoid of life and wonder; the gaze becoming more a gesture of judgement, or accusation, than of curiosity. To the audience she's just a kid like any other, but to the character she's a possible representation of the dual role of the mother and daughter that will soon define the film's emotional conflict (even the hair and appearance of the child is styled as if to resemble that of the actors Barbara Hershey and Joey Hope Singer, who respectively feature later in the film as the protagonist's estranged wife and daughter).

The camera now swings right, across another vehicle. It moves slowly, revealing the sight of a woman applying lipstick in the car's side mirror (another grotesque mouth; another exhaling expression) and across to a plush novelty Garfield toy suction-cupped to the rear side window.

The combination of vanity and consumerism becomes an affront to the character's position as someone drifting outside of the borders of conventional society; presenting another attack on the culture of indifference - or the inability to look at the world for what it is because we're all too concerned with our own private, hermetically preserved existence - but it's also intended, in its use of iconography, to again bring to mind the presentation of the mother and child.

The woman, enhancing her femininity (is her self-worth only defined by external appearances, or is the make-up another mask that people wear in order to face the world, or to conceal the monster within?) and the toy, as a reminder of childhood innocence, are offered to show, on a more subtle level, how these symbols (the mother and child) have become distorted by the central character's anger and contempt. His rage against the superficiality of the contemporary American society in stark contrast to the perceived idealisms of the past.

The shot continues now, moving further along the side of a school bus. Here unruly children throw paper planes from open windows, oblivious to the adult concerns of the traffic jam, or the grown-up fear of missing work or social engagements, and the penalties that such actions might incur.

Now the commentary becomes broader, less personal; the children as possible literal representations of the innocence of youth? They're not bothered by the traffic jam; they see it as an excuse to play. But their joviality and their efforts to make the best of a bad situation are once again an affront to the character's inner turmoil, and their voices, exaggerated on the soundtrack, cuts through the percussive assault of James Newton Howard's score like a dentist's drill.

As the camera descends, once again revealing the 'stars and stripes' emblazoned on the side of the bus, it would be easy to interpret this symbolically, as the literal "youth of America" (these kids, trapped in a state of innocence; in a sense protected from the horrors of the world outside), but it seems more likely that the flag is a reminder of the ideals that the character, in his anger and delusion, feels have been lost or corrupted. The flag as a reminder that America was once a land of opportunities, which seems incongruous if not cruel to the character's own position as a divorced, recently unemployed, forty-something male, reduced to living with his ailing mother in the bedroom of his childhood home.

The commentary continues as the camera maintains its descent. From a scene of children at play we pass over the heads of two young executives finding their own amusement as they sniff coke off the back of clenched fists and make deals on portable phones. For these yuppies, money never sleeps, and the traffic jam is just another opportunity to cash out or make connections; the "new America" of the energetic '80s drifting effortlessly into the burnt-out cynicism of the 1990s.

The shot finally comes to rest on the back of the protagonist's head, once again reinforcing his position as central to this image of America as a roadside microcosm; the catalyst for allsubsequent events. This final shot, which signals the end of the credits and the end of this intricately planned sequence, places the audience inside the head of the central character; forcing us to identify, on some level, with his perception of the world before the full course of the narrative takes shape.

For me, this entire sequence is amazing, and along with Flatliners (1990), Tigerland (2000) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004), remains one of the greatest things Schumacher has ever directed. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of the film, which despite its enduring popularity among certain audience members who feel the same sense of cultural alienation and displacement felt by the central character (and as such see his acts of reckoning and misdirected rage as justifiable), soon falls into the typically blunt, often judgmental hysteria that one might associate with the 'auteur' of films like St. Elmo's Fire (1985), A Time to Kill (1996) and Trespass (2011).

From here, Schumacher undermines the subtlety of the scene by repeating all of the same images, only this time within the context of a bludgeoning, Eisensteinian montage. It borders on parody, making obvious what has already been suggested, while turning what could've been a complex and multi-faceted look into a serious social and generational phenomenon (one that still has some sobering relevance if we think of the film in the context of the candidacy of President Trump, the rise of the 'alt-right' and the fascism of modern identity politics) into something with only a modicum more nuance and intelligence than the average Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie from the same period.


Popular posts from this blog

Running Wild

Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard
"In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom."
The problem with being prescient is that sooner or later the rest of the world catches up with you, leaving your predictions, once innovative and shocking, entirely out-of-date. It could be argued that such a fate has befallen "Running Wild."
Written by J.G. Ballard as a response to the Hungerford massacre, "Running Wild" outlines, in forensic detail, the peculiarities of a strange killing spree. The entire adult population of a gated, upper-middle-class, suburban enclave along the Thames valley, is dead, their children abducted. Over the course of the book, a psychiatric advisor from Scotland Yard will piece together the various clues and oddities surrounding the case until the shocking truth becomes clear.

Running Wild [J.G. Ballard, 1988]:
When Ballard wrote the book in the late 1980s, the concept of the "spree killing" was something of a rarity in the U…