Falling Down is one of the latest entries in the ‘Controversies’ series, edited by Stevie Simkin and Julian Petley, and continues its project of studying the production, reception, and legacy of films which proved both popularly and critically divisive at time of release, and which have continued to stimulate debate in the years since. Centred as much, or more, on analysis of the films’ reception as on the texts themselves, the series mines a fertile and fascinating area of study and, as Davies amply demonstrates, Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993) is an excellent selection for inclusion.
This widely released, prominently marketed, and commercially successful film (the prosperity of which no doubt owed much to the enormous media exposure born of the controversy it excited) tracks the increasingly violent progress of D-Fens (Michael Douglas) on his journey ‘home’ across Los Angeles: a city represented as a hostile and territorial space, splintered by racial conflict. It is structured according to a series of confrontations, through which its protagonist slides (in both narrative and representational terms) from someone who has just ‘had enough’ of everyday aggravations to an increasingly individualised and marginalised figure (p. 77).
Following what appears to be the ordained series structure, the book is split into five parts. These describe the film’s production; the controversy spawned by its release; its key themes – here, ideas relating to ‘the crisis of white masculinity’; an analysis of several important scenes; and the film’s legacy. Overall, the structure works serviceably well, although Davies’ recapping of key points at the start of each section (while providing admirable clarity) sometimes feels overly repetitive. There is also a frustratingly long wait before he embarks on any close textual analysis but, when this finally arrives, it illustrates and augments the earlier arguments admirably.
In analysing responses to Falling Down, and the textual elements that engendered them, Davies seeks to position the film’s production and release within a range of cultural and critical contexts. In doing so, he makes judicious reference to widespread contemporary discourses, and to some of the recent news events that had raised their public profile. His summary and discussion of popular and critical dialogues surrounding Falling Down centres on responses disseminated in American media of the time: in particular, newspaper and magazine articles, and current affairs programmes.
In interrogating popular critical approaches, Davies identifies several key themes, which were all to some degree common currency by the time of the film’s release, and which would crystallise around it. In particular, he argues that the basis of the controversies surrounding the film, and “what continues to make it fascinating” is “the blurring between its sense of a nation in crisis, a loss of civility that affects everybody, and a specific identity – that of a white male – that is in crisis” (p. 5). The film plays, he contends, a “double game of portraying the white male as both typically and especially frustrated by the contemporary United States” (p. 83). The textual and circumstantial evidence he presents to support this claim proves both enlightening and compelling.
Released in the immediate aftermath of the L. A. riots (location shooting having been suspended during the previous year’s unrest) it was inevitable that this context would inform many of the contemporary responses. However, Davies also usefully speculates on the influence that other less internationally publicised current affairs may have had on the design of, and responses to, the film. He considers, for example, how far the fatal shooting of 15-year-old African-American Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner in 1991 may have influenced one of the film’s most controversial scenes, in which D-Fens confronts an unfriendly Korean shopkeeper (p. 87). This frame of reference helps to illustrate one rewarding area of his analysis: namely, the degree to which representations of racial conflict defy reduction to a hackneyed black/white dichotomy.
Davies summarises several areas of discontent, which were widely publicised in the media. The film was accused of negative stereotyping of Asian-Americans and Latinos, as well as inaccurately representing Los Angeles, while also attracting criticism from a support organisation for unemployed defence workers (the industry from which D-Fens has been made redundant) (p. 38-9). The most heated debate rested on the extent to which D-Fens, whom the marketing tagline described as “an ordinary man at war with the everyday world,” (p. 121) can be conceived as Everyman, and the extent to which he is defined as a member of a particular group: the “angry white male” (p. 48).
“What makes Falling Down truly controversial, as opposed to simply causing offence or gaining notoriety,” argues Davies, “is its combination of provocation, ambiguity, and incoherence” (p. 57). Indeed, its “multiple meanings” and ideological inconsistencies are, he claims, “a crucial part of its significance” in the extent to which they have encouraged critics to unpack the “politics of identity” (p. 81). His acknowledgement that the film is, in the final analysis, incoherent is refreshing, even as his analysis of the script revisions that contributed to this apparent schizophrenia proves informative (p. 24-5).
Davies quotes Vincent Canby’s New York Times review, which aptly likened the film to a “Rorschach test to explore the secrets of those who watch it” (p. 34). Although Davies cites a wide and extensive array of differing critical perspectives (journalistic, scholarly, and ‘expert’ – noting how these are often conflated in ‘controversy culture’) and gives respectful consideration to all, he is not shy of voicing his own opinions and conclusions, which further enrich an already stimulating variety of positions (p. 3-4).
If faults are to be found, they lie in the author’s omissions, rather than in the material he presents. Firstly, in focusing on contemporary American responses, Davies eschews discussion of how the film was received internationally. Nor does he consider in detail how attitudes to the film have changed over the past twenty years (bar a few general statements about shifting priorities within broader cultural dialogues, and a couple of brief comments about the studio’s repositioning of the film for the contemporary home entertainment market). Secondly, his consideration of Falling Down’s relationship to cinematic predecessors, such as 1970s American vigilante films, is relatively scant, with many potentially interesting parallels remaining unexplored.
Davies is at his best when describing the divisive nature of Falling Down, and in his endeavours “to determine the significance of how the film defined discussion” (p. 50). He deserves congratulation for having produced a lucid and engaging account of the cultural influences that helped to shape Falling Down’s ideological inconsistencies, and for his thought-provoking analysis of the controversies to which these gave rise.
Jude Davies, Falling Down (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 160pp.