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Falling Down: Social Contracts and the Logic of the Absurd

Films often operate as a form of social contract by challenging our moral and empathic capacity as spectators. Through its peculiar mixture of violence, humour and social critique, Falling Down tests our ability to empathise with victims of the violence perpetrated by its central character.
Justin Shaw

Issue #61, September 2002

Since its release in the year following the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, Joel Schumacher's film Falling Down has become the subject of much political debate for its portrayal of a socially-disenfranchised white man, "D-Fens" (Michael Douglas) who reacts violently against a politically-correct society. This film raises the question of the nature of a filmic social contract with its audience and its contribution to a film's political appeal. Does Falling Down merely pander to a reactionary, right-wing sentiment in its audience, or is there a more complex exchange taking place between film and spectator?

Films often operate as a form of social contract by challenging our moral and empathic capacity as spectators. Through its peculiar mixture of violence, humour and social critique, Falling Down tests our ability to empathise with victims of the violence perpetrated by its central character. In this way, the film asks its audience to resecure the social bond threatened by a humorous and detached portrayal of anti-social violence within the urban setting of Los Angeles. As someone who draws a level of audience sympathy through the identifiable problems that he encounters in his journey across Los Angeles, D-Fens turns the social contract of Falling Down into a test of whether we can reverse these allegiances by empathising with the victims of his violence. As an ordinary person confronted by ordinary, everyday problems, it is D-Fens' extraordinary and violent response to frustration that makes him a questionable source of audience identification.

Smashing Donuts and Postmodern Capitalism

The first instance of D-Fens' violence occurs as a result of his altercation with a Korean shopkeeper. After being bluntly informed by the shopkeeper that he must buy something in order to receive change, D-Fens eventually decides upon a can of Coke. When he discovers the cost of the Coke, however, he realises he will not have enough change left to make the call. There follows haggling over the price of the Coke, at which point the shopkeeper reaches for a baseball bat. A struggle over the bat ensues, during which a jar of American flags gets knocked to the floor. Upon disarming the shopkeeper, D-Fens is taken aback by his suggestion that he "take the money." "I'm not the thief," he retorts "I'm not the one charging eighty-five cents for a stinking soda!" Claiming that he is merely "standing up for his rights as a consumer", D-Fens then proceeds from aisle to aisle, smashing every product he believes overpriced. Eventually he returns to the can of Coke, which the terrified shopkeeper now 'reduces' to the value of fifty cents. D-Fens accepts the price, calmly places his money in the cash register and removes his change. He then departs, leaving behind him a stunned shopkeeper and a damaged shop.

Part of the social danger posed by such a scene is the way it objectifies the target of D-Fens' anger through a perverse kind of black humour. As D-Fens acts out a personal war on exorbitant prices, his violence is afforded a blackly comical logic in the way he is shown to enquire about the price of each item in turn before he proceeds to smash it with the baseball bat:

D-Fens: "Donuts, package of six, how much?
Shopkeeper: "Dollar twelve."
D-Fens: "Too much." (smashes product)

The darkly humorous nature of this exchange between customer and shopkeeper — with its play on postmodern consumer anxieties — is highlighted at the moment where the shopkeeper, after witnessing various items being destroyed, ventures a false price in the hope that the particular product will be spared. Rather than empathise with the shopkeeper, the film invites its audience to distance themselves from his plight through laughter.

As an attack on wider economic processes of globalisation and inflation, D-Fens' destruction of the Korean's store makes the audience accountable in a manner distinct from the anarchistic comedy tradition of cinema to which the scene (at least indirectly) refers. The convenience store scene from Falling Down combines a comical transgression of societal restraints and conventions — in this case, the anti-social destruction of a corner store — with an appeal for social change by "turning back prices to 1965." This use of humour for social critique can be compared with that of the anarchistic comedy genre, as exemplified by Marx Brothers films, in which anti-social destruction that creates laughter does not represent an attempt to change the social status quo.

Given the twisted logic behind his actions, the fact that D-Fens is able to appeal to an earlier, pre-inflationary period of American history as a rationale for such violence suggests an alternative to the social status quo that is being offered. D-Fens displaces his rage at globalisation, economic recession and profiteering by food conglomerates on a small Korean neighbourhood shop. This shop thus becomes a site upon which a wider threat to the social contract needs to be rectified by the spectator through a feeling of empathy for the victimised shopkeeper. The film, in turn, turns this ability to empathise into a moral struggle by inviting a humorous response to the Korean's plight.

Falling Down's mixture of comical and anarchistic violence with a voice of dissent can be distinguished from the social transgressions of the anarchistic comedy, where a repressive, social order is momentarily subverted in favour of an unarticulated and utopian order of anarchic freedom. The promise of anarchic freedom posed by anarchistic comedies such as those of the Marx Brothers represents a transitory and socially-acceptable moment of release that an audience does not take seriously. In the convenience store scene from Falling Down, D-Fens' call for social change poses a serious challenge to our ability as spectators to supply a moral and empathic gaze to a farcical vision of society. The controlled moment of social release created by anarchistic comedy becomes an uncontrolled threat to the social contract that needs to be rectified within the social domain of the audience.

Our struggle to bridge the emotional gap of spectatorship created by Falling Down can be understood as an attempt to re-establish the social bond that includes an ability to empathise with the pain and suffering of others. Without trying to account for the multiplicity of possible audience reactions to the convenience store scene, it is important to understand the kinds of responses that are being asked from the audience through the film's comical play on violence. In the midst of uneasy self-consciousness when asked to laugh at the plight of the Korean shopkeeper, the spectator of Falling Down is forced to revert from an "innocent bystander" to a complicit and (potentially) guilty agent whose laughter represents another kind of violence inflicted on the Korean through a failure of empathy. Faced with this feeling of guilt, the spectator must, therefore, strive towards a more "appropriate", moral response in order to secure the social bond of empathy.

Plays on humour and complex processes of identification in Falling Down represent both a threat to the social contract and the source of its possible restoration. In the course of his journey, D-Fens is able to acquire an assortment of weapons from his various assailants, including a Hispanic gang and a neo-Nazi. These weapons become a means of expressing social disenchantment through force. When a fast-food restaurant refuses D-Fens a late breakfast, he produces a gun in order to get his way. Given the serious and threatening nature of such an act, what is most interesting about this scene is the manner in which D-Fens' threat is reduced, at least for the film audience, through the darkly comical nature of proceedings.

In a manner comparable to the destruction of the convenience store, our position in relation to D-Fens is significantly different to that of the other people in the restaurant. Unlike the restaurant customers and staff, we know or at least suspect, that D-Fens' intention is not to harm anyone. The customers' terrified looks therefore appear in a somewhat absurd and comical light. When D-Fens describes a female customer's terrified vomiting as a sign of dissatisfaction with her meal, the viewer is cued to laugh. Similarly, when D-Fens' gun accidentally fires into the ceiling, the heightening of fear amongst customers and staff is matched by a heightening of black comedy as D-Fens apologetically tries to explain that the gun "has a very sensitive trigger." A laugh response to D-Fens' actions is something that the audience must work to overcome in order to remedy threats to the social contract that such actions pose. In this way, Falling Down turns a challenge to the dominant social order into a restoration of that order via audience response.

Violent Farce and Moral Spectatorship

In Falling Down, D-Fens assumes the clownish role of an outsider who questions society's values and disrupts its everyday activities at a time of apparent economic and social crisis. At one point, D-Fens argues with a construction worker over some street repairs that are causing traffic chaos. This leads to him exposing the corruption of a construction company "fixing" a street so it can "justify its inflated budgets." Later, after an elderly golfer deliberately hits a ball at him when he passes through an exclusive golf course, D-Fens points out the obscenity of having acres of parkland restricted to a "bunch of old men driving around in little cars." In both these instances, the coherence of D-Fens' criticisms plays against a farcical look at "the world" of the film. Our distance from the viewed object enables us to see the "truth" in D-Fens' arguments. Yet it is also this distance that threatens our moral function as spectator in relation to D-Fens' acts of violence.

Falling Down issues its social challenge as a challenge to empathise with an object of violence that is represented as "not fully real". Having revealed the unnecessary nature of the street repairs, D-Fens proceeds to blow up the construction site with a rocket launcher that he produces from his bag of weapons. As a heightened moment of excess, this violent solution to traffic chaos can be seen to invite a level of viewer support by the way it is sanitised and down-played through humour: a small black child, believing the action to be part of a movie, shows D-Fens how to aim and shoot the weapon. In a similar play on farce, the firing of the weapon is presented as a comical accident, with D-Fens' accidentally pressing the trigger as he lowers the gun. The serious and "real" nature of the violence is sanitised via its representation as a comical accident. When the street explodes in flames and workers scurry for cover, viewers must supply the moral look that is absent from a comical vision of anti-social violence. The empathic distance associated with a laugh response needs to be bridged by a moral act of spectatorship.

A similar kind of farcical detachment determines our response to D-Fens' encounter with elderly golfers. After nearly being hit by a golf ball, D-Fens angrily fires his gun at the golfers' cart. This action creates a two-fold effect: the golf cart rolls into a lake and the golfer who hit the ball suffers a heart attack. As a result of the play on simultaneous actions, the situation's severity diffuses in favour of a comical turn of events: the ailing golfer's live-saving pills happen to be in the cart that disappears in the lake. Again, the social bond of empathy is brought into question when we must struggle to empathise with a dying man who is shown to "deserve" his fate.

In this and other instances, Falling Down forces a contractual response from spectators by creating a feeling of moral ambivalence and unease in relation to a comical look at a dying man. We are the ones who must restabilise the social contract by empathising with the victim of D-Fens' violence. In order to do this, we must overcome the feeling of emotional under-involvement that allows us to appreciate the comical absurdity, voiced by D-Fens, of a man dying while "wearing a stupid-looking hat."

Humour, as a rejection of empathic identification with the viewed object, represents the means by which Falling Down challenges moral and empathic responsibility. Rather than ask its audience to share, in an unproblematic sense, the reactionary point of view of its central character, Falling Down uses that point of view to force its audience into recreating the social contract threatened by D-Fens' words and actions. The conservative politics that has been attached to the film thus needs to be recognised as part of the wider strategy by which Falling Down is able to mobilise its audience as moral and social agents for change.

Justin Shaw teaches in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He recently completed a dissertation on "Melodrama, Social Spectatorship and the Modern Social Problem Film."

Copyright © 2002 by Justin Shaw. All rights reserved.