Almost thirty years after its initial release, Joel Schumacher’s best movie, Falling Down, is still very relevant. That says something about this funny, sad, emotional, and above all, a well-crafted masterpiece. To younger audiences, it might feel like a dark comedy while for the older ones it might feel a bit too real perhaps. This is a story about a man who just couldn’t take it anymore and all of us have been there. He actually tells a very interesting story about astronauts describing his position. A position of a man who passed the point of no return.
That’s his perception and I think that nothing in the world could convince him that he might be wrong. Now, how he got there is a more interesting question. It can be divided into several, seemingly smaller questions that branch off into infinity. Without any doubt, this movie resonated very well with a lot of people. Part of it is that it’s simply a very well crafted movie but I think most of its appeal comes from the issues that it explores.
What we’re going to do here is take a look at some of the important questions this movie raises. And why they’re still very relevant and valid. Hegel famously said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” And we’ve been watching movies exploring these same issues for quite a while now. The analysis will be full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this movie, I urge you to do so.
D-Fens is Falling Down
We find the hero of this story stuck in traffic during a particularly hot day in the city of Los Angeles. After a series of incidents over the past few years, he realizes that his current situation is simply unbearable. He leaves his car in the middle of the traffic jam and proclaims to nearby frustrated drivers that he’s going home. Ahh, yes, the iconic home. This is such a classical sentence appropriate for so many different situations. You’ve probably said it at least a couple of times this year already. This, in turn, makes D-Fens very relatable. He’s had enough so he’s going home, it’s as simple as that.
So, why did this happen? First, he lost his family. Because of his explosive temper, his wife left him and took their daughter with her. He moves in with his mother, still thinking that his marriage is somewhat valid. After all, they have a kid together. Secondly, he loses his job. His license plate is D-Fens, showing just how much his job as a defense engineer means to him. Thirdly, he’s clearly not well off financially. The contents of the suitcase he carries around pretending to be still going to work consist of one apple and one sandwich. You might even say that he’s not economically viable.
You can clearly see and feel that D-Fens is a man who has trouble accepting certain outcomes. Outcomes he thinks should’ve gone in his favor or shouldn’t have happened at all. He did everything he’s supposed to do or at least he thinks he did. The injustices he perceives are just too much for him to bear so he sets out to right some wrongs. Following in the footsteps of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Or, to lighten things out a bit, Ed Okin from Into The Night.
Broken Promises of A Broken System
Falling Down points the spotlight at not just the urban issues but more interestingly, at the various societal contracts. This brings us to the infamous tribal system of values where we’re told a series of lies right from birth. And the same goes both for women and men. Just behave and everything will be alright. Just get good grades and finish good schools and you will have a good job. This mantra also extends to relationships, marriage, and children. The family is at the center of this whole thing actually.
Education, work, and all other aspects of life are there for one thing and one thing only and that’s to continue our species. Marry and fucking procreate. At the other end of this Faustian bargain is the society as a whole and its formal representative, the government. It all looks pretty solid on paper, doesn’t it? The reality, however, is a whole different thing. You can do all the right things and still get the shaft, to be blunt. If you’re asking yourself and me why is this happening, the answer is deceptively simple.
The reason why the other end of the bargain is oftentimes not held up is that our society has not been built for that. Instead of fixing these glaring issues, past generations offer such wise advice as suck it up and pull yourself by your bootstraps. We need to redefine a lot of things in our society and orient it towards us, the people. This will, in turn, passively yield everything the previous version set out to do. Only with less suffering and more success.
It’s Men’s World
If you wanted a definition of an urban, well-adjusted boomer specimen look no further than D-Fens. He pushes his emotions down to get “the job done” and knows the difference between right and wrong. He sees himself as the man who did everything right. And he did, judging by all the checkpoints he passed in his life. He’s educated, employed until recently, married until recently, and more importantly, he’s a father. That’s it. What happened in the past, you survived, and what happens in the future really doesn’t matter anymore.
You would think that I’m talking about the communist USSR but I’m not. I’m talking about the capitalist world of the United States of America. Isn’t it strange that despite all of this insistence on individuality and freedom, things, in reality, are quite opposite? You could argue that his decision to leave the car and all subsequent interactions are the only personal thing D-Fens has ever done in his life. Tightly wound, he tried to maintain certain standards in everything. Just remember their family home video.
Stoicism or the virtue of suffering is prevalent in this worldview. You wear your suffering and the scars of past wrongs proudly, almost bragging about them but never directly. This is where the tribal nature of our current system of values rears its ugly face again. Society has created an urban version of the ruthless natural environment. Instead of natural selection now we have an urban selection. Morality seldom comes into the picture as the priorities are different.
The Women of Falling Down
Let’s take a little detour from the rampage and focus on a couple of female characters in this movie. They seem to be the extension of the oppressive apparatus that’s suffocating both of our lead male characters. Cop Prendergast, played by Robert Duvall, is almost constantly on the phone with his wife. She’s worried about him as being a cop’s wife is not an easy task. Most of the department looks down on him because of this. She’s clingy, emotional, and, at times hysterical.
Opposite of her we have his colleague Sandra, a smart and reasonable woman. You can even feel that there’s something more between the two of them. However, Sandra’s asshole partner is always there to fuck things up. So, both our leads are in a relatively similar position, at least in this respect. We move on to the D-Fens’s doting and let’s say distracted mother, who behaves just like Prendergast’s wife. Maybe that’s why he manages to establish such a good rapport with her.
Both of them are the worst versions of “women of the old”. Their whole life was about their children and they defined themselves by them. Once the children left the house, everything came crashing down and life became meaningless. It’s also important to remember that Prendergast and his wife lost a child. Perhaps they’re the image of what D-Fens would have been if he continued on his path of perseverance and quiet suffering.
The Dispenser of Urban Justice
After D-Fens leaves his car, he ends up in a series of situations addressing the bizarre nature of urban life. This, again, highlights the issues with our current system of values. One of the most important ones is the lack of empathy. Since he’s also in the system and he defines himself by it, D-Fens can’t see that he’s doing the same thing as everybody else. The store owner won’t give him change, gang members try to rob and kill him. He miraculously survives all of these challenges. We also shouldn’t forget that he was also stuck in traffic not too long ago.
And then they won’t give him the breakfast menu at the Whammyburger. It all seems like you’re watching a stand-up show with some famous comedian listing all the Complaints and Grievances. After meeting a clearly racist and homophobic gun store owner, he claims his first and only victim. I believe they’ve added this segment so he wouldn’t come off as the guy he just killed.
Don’t you just hate it when you come across a street that’s all dug up? Dozens of workers seemingly loitering around and destroying a perfectly good street seems like a scheme. D-Fens fires a bazooka at the whole damn thing. The senseless nature of golf courses and huge mansions also makes its way into Falling Down. D-Fens was a man without a purpose but he found one now. Since obviously, the system isn’t working he will take its role and dispense justice. He is the corrective measure that will not go silently into the night.
Creation, Agency and Control
We already talked about how the decision to leave the car might have been the only personal one he ever made. As you slowly start becoming the person the society, parents, people around you, and the environment creates, you start losing your agency. All your actions are motivated and constrained by tasks put forth by someone else. And I didn’t even mention ideology. To quote Zizek, “you cannot escape ideology even in your dreams”. You feel like you’re losing your personality in this process. Like you’re given this set of parameters and you need to keep them in check all the time.
This is the control you exert over something else to maintain them “at safe levels” is one of the few things that gives you a sense of empowerment. To admit that this needs to change or that you want something else goes not only against the momentum of your whole life up to this point but also something else. Your own personality and your definition of how someone should behave. The tribal system of values tells us that those men are weak and just need to “toughen up”.
Now, when it comes to deviations, they all must come from outside. You cannot be the one deciding to go fishing, start working out, or anything else as mundane as that. It must be mentioned or suggested by someone else. The reason for this is if you would decide to change “your ways” and habits all of sudden that would mean that you actually have agency. That you do have the control and ability to change your life. Agency to not end up leaving that car and going home. And that thought is terrifying.
Is The Death Drive Behind All Of This?
We’re all going to die, that’s just a fact. An unavoidable trip to the void. It’s something on the back of our minds, a concept that’s hard to understand and accept. Same as life. Why I think that Death Drive is very closely related to the movie Falling Down is its very definition.
The death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.
Hmmm, those behaviors do sure sound familiar. Maybe too familiar some might say. I don’t want to go any further with my interpretation of this concept but I do want to touch upon something. The answer that the society provides us with is driven by the tribal system of values. Now, all other systems stem from this main one, including religion, just to be clear. They offer a very simple, two-fold answer. You just have to live your life within the given parameters and create the next generation. That’s it, that’s the answer.
It doesn’t take into account your own personal wellbeing or desires or individualities. No, it’s very rudimentary and I would say downright anti-humanistic. We are so much more than that and we can be more. And before I get all optimistic on you, let’s look at the harsh reality.
Each of the characters we are going to meet in this movie has a different view of the situation. And each viewer will have a different view of this movie and certain scenes. According to our own moral compass, we look at certain scenes and analyze them. This compass can be of your own making or simply a borrowed one. And you know that the tribal system of values has them in store. They will make you bring a water pistol to a gunfight. And I hope you know what I mean, not that the answer is more violence.
That army surplus store guy thought that he shot up the place because he’s racist. And if he hasn’t met D-Fens he would go on thinking that he’s right. Although, now that I think about it, I doubt that anything would change his mind. He’s so firmly locked into an ideology that provides him with an answer for all his questions that he can’t break free. Breaking free would be equal to death. I would also compare this state to the one cult members have.
There’ve been many awesome documentaries about cults and cult leaders released in the last few years and I recommend you check them out. Holy Hell, Bikram, Heaven’s Gate, and Wild Wild Country are just some of them. And while we’re on this subject, I can’t help mentioning Adam Curtis’s masterpieces The Century of the Self and HyperNormalisation. They provide valuable insights into the reasons why our society is so fucked up.
We Are All Falling Down
What I mean by that is that we’re all in the same shit. Same shit, different day as the saying goes. And I’m no different. We’re all living in the same world and it really doesn’t matter much if you’re living in America, Europe, or Africa. Of course, some things are incredibly different but we’re talking about the tribal system of values that’s still in use in every country. There were a couple of moments in my life where I felt exactly like D-Fens. They’re still happening, don’t get me wrong, but on a relatively smaller scale.
We simply cannot escape the reality of the current situation. I apologize in advance if some of the following sections may seem preachy and pretentious. However, I feel compelled to share my personal experiences with you as I was able to change my life to a certain point. I was burned out, overworked, overstressed, depressed, anxious, and I’ll admit it, angry at the world. I am all those things still, today, but my perception of them has changed. And I want to tell you what worked for me because even if I can help one person, I would be happy.
I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that I reached a breaking point a couple of years ago. My health was declining steadily but surely and I was developing issues of a man twenty years older than me. And I had and still have very little space for any maneuvering. I could not afford to go into the woods and live there for months. So, I could either start using medications on a regular basis or do something on my own. I chose to try something I laughed at just a couple of months earlier.
The Concept of Unfucking
We’re all different people and live very different lives. And while we have a lot of things in common, some of us take different paths in life early on. That was the case with me. I was always a bit different. I was socially awkward and introspective and I despised the “regular life”. So, when I reached my “going home” moment, I was relatively unfucked. I was ready to try something different. D-Fens was not ready for it as he wasn’t unfucked. You cannot simply go from that state to meditating in your garden in one day.
What you need to do first is to unfuck yourself. We’ve all been fucked so hard in our lives that we first need to unfuck some of that in order to be able to get ahead. And it took every ounce of me not to write a head. Fuck. This is a process where you reevaluate your life and the world around you. Do not be hard on yourself and take small, incremental steps. You already know in your heart what to do. And you know you do.
The next step starts with an ending, this movie’s ending. Choose a different path from D-Fens. You must erase your own personality for a brief moment and exist as nothing. As a mere witness to the world around you. Just know when you emerge on the other side, you will be you. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. This dark period is not too different from all the days you had to endure previously.
Home Is Where The Consciousness Is
I really can’t tell just how much this text is pretentious or realistic. I’m just feeling in the dark here. However, I do want to finally say what it is that I tried because I think I owe it to you. I know this is going to be a dealbreaker for some of you buttfuck it. I tried meditation. Jesus Zombie Christ, I just now realized that this whole text feels like one long foreplay before the advertisement for meditation. However, I will say that that’s not the thing that’s going to solve all your problems.
It’s just going to enable you to see them more clearly. And it will give you agency. The first thing I tried was Waking Up and I can clearly remember just breaking down in tears towards the end. It felt like someone just lifted all this weight and left me to just be and figure out how to be. And that can be anything you like. You don’t have to be that obnoxious and preachy guy telling everyone how he’s enlightened and getting off of it.
You don’t even have to tell anyone. We live in an age when you can download a Waking Up or HeadSpace app and just use your headphones. I hope that I didn’t lose you with this last section because I know from personal experience how crappy all of this can sound. But I’ll say again, that I felt compelled to share what worked for me. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this and even expand the article with your input.