Cinema, Cities, And Democracy
Edward Byrne

"I'm the bad guy? How did that happen?"
D-Fens (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down

In Daniel Boorstin's latest chronicling of intellectual history, The Creators, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian declares it was inevitable that in the twentieth century "the new public art of film, in curious ways, would re-unite the community that millenia before had seen ritual transformed into drama on the slopes of the Athenian Acropolis." Boorstin claims that audiences, after centuries witnessing intense artists turning inward in attempts to discover "the self," suddenly were confronted, especially in America, by the cinema, a new art form conceived out of "light, the unlikely medium of man's newly created immortality." Moreover, Boorstin suggests that "emerging and flourishing in America, land of conquest of space and time, film art was newly democratic and popular in the very age when literature was newly arcane .... The art of film showed a novelty appropriate to the democratic New World, a reach and a versatility unlike any art before."

As Boorstin points out, in the twentieth century the art of film has become "vastly public"; indeed, the movies could boast "the public as its patron." Particularly in their earlier years, the movies fulfilled their potential as democratic works of art by expressing the optimism and opportunities most Americans found in the nation's cities. Repeatedly, throughout the century's middle decades, Hollywood filmmakers appeared to be answering the plea, once offered by Walt Whitman, for artists who celebrated the cities—the seats of American democracy—and their people. Whitman lamented in Democratic Vistas, "Beholding the crowds of the great cities ... I feel, with dejection and amazement, that among our geniuses and talented writers or speakers, few or none have yet really spoken to this people."

Even those films displaying the darker side of urban existence, from Dead End (1937) to On the Waterfront (1954), eventually ended with upbeat messages. In modern cinema, as in modern art, the city was championed as the center of civilization and culture, the magnet that drew the best and the brightest. As Alfred Appel observes in The Art of Celebration: Twentieth-Century Painting, Literature, Sculpture, Photography, and Jazz, his recent collection of reflections on Modernism, works like The City, Fernand Leger's famous 1919 Cubist painting, contain elements of symbolism that "stand for growth and hope of all kinds." However, in today's Post-Modern era, this period of the exaltation of cities appears to be over.

Nearly ninety years back, in his book, The Battle with the Slum, Jacob Riis noted the precarious position of the American city, stating that "as long ago as the very beginning of our republic, its founders saw that the cities were danger-spots in their plan. In them was the peril of democratic government." More recently, in Steven Schlossstein's intriguing examination of current American economic and political concerns, The End of the American Century, the author concludes that in the latter half of this century "America's big cities gave way to a more transparent, though arguably less efficient, political system dominated by national television . . . and the broad middle class that had been their base moved out of the city and into the suburbs. As America's demographic center of gravity shifted westward, the city, once the barometer of American politics, became its coffin."

As a result, contemporary art readily mirrors the swift deterioration evident in this country's cities over the last few decades. Whereas earlier poets like Whitman and Carl Sandburg wrote nobly or optimistically of the productive and constructive activities in America's cities, today's pop-culture street poets—rappers like Ice Cube and Sister Souljah—often glorify the violence and criminal behavior destroying the nation's urban areas. Similarly, contemporary movies concerning the sad realities of 1990s city life seem light years from those festive mid-century films that displayed the comparatively secure grandeur of city living in the '40s and '50s.

The cover story for a recent issue of Time investigated the conditions found in major cities and declared that "in return for the highest combined city and state taxes in the U.S., residents of New York City get deteriorating bridges and roads, racial tension that frequently ignites violence, schools in which students must worry about gun battles erupting in the hallways, subway stations that double as public urinals, and streets full of panhandlers." The New York Times reports the most popular property improvement for residents in the city has become the purchase of razor-ribbon coils that create fortifications reminiscent of prison yards: "front porches once used for socializing have given way to caged-in entryways; bricked-up windows keep out both intruders and sunlight, and miles of razor ribbon lace more and more gates."

A Northeastern University study reveals that homicide rates for large cities are ten times that of small towns and are increasing at a pace nearly twenty times as fast. The National Research Council recently disclosed that almost ninety percent of AIDS cases "cluster in large urban areas." Consequently, demographic data indicates that an increasing number of Americans are giving up on America's major cities, convinced that they have deteriorated beyond any hope of renewal. In the 1992 Presidential election, for the first time a majority of voters lived in suburbs. Throughout the last decade, millions of jobs have moved from the nation's major urban areas. The malling of America has redistributed the country's shopping patterns and lessened possibilities of economic growth in the cities.

Perhaps the most convincing argument outlining the blueprint of a new United States is proposed in Edge City, Joel Garreau's fascinating study published last year. Garreau explains that new population centers, "edge cities" consisting of suburban housing developments surrounding industrial parks and shopping malls, are spreading across the land, replacing the citizens' dependency on decaying downtowns. Garreau postulates these shifts fulfill the prophecy of architect Frank Lloyd Wright that "skyscraper-by-skyscraper" urban congestion would lead to a "gravestone of ... centralization." Garreau concludes that "Wright viewed as interchangeable the concepts of individualism, freedom, and democracy. He yearned for a system in which men fled the evils of big capital, big authorities, big cities."

Throughout the last half dozen years a number of films have displayed the evils inherent in contemporary American cities, including Colors (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Boyz N the Hood (1991), Newjack City (1991), and Grand Canyon (1992). However, few have explored middle-class frustrations with urban existence and exploited the average American's desire to strike back the way Falling Down, the surprising box-office hit of the first half of 1993, has been able to do. Reports of exuberant audience reactions in movie theatres across the nation provide evidence of the extent to which this film has triggered, literally and figuratively, an emotional release for many.

Written by Ebbe Roe Smith and directed by Joel Schumacher, Falling Down presents all-American actor Michael Douglas as a laid-off defense worker, separated from his wife and daughter, who is forced to move back home with his mother. Having lost everything important to him, he more readily challenges the ordinary outrages and irritations of everyday life in the city: traffic jams, muggings, territorial gang disputes, drive-by shootings, racism, impersonal consumerism, government corruption, price gouging, pushy panhandlers, the indifference of the privileged, etc. In a recent interview, Smith described his script as inspired by real news items and arising from "the frustration of looking at the city and looking at the world and seeing all the rage we're directing at each other." The main character, Bill Foster (identified throughout most of the film as "D-Fens" because of the lettering on his license plate), is viewed by Smith as "someone who bought the American dream, and it's blown up in his face."

Ironically, this box-office success was at first turned down by every major Hollywood studio as politically incorrect. In fact, one studio reportedly responded to the script by saying "not only will we not make this movie, but we hope no studio will make it" Likewise, Caryn James, film critic for The New York Times, assails Falling Down as "the last big Bush-era movie." However, others believe the opposite may be true. Some regard Falling Down as an antidote to the rash of films—like Academy Award nominees Scent of a Woman, The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, and Unforgiven—recently praised and categorized by The New York Times' Frank Rich as "Clintonian Cinema," movies sanctioned by Hollywood as politically correct, in which "their definition of an ideal man—pacifistic except in self-defense, misty-eyed, in touch with his feminine side—is a central-casting call for the new President, who escaped the Vietnam draft and makes empathy an art"

In any case, many in Hollywood and the media have been shaken by the enormous popularity of Falling Down. As if to deny the film's legitimacy as a voice for middle-American moviegoers, defenders of Hollywood's liberal ideology have gone on the offensive. Some critics have charged the film's makers with the tiresome litany of racism, homophobia, and sexism. Caryn James accuses the film of being "custom-made for the rabidly conservative Rush Limbaugh crowd that sees social blight as proof that America is lost in a liberal wilderness." Others, like Terrence Rafferty of New Yorker, believe the movie "evokes the self-pitying 'silent majority' rhetoric of the Nixon era: that appalling sentimentality about one's beleaguered and underappreciated virtue." A recent Newsweek cover story even attempts to dismiss the middle-class backlash evident in audiences' reactions as merely "White Male Paranoia." Indeed, one almost expected a condemnation of Falling Down among the list of political grievances intoned by presenters at the latest Academy Award ceremonies.

This refusal to acknowledge that most of Hollywood and the media are out of touch with what middle America really values has been amply chronicled by Michael Medved in his best-seller, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. Medved states "it may come as news" to Hollywood, but "traditional values are alive and well" in most of America. Indeed, despite the scorn of Hollywood and many in the media, it is not coincidental that Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought To Be was the number one best-selling non-fiction hardcover book for 1992, and that ratings results show he continues as the most popular political commentator in the nation today. Even the April issue of The Atlantic reaffirms the basic belief in traditional values shared by most Americans by sporting a provocative and persuasive cover story entitled "Dan Quayle Was Right-Nevertheless, whether or not one agrees with the critics on either side, there is no denying the visceral reactions caused by Falling Down's populist, in-your-face bluntness—as opposed to the annoying coyness often contained in many critics' favorites like The Crying Game. The popularity of Falling Down seems to support Daniel Boorstin's evaluation of audiences' response to film as "newly democratic and popular," every bit as much a barometer of American sentiment as any Ross Perot town hall meeting. A March USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll confirms the movie's legitimacy as an indicator of public sentiment. The American citizens' trust in government has sunk to an all-time low: only 18% of Americans believe in their Congress, only 21% trust the media. The poll reveals that despite last year's election of a liberal President, Americans still consider themselves conservative rather than liberal by a ratio of much more than two to one. In addition, few Americans hold little hope for the future of the nation's cities.

Some critics have tried to dismiss Falling Down as a 1990s version of the Charles Bronson Death Wish films that appeared in the '70s and '80s. Terrence Rafferty calls it "a crude vigilante picture disguised as social satire" in which the filmmakers "give the audience exactly what they imagine it wants: not cold irony but a big hot dinner of violent wish-fulfillment fantasies." However, if this film has any precedent, it must be Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, Taxi Driver (1976). Michael Douglas's D-Fens shares some of the traits and attitudes demonstrated by Robert DeNiro's taxi driving character, Travis Bickle, who believed the city "is like an open sewer full of filth and scum," and who hoped that "someday a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets." In both films, the main character is pushed to violent action by the ever-present oppressiveness of urban decay and declining morality. Commenting on the script for Taxi Driver, Scorsese acknowledges: "I realized that was exactly the way I felt, that we all have those feelings, so this was a way of embracing and admitting them." Scorsese is convinced that his character, like D-Fens, "really has the best intentions; he believes he's doing right, just like St. Paul. He wants to clean up life, clean up the mind, clean up the soul."

Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise (1991) is another film with which some may find similarities. However, unlike the Death Wish films or Thelma & Louise, Falling Down ultimately rejects violent retribution as a solution, and indicates such action is, itself, anti­social. Also, unlike Thelma or Louise, D-Fens is stripped of his status as a hero and a martyr. Throughout the film, like Scorsese in Taxi Driver, director Schumacher inserts hints of his character's insanity. Therefore, Scorsese could have been speaking of D-Fens when he once said of Travis Bickle: "I instinctively showed that the acting out was not the way to go, and this created even more ironic twists to what was going on." However, most unnerving about Falling Down is that its main character is not Travis Bickle, the stereotypical shell-shocked Vietnam-vet loner cooped up in a fleabag hotel recording in a diary his plans to assassinate a Presidential candidate, but a nondescript middle-class American who followed all the rules and is simply caught in a traffic jam while trying to bring a present to his daughter's birthday party. Whereas Travis shows signs of a soldier's battle fatigue, D-Fens displays symptoms identified with the compassion fatigue of a middle class asked for decades, and with no end in sight, to sacrifice for others.

Travis Bickle drove the night shift in his taxi. D-Fens is stuck in mid-morning traffic. Significantly, the action in Falling Down occurs in the bright Los Angeles sunlight on the hottest afternoon of the year rather than in the bleak cold of a New York night. Symbolically, the rejection of much of the repugnant behavior stigmatizing America's cities has shifted, westward like the nation's demographic center, from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast, and has moved from the secrecy of night to the openness of day. In their enthusiastic responses to Falling Down, American audiences are at last coming out of the dark and candidly expressing their disappointment with cities that dominate the attention of the news media they house as well as their disillusionment with urban areas that drain the economic and moral health of the nation.

When Martin Scorsese first saw audiences' reactions to the violent outburst by his character, he commented: "The idea was to create a violent catharsis, so that they'd find themselves saying 'Yes, kill'; and then afterwards realize, 'My God, no'—like some strange California therapy session." Falling Down brings that therapy session to California, as audiences again empathize with the main character's concerns, share his frustrations, experience his anger, but ultimately do not embrace his turn to violence, since then he becomes what he is fighting against: he becomes the bad guy. Although Falling Down is a flawed film that does not have the cinematic flair (or emotional flare) and dramatic intensity of the classic Taxi Driver, its contribution to the overall look at attitudes of Americans in the '90s is important.

In their reactions to Falling Dowm, the American public clearly appears to be offering a chorus of opinions reflecting their positions on the conditions of America's cities. As the nation's founders feared and as Jacob Riis forewarned nearly a century ago, America's cities have proven to be the danger-spots that threaten the health of a democratic nation. When the American middle class continues to abandon the urban centers—believing Frank Lloyd Wright's perception that individualism, freedom, and democracy are jeopardized by the evils of big cities—and when it seems that the behaviors accepted or condoned in the country's large urban areas counteract traditional values, a pessimism spreads. Stephen Berger, former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently declared, "If the ability to believe in the future is what separates a growing from a dying civilization, then New York is in deep trouble." If audience responses to Falling Down across the country are an accurate indication of their attitudes towards the major cities near them, New York is not alone.

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