Attempts to “describe” Los Angeles abound throughout art and theory and anthropology and urban development and every facet of socioeconomic analysis available. The topic of hating on L.A. is itself so cliche as to be a moot point- “I just can’t deal with the traffic” is a common complaint, to which LA responds with unwavering stoicism- the traffic is staying, at least for the time being. For all the articles I’ve read in the past four years about various facets of LA and its many neighborhoods, there’s been little progress in terms of traffic congestion and trash and the other problematic aspects of urban existence, but all of those issues and so much else make up an enjoyable, 40 oz.-accessible city- Los Angeles allows you to remain in microcosms, dipping your toes in different experiences with the safety of the hood to retreat back to. It’s at once “your” city- you being any individual resident who would like to be a unique and independent individual. We share the streets, the restaurants and malls, but in a city made up of many kinds of “transplants”, there’s no particular ethos or lifestyle you have to subscribe to. Of course, many choose to comically embody their neighborhoods- the fashion slaves, Hollywood Kardashian wannabees, USC frat boys, hipsters, etc., but there’s no compulsory obligation to be any one Angeleno “thing”.
That being said, LA exists in a kind of simmering tension- there are frustrating moments where you’re pushed around a bit, or saddened by the “scene” around you, or think about the reality of a car-based city- that it’s a true “drive-thru city”, in all the negative connotations that evokes. For the most part, though, it’s a beautiful, strange, palm-tree laden place with a lot to offer- and that is an epistemological understatement, as it is consistently psychedelic and iridescent, or at least, thinking about it is. The “urban mosaic” image established by urban sociologist Robert Park is the best description that can be applied- a fluid mixture of lives and communities passing by one another but rarely interacting.
It’s from that swirl of urban mosaic that Joel Schumacher’s 1993 movie Falling Down begins, in an obvious reference to Fellini’s 8 1/2. Michael Douglas, stuck in hazy, orange-lens traffic somewhere on the 10, gets out of his car, leaving it in the middle of bumper-to-bumper traffic, ditching the urban malaise for some unknown voyage. Not exactly the quintessential hero’s journey, as Douglas plays a middle-aged, nondescript pencil pusher, but certainly an aspect of the mosaic bubbling up and floating out for a moment of cathartic actualization. He ends up going on a “rampage”. He’s frustrated for a number of reasons including domestic issues, but the most memorable and emphatic statement is on urban decay and misery- and often that is embodied by minorities.
Beyond critiquing the film’s similarity to the ire-inspiring Crash, and the limp portrayals of Cholo gangsters in East L.A. (really the whole film is a crude mosaic of cliches), it is a film with its bazooka aimed at “gritty social realism” and a particular apocalyptic image of Los Angeles that proliferated throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Granted, the city was outrageous, hard-hit by the crack epidemic and explosive rates of homelessness. The Rodney King riots, which seem to be where Falling Down drew some of it’s “simmering rage” inspiration, were real and occurred- racial tensions that “came to the fore”. The sense of time, place and era in Falling Down is that of a nightmare Los Angeles filled with poverty, sheeple, and violent crime, another film to put alongside Boyz in tha Hood and Menace II Society and Deathwish. In seeking a real experience of L.A., so much of what we all know about the city comes from films, where it often serves as a (Hispanic-leaning) tabula rasa of urban experience- perhaps exacerbated by the fact that so many L.A. residents are movie nuts that see the world through Hollywood shades.
One of the more memorable scenes in Falling Down is when Michael Douglas is waiting in line at some facsimile of McDonald’s- Happy Burger or something- and they tell him they’ve stopped serving breakfast. His impotent frustration is at once sympathetic and ridiculous, a clever play of irony by the filmmakers. For a second, you think, “ya know, it really is silly, I mean they have the ingredients back there”- but then he brandishes his case of machine guns and holds the whole fluorescent fast food restaurant hostage . The film is an “astute social critique”, representing the tensions of Los Angeles and one man who has simply “had enough”. It’s cynical sociopolitical commentary with an Angry White Man (AWM) archetype as foil. The banal, consumer hell of the fast-food joint is intentional as the movie is taking sharp aim at pretty much everything, including mass culture and the drudgery of daily life.
When considering the totality of an urban environment, with all its layers of interaction (I often imagine a sprawling, heaping mass of bodies in my more abstract daydreams), it’s easy to think about concepts such as “Los Angeles” through a ballooned praxis. In focusing on the city’s negative (too often conflated with “real”) elements, Falling Down and so many films like it serve as a cinematic form of ‘slum tourism’- displaying an inability to understand the multifaceted reality of a place and instead turning L.A. into a pseudo-gritty hellhole. These movies “confirmed for suburban filmgoers their images of an inner-city permeated with burnt-out, graffiti-scarred tenements and concrete-block housing projects, and their fears of feral drug dealers and wasted addicts”. Where the real Los Angeles begins and the fictionalized Los Angeles ends is difficult to ascertain.
So Falling Down is a product of the early 90’s, when depictions of urban decay proliferated. The urban theorist Kevin Lynch argued that “in their spatial organization modern cities have become too disparate and complex to be adequately mapped in human consciousness”. Action movies attempt to counteract that complexity through digestible uses of city as character and as environment for negativity. Whether Los Angeles is really a a polluted wasteland or a pleasure-filled oasis on the beautiful waters of the Pacific is really up to each individual. Regardless, it has produced a stream of fascinating and often polarizing films that attempt to denominate an amorphous place with cinematic permanence- an impossible task.