God Bless America? Remembering 1993's Falling Down
Foster: I'm the bad guy?
Foster: How did that happen? I did everything they told me to. Did you know I build missiles? I help to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Instead, they give it to the plastic surgeon. They lied to me.
-- Falling Down (1993, screenplay by Ebbe Roe Smith)
The red band trailer of Bobcat Goldthwait’s next movie, God Bless America, is now making its way across the net, as the film itself tools around the festival circuit on its way to a May 11 wide-opening.
Judging solely by its trailer, God Bless America looks like a mutation of Kick-Ass, Heathers, Taxi Driver, Paper Moon, Serial Mom and The End (1978).
Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, the film’s pathetic protagonist (played by Joel Murray) embarks on a killing spree. He and his teenaged sidekick (Tara Lynne Barr) knock off individuals they’ve deemed deserving of death: a bratty reality TV star, talent show contestants, moviegoers who won't turn off their cell phones, a bunch of Fred Phelps’ followers:
The movie looks awfully derivative (see “mutation” above). Look: I’m 47 years old, I’ve already seen a lot of movies and I can’t undo that. Most new films are either remakes and franchise sequels surfing on stunt-casting fumes, CGI and catchy soundtracks, or Tarantinoesque “homages” to far superior movies I saw when I was 17.
I’m not averse to filmmakers making cinematic references; the movie I’m about to discuss “quotes” Fellini’s 8 ½ in its opening sequence. But quotes are a long way from plagiarism and lazy, sterile regurgitation.
Because every movie today seems to be simply a collection of winking "homages" to other ones, expect to hear God Bless America compared to Falling Down (1993). A lot. I remember when that Joel Schumacher movie was condemned as a sign of the end times, and for better or worse, most of us are still alive. God Bless America will no doubt be condemned too, for its "glorification" of violence (and, I suspect, the weird friendship between a middle-aged man and an adolescent girl).
However, God Bless America’s apparent differences from its revenge-fantasy predecessor demonstrate the distance Hollywood (and society) has traveled in the last 20 years. Not necessarily in the right direction, of course.
“Filmed during the L.A. riots and released on the same day as the World Trade Center bombing and two days before the siege at the Branch Davidian compound (which ended badly), [Falling Down] could be said to be a record of fear and loathing extant in the real world of early ’90s America.”
-- Bee Tee Dee, Unwinnable.com
In Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays William Foster (a.k.a. “D-FENS” after his vanity license plate.)
With a buzzcut you could set your clock by, white short-sleeved dress shirt, tie and wimpy pocket protector, Douglas’s iconic physical appearance in this movie – it’s been “name checked” numerous times since (see The Simpson's ill-fated Frank "Grimey" Grimes) – was presumably styled to remind the viewer of both Bernard Goetz and Charles Whitman.
Stuck in a sweltering Los Angeles traffic jam, driven over the edge by sensory overload -- every other car sports a bitchy bumper sticker that's practically each owner's personal declaration of war -- Foster abandons his vehicle in the middle of the highway, explaining to the angry driver behind him, “I’m going home.”
Foster’s one-day Oz-like odyssey takes him through the seedier ‘hoods of the City of Angels. Like Dorothy, he meets colorful, cartoonish people along the way – a Korean store owner, Hispanic “gang bangers,” a neo-Nazi, a fake Vietnam vet, a rich plastic surgeon – but instead of collecting new traveling companions, Foster keeps accidentally, and somewhat comically, upgrading his arsenal: the baseball bat he acquires from the store owner is eventually replaced by a switchblade and finally a gym bag full of assault rifles and handguns.
Foster insists to everyone he meets that he just wants to get home in time for his daughter’s birthday party, but like lots of bitter, divorced, dead beat dads, you suspect Foster’s The Searchers-meets-The Swimmer mission is actually designed to perturb his ex-wife, who's taken out a restraining order against him (albeit for less than compelling reasons).
As Foster's mission of mayhem gains strength, LAPD Detective Prednergast sets out to stop him. Played by Robert Duval, Prednergast has a lot in common with his prey: a "lost" daughter, a twitchy wife, and most importantly, obsolescence -- it's the detective's last day on the force.
People misremember Falling Down as having a higher body count than it actually does. Foster kills one despicable character in self-defense; his other "victims" are merely shook up -- as is Foster himself, who doesn't exactly retain expert control over his unwieldy weaponry.
"I think Michael Douglas was the original Tea Party-er," says Schumacher with a truly mischievous grin. (...)
"He's the man who wonders who are all these (foreigners) in my country? And where is my gun?"
Schumacher says a lot of people identified with him, and even saw him as heroic for becoming assertive in a society that demands sheep, but his intent was much darker.
"I guess you could call him a hero, but he's waving his gun at his wife and child by the end of the movie. I mean, is that heroic?" he asks, with a shrug.
"I think when a person leaves his car, he's abandoned his identity. So if you pull out a gun at McDonald's, are you going to use it? Where does it go from there? It's like what Joan Didion wrote about swimming out so far that you can't return, and you are out there where there is nothing."
And Schumacher's notion of "Tea-Partiers" is equally predictable and more revealing of his own prejudices than those allegedly held by conservative activists (whom he's never met in person).
Yes, Douglas' character is a VERY angry guy. But there's nothing terribly "conservative" about, say, complaining about the price of a can of Coke, or inherently "right wing" about bitching that fast food employees aren't supposed to serve breakfast after a certain time.
Yes, such stringent regulations seem petty and even arbitrary, and have certainly contributed to the increase of cynicism and the general breakdown of social trust and cooperation. However, if you subtract the automatic weapons, Foster's tantrum in the restaurant -- while obviously designed to echo two still-fresh massacres at Luby's and McDonald's -- wouldn't be out of place in the lyrics of "Alice's Restaurant" or the faux-hippie anthem "Signs."
(In fact, Foster encounters far more pressing obstacles to his well being than the protagonist in Signs does for choosing not to wear a button down shirt and tie.)
Falling Down is a cinematic fable and, as one critic noted at the time, "a Rorschach test to expose the secrets of those who watch it." It's an anti-hero's journey that's inspired artists as varied as Iron Maiden circa 1995:
and the Foo Fighters, just last year:
I can't imagine God Bless America resonating in a similar fashion.
Perhaps audiences today are jaded and media-saturated, not to mention harder to shock thanks to real life events.
I feel very safe in predicting, however, that the body count in God Bless America will be higher than Falling Down's.
And that none of the victims will be black, Hispanic, gay, Asian or Muslim.
I wonder if any of the white, privileged lefty hipsters who flock to see Goldthwait's new film will possess the self-awareness to flinch as they cheer the murder of their own cohort on screen.
If it turns out that THAT will be Goldthwait's "hidden agenda" "gotcha" for viewers, I'll congratulate him for his courage and cleverness.
But, alas, I'm pretty sure I won't have to.