Saturday, September 26, 2009

Falling Down (1993 - dir. Joel Schumacher)

In a previous post for the movie Thirteen, I remarked on the fact that, notable by their absence in the film, were strong, stable male figures in the lives of the teenage girls. Evolutionary psychological research suggests some hypotheses about how father absence and early adolescent female behavior might be related. In Falling Down, my focus will shift to how fathers may be affected by such absence. And, how the psychological impact on many men may be more profound than frequently assumed.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it will be difficult for me to be completely objective here. About seven years ago, I filed for divorce from my wife of 10 years. The grounds for my filing will remain personal but, suffice it to say, they were as they were since it became clear that reconciliation was impossible. She had found another life. We had, at the time, a 7-year-old little girl. A beautiful creature....then, and now. As is the rule in the vast majority of these cases, physical custody of our child was awarded to her. I remember experiencing a level of anger, terror, and despondency the likes of which I hadn't experienced before, or since. To a large degree, it's still there. I've just figured out how to accommodate myself to it. I had seen Falling Down upon its initial release but, when watching it again after the breakup of my marriage, I was overwhelmed with emotions that completely transcended the "social commentary" about violence and modern life that the film was described by many reviewers as being all about.

For unexplained reasons, a man leaves his car in the heat and congested traffic and begins to work his way across Los Angeles. His misadventures involve a series of encounters with the pitifully inconsequential frustrations of everyday life that, for some reason, he has decided not to put up with anymore. Gradually, it becomes clear that the man simply wants to "come home" to his wife and his little girl. You is his little girl's birthday. And, along the way, he has bought her a snow globe. And, he just wants to go home. And, give it to her. Gradually, the man becomes more enraged by the obstacles in his way and becomes more unbalanced and violent in his dealing with them.

Contrary to the facile interpretations of the evolutionary psychology of human mating behavior, the primary literature points to a much more nuanced picture. There are many reasons for a "facultative" long-term mating strategy by human males. The potential costs of short-term strategies (STD's, risk of violence from the female's kin or other partners, etc.) are numerous and the probability of offspring survival in human ancestral history was likely to be relatively low without the presence of parental investment by the father. Consequently, evolutionary psychologists have predicted, and found, evidence for the psychological importance of long-term mating and parental investment in human males. Financial child support payments are the responsible and necessary things to do. However, this does nothing to address the terrible isolation and dislocation felt by many fathers that are unable to actualize the level of psychological investment that they are prevented from experiencing. The daily meals...the nightly good-night kisses from your adoring children...yes, many men miss this. Deeply.

For me (an un-objective viewer, remember), this is what Falling Down is all about. The fact that the detective on the man's trail has also lost his little girl (to death, in this case, rather than separation) speaks to the centrality of this theme in the film. While many interpret its message as saying something about how violence may be a likely reaction to the alienation and social isolation of modern life, I simply see it as a heartbreaking story about a guy who wants to go home to be with his kid on her birthday.....and loses his way.

All I want is my breakfast...


  1. I remember watching this with my best friend in high school some 15 years ago. We were both attracted/amused by the outbursts of frustration over the minutiae of day to day living. I suppose that is to be expected of developing and immature males of that age. Now, in my post-2001 (the film, not 9/11) era, I could hardly keep my attention on the movie long enough to follow it.

    And yet. Reading your account, with the honest and painful way this movie resonates with you, I still feel no high regard for it. Completely lacking in the Kubrickian-Peckinpahian (ack!) feel I've grown so fond of. I suppose the only impression I got from this flick was one of typical Hollywood big studio cynical exploitation. Using cutout dramas as a skeleton to connect antagonist and protagonist and put asses in seats. Perhaps I'm just bitter; age will flatten a man, Wendel.

  2. Cinematically, Falling Down is far from my favorite film. It strikes me as an interesting illustration of certain aspects of male long-term mating strategies as understood by evolutionary psychologists, however. But, you're right...Schumacher ain't no Peckinpah.