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The New-Brutality Film
Race and Affect in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema
By Paul Gormley
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Naïve Imitations: Falling Down, the Crisis of the Action-Image and Cynical Realism
This movie shows the way things really are, not the way they should be.
For better or worse, Falling Down is one of those films that has hit an American nerve.
Falling Down is the tale of one day in the life of two white middle-class men, Bill Foster (Michael Douglas), known as DFens through most of the film, and a cop, Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall). Both live in 1990s' Los Angeles, and in the opening scenes both are caught in the same traffic jam. The story begins when DFens, frustrated with the traffic jam, walks away from his car, telling irate drivers he is going home. This sets off the beginning of a picaresque series of violent encounters between DFens and a carefully contrived and largely hostile multi- cultured LA populace as he begins a quest to reach the house of his estranged wife, Beth (Barbara Hershey), and daughter, Adele. Beth has placed a restraining order on him for fear of the domestic violence he might inflict. In fact his real home is with his mother, and he has been made redundant from his job as a defence worker. The resolution of Dfens' journey occurs when he is finally tracked down by Prendergast on Venice Beach pier, where he is holding Beth and Adele hostage. Prendergast relieves him of his gun, as he asks in disbelief, 'I'm the bad guy?' He states that he has nothing left to live for, and challenges Prendergast to a duel, which ends with him being shot as, unknown to Prendergast, he is armed only with a water pistol.
But this is not the film's resolution, because alongside DFens' havoc-wreaking odyssey, there is another focus of attention in the parallel story of Prendergast, told through parallel montage, and under the guise of the generic framework of the police procedural thriller of pursuer and pursued. As the action unfolds we learn that Prendergast is also beset by obstacles and frustrations in his everyday life. He is taunted by his colleagues who regard him as a 'desk-jockey', not 'man enough' to face the violence and danger on the streets. We learn that Prendergast accepts this situation because of his wife's fears over his safety. His wife (Tuesday Weld) is pressurising him into retiring early, and move to Lake Havasu, a retirement town in the Californian desert, and constantly disrupts the process of his work and the narrative, nagging him about domestic matters. She was a former beauty queen, who has never recovered emotionally from the fading of her good looks and the loss of their infant daughter to Infant Death Syndrome. As DFens' rampage progresses throughout the day, Prendergast is the only cop who recognises that there is a pattern in the seemingly random violence across LA, and gradually, with the help of his former partner, he regains an authority both in the department by tracking down DFens, and with his wife, telling her to 'shut up' on the phone, and changing his retirement plans.
Falling Down is a Hollywood film which seeks to mark itself as different from the formulaic Hollywood blockbuster or high-concept film - despite the fact that it stars Michael Douglas and is directed by Joel Schumacher, 'journeyman' director of films like Batman Forever (1995) and Flatliners (1990). The film attempts to establish itself as an authentic, immediate and contemporary portrayal of the social problems facing the 'average white male' in the LA metropolis, and offer an alternative viewing experience to the nostalgia-based spectacular pleasures of the postmodern blockbuster. Joel Schumacher's avowed intention to 'show the way things really are' signals this difference in the sense that the fantastical worlds of films like Total Recall (Verhoeven 1988) and The Terminator (Cameron 1984) would never attempt to claim such access to the 'truth' of contemporary American culture. On one level Falling Down's departure from the blockbuster can obviously be explained in terms of genre. The film could be described as a 'social-problem' movie which deals with the contemporary social realities of a carefully configured Los Angeles, whilst even non-science fiction blockbusters such as True Lies (Cameron 1994) could not claim to have any concrete grounding in the social world. The question still remains of how the makers of Falling Down felt it was still possible, in the early 1990s, for a Hollywood film to provoke a response in the viewer which depended on such outmoded concepts as 'reality' and 'truth'? In addition, how did Falling Down manage to be 'one of those films that has hit an American nerve' resulting in spontaneous, wide scale outbreaks of American audiences cheering at DFens' every move?
The answers to these questions lie beyond the formal generic differences between Falling Down and the postmodern blockbuster, and in the way that the former seeks to manipulate both the affective potential of the cinematic experience and the discourses of convention and tradition which permeate Hollywood film. Falling Down attempts to control its viewer's responses, and more particularly the white cultural imagination, by provoking a body-first affective response, and at the same time, directing the thoughts and reactions that such a response evokes. The film wants to situate its viewers within a framework of knowledge where they imagine they have seen the truth of 1990s' white American identity - and a viewing position from which there is very little scope for manoeuvre outside of the movie's own logic and imagined knowledge. Moreover the film seeks to do this by initially stimulating an affective response based on the fabrication of African-American culture as site of affect which the film also equates with truth and the real. This attempted manipulation of the viewer's responses is produced through a tight, schematic hierarchy of three viewing positions which develop over the course of the action. The first of these is an immediate identification and focalization with the actions and situations of DFens. This position is eventually undermined by the way the film makes DFens and his actions objects of nostalgia. By the end of the film the viewer is encouraged to assume a position of what I want to call 'cynical realism' which ultimately associates African-American culture with primitivism and a childlike naivety.
Throughout Falling Down there are tensions between the impossibilities of a purely affective Hollywood cinema and the pleasures of knowing Hollywood's traditions and histories, and these are apparent in the opening scene. The film begins with a black screen with the acousmatic sound of heavy breathing, followed by a long take which moves in turn from a close-up of clenched teeth, to tense bespectacled eyes, and then a sweaty knotted brow. In the same shot the camera draws back to reveal the whole figure of Michael Douglas (DFens) sitting in a car. This is not a familiar Michael Douglas however. Gone are the designer suits, executive hairstyles and cars that made him such a familiar middle-class icon in films such Fatal Attraction (Lyne 1987) and Disclosure (Levinson 1994), to be replaced by a fifties-style, buzz-cut hairdo, horn-rimmed glasses, 'working-stiff ' short-sleeved shirt and tie and small Japanese saloon. The strangeness of this Michael Douglas is accentuated by the fact that his body is shot from a high angle and through the windows of the car giving a distorted effect, comparable to a circus mirror. After this detailed examination, the long take shifts its position from exhibiting Michael Douglas as the object of its gaze, to one where his point of view becomes dominant. The camera focuses on the objects and bodies in his immediate field of vision. An overbearing soundtrack of horns, children screaming, and coke-fuelled yuppies swearing into mobile phones accompanies the camera as it pans around to view obnoxious bumper stickers, 'a Garfield suction doll leering like a gargoyle from behind a windshield, and a busload of repellent kids'. This long take is then followed by a series of fast edits which switch from more closeups of DFens' frustrated sweating body - most notably when the camera catches an irritating fly crawling over his sweaty neck - to the angry anarchic scenes of other motorists caught in the same jam. By the end of the scene, the discomfort caused by the fast-editing and the rising soundtrack places the audience in a mimetic relationship with the figure trapped in the car, and it comes as huge relief when DFens ends both his, and the audience's discomfort, by getting out of the car, and telling other drivers he is 'going home'.
The connection between the viewer's and DFens' situation and body provides the chief source of affect in this particular scene. Like DFens, the viewer is trapped in a confined space, subject to the various images which assault us though the screen and hit DFens through the distorted screen of the car window - which, incidentally, he is unable to open. The close-ups of DFens' body emphasize this bodily, mimetic link between himself and the limited mobility and freedom of the viewer, stuck in the cinema seat. But as well as operating in this affective, immediate way, the scene is also opening up the relationship of belief between the viewer and the Hollywood narrative film, and more particularly on the belief in the ability of the individual protagonist to act in a concrete manner within the cinematic world in which he is situated. More precisely the film evokes the theories of space and action that dominated the Screen tradition of film theory in the 1970s and 1980s, and most famously delineated in Laura Mulvey's seminal essay, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'.
The presence of this self-reflexive tendency in Falling Down is most apparent in the way DFens is positioned and figured in relation to the spatial dimensions of the opening scene. Despite the fact that the close-ups of DFens/Michael Douglas's face and neck are filmed as a long take the effect is one of fragmentation as the camera moves around various parts of the visage. The different angles and depths of field that the camera takes when filming emphasize the fragmentation of DFens' body, as well as accentuating its confinement and lack of mobility. The comparisons with 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' are worth noting. One of the central arguments in Mulvey's essay concerns the paradigmatic and gendered relations between the male and female protagonists in Hollywood narrative cinema of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The argument runs that, in general, 'the active male figure' of these films demanded a three-dimensional, naturalized space, within which he carried the active and masterful look of the camera, and, by proxy, the look of the viewer. Images of women produced an opposite effect where female stars were often broken up into images of body parts through close-ups of legs, faces and so on. Such fragmentation according to Mulvey's essay 'destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative ... 'These differences in the cinematographic construction of male and female roles made the woman star less real, with 'the quality of a cut-out or icon', in contrast to the active, narrative and look-bearing male protagonist.
The concern here is not to engage with old debates concerning the validity of Mulvey's essay but that the opening scenes of Falling Down seem to be engaging with the theory of space and action/activity outlined in 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' and the Screen tradition in general. The fragmentation and confinement of DFens' body in the opening scenes is a reversal of the active, controlling look and movements of the 'Classical Hollywood' hero (which formed the basis of the Screen critiques of Hollywood), in the sense that he is figured as a victim of the cinematic world around him from the start. This reversal operates at the level of discourse and meaning rather than affect in the sense that the cinematography which figures DFens as a victim of cinematic space corresponds to the overall 'meaning' the film attempts to convey. Throughout the first half of the film, DFens is constructed in terms of 1990s' discourses of masculinity in crisis.
His lack of a job and relationship problems figure him as a victim, and in the course of his journey across Los Angeles, what would have once been instant respect for the authority of the white working-class male, turns into hostility, misrecognition and confrontation in the film's representation of a contemporary LA. In other words, the film presents a representation of an emasculated white American male subject which seeks to counteract the feminist and African-American discourses, critical of the authority of white male identity, by representing a white male 'everyman' for whom that authority and power no longer exists.
The film is working primarily here at the level of cultural and political knowledge and discourse rather than at the level of a body-first affective response - despite the physical connection between DFens and viewer in the opening scene. This tension becomes even more acute because DFens is played by the iconic figure of Michael Douglas. Douglas has made a career out of playing 'victim-heroes' in films such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct (Verhoeven 1991), and as Carol Watts notes, 'Michael Douglas is encoded as a star in terms of the crisis in masculinity he enacts'. 'Douglassic Man' starts out from a position of harmony and authority which is threatened by femme fatale figures, such as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Demi Moore in Disclosure. The narratives of these films tend to unfold in an orthodox linear fashion to the point where Michael Douglas is allowed to restore a lessened, more contingent, degree of authority by vanquishing these contemporary femme fatales. In addition, Michael Douglas evokes the almost involuntary comparison with his father Kirk Douglas, who was able to play the uncompromised action-taking hero of Classical Hollywood.
Although Falling Down is addressing and contributing towards the 'backlash' discourse of the 1980s and early 90s, the film is also gesturing towards a more fundamentally cinematic question - that of the apparently declining role of affect and belief in the images of Hollywood narrative film. The film undermines the cultural familiarity of the discourses it engages with a self-reflexive awareness of what Gilles Deleuze calls 'the crisis of the action-image', and the crisis of Hollywood realism. This awareness is most apparent in the spatial and temporal relationship between DFens and the milieux in which he finds himself, and this is worth exploring through Deleuze's ideas concerning the action-image and its crisis.
The Action-Image and the Crisis of Realism
Gilles Deleuze argues that belief in the individual actions of the protagonist in a coherent filmic space was vital to the realism which was the underlying aesthetic and philosophy of the Hollywood form of the action-image - or what others have called Classical Hollywood. He argues that, 'what constitutes realism is simply this: milieus and modes of behaviour, milieus which actualize, and modes of behaviour which embody'. He goes on to state that:
The milieu and its forces incurve on themselves, they act on the character, throw him a challenge and constitute a situation in which he is caught. The character reacts in his turn (action properly speaking) so as to respond to the situation, to modify the milieu, or his relations with the milieu, with the situation, with other characters. He must acquire a new mode of being (habitus) or raise his mode of being to the demands of the milieu and of the situation. Out of this emerges a restored or modified situation, a new situation. Everything is individuated: the milieu as a particular space-time, the situation as determining and determinate, the collective as well as the individual character.
Deleuze's analysis of the structural properties of Hollywood realism is in some ways similar to the analysis of action and space predominant in the Screen tradition of the 1970s and 80s. Both paradigms theorize the action of the individual protagonist as crucial, in that he acts to resolve a disruption - or in Deleuzian terminology, a 'challenge' or 'situation' - which is produced by the milieu of the film. For Deleuze there must be a concrete sensory-motor link between the protagonist and the situations that the milieu throws down - 'that the sensory- motor link must be very strong' and that, 'on the one hand the situation must permeate the character deeply and continuously, and on the other hand the character who is thus permeated must burst into action at discontinuous intervals'. The viewer's belief in this link then enables Hollywood realism to provoke an affective response.
Excerpted from The New-Brutality Film by Paul Gormley. Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Torturous Cinema: Questions of Affect, Mimesis and Race in The New-Brutality Film,
Chapter One Naïve Imitations: Falling Down, the Crisis of the Action-Image and Cynical Realism,
Chapter Two Gangsters and Gangstas: Boyz N the Hood, and the Dangerous Black Body,
Chapter Three Gangsters and Gangstas Part Two: Menace II Society and the Cinema of Rage,
Chapter Four Miming Blackness: Reservoir Dogs and 'American Africanism',
Chapter Five Trashing Whiteness: Pulp Fiction, Se7en, Strange Days and Articulating Affect,