COMMENTARY : The Urban Reality: Why (Heart) L.A.?

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Baker has covered street gangs, labor and other urban issues for The Times

You’re surrounded by madness, aren’t you? Earlier this year they buried a nice kid who’d been shot to death by a classmate inside Fairfax High School. A short while later a pair of disgruntled employees in different parts of town killed one boss and wounded another. The next week a patient who got sick of waiting for treatment gunned down three doctors at County-USC Medical Center. And all the while talk radio blares with speculation about whether “those people” will riot again.

You don’t (Heart) L.A. anymore. You’re assaulted by its incivility.

Well, here’s your hero, America’s newest urban icon. His name is Bill Foster, played by Michael Douglas in “Falling Down.” Bill is an unemployed defense worker seeking vengeance from downtown to Venice Beach. He does everything you’ve always wanted to do. Armed with baseball bat, automatic weapon and grenade launcher, he explodes at convenience store clerks who don’t speak English, fast-food restaurants that don’t serve breakfast after 11:30 a.m., gang members who don’t let you walk through parks, rich golfers who don’t let you inside their country clubs--even at city workers who waste your tax dollars fixing perfectly good roads.

Brace yourself for more of this simple-minded sociology. Last spring’s riots created a wave of Hollywood interest in exploiting Los Angeles as a pressure cooker of horrors. From now on, anything goes. You want urban insanity as a backdrop? Set your screenplay here. Any portrait of the city, no matter how grotesque or overstated, can be justified by a simple wave of the producer’s hand toward the temporary insanity of the riots.


And so Bill becomes our Everyman. David Horowitz melds with Charles Bronson. Society has broken down and those responsible must pay. Bam! You see blond-haired Bill begin to snap in a summer freeway traffic jam, surrounded by cars full of mostly minority faces. He flees his car and tries to walk away, but alien culture is everywhere. Pay-Back Time begins. Bad people begin to suffer. The cops eventually corner Bill. But he doesn’t get it.

I’m the bad guy?” he asks. “How did that happen? I did everything they told me to.”

On this you’ll have to take Bill at his word. Director Joel Schumacher exhibits virtually no interest in exploring who “they” are: The complex political forces that put us here, pitted against each other, crowded and surly and frightened. “Falling Down” is satisfied with an unspoken wink: Aw, buddy, you know!

There’s a great visceral rush in entertainment like this; you can’t live here and not be moved by it. Trouble is, films that reduce Los Angeles’ problems to comic-book proportions push us further into the senseless way of life they depict. There are reasons why Los Angeles is the way it is. The villains aren’t the liquor store clerks or the featherbedding road maintenance workers. Real people, elected by real people, made real decisions that made life really bad. What has happened here was not the Kennedy assassination. It was not a conspiracy. It’s comforting to live in a democracy and blame “them,” but it’s the lazy man’s way out.


You want some real drama about Los Angeles? OK: Before Bill begins firing his gun at the symbols of decay, have him wander into a library and search for some answers about how things got this way. Let him discover that when his neighbors got caught up in the “tax revolt” of 1978 and voted for Proposition 13, they condemned themselves to these horrid public services and overcrowded schools that spawn dropouts and criminals. Let him discover that by our hand, for the past 15 years a politically impossible 67% voter majority--not the old 50% margin--has been required to raise taxes to hire more cops or more teachers. Let him discover that no politician alive has the guts to propose changing it back.


Let Bill discover how his fellow citizens voted down tax measures to build rapid transit, keeping his freeways clogged, and kept voting for Reagan-esque politicians who sold government as society’s enemy. (The movie’s sole bow to reason is to allow a policewoman to make a fragmented jibe about people who vote to cut the size of the police force.) Let Bill discover how the Bradley Administration, obsessed with making Los Angeles a safe place for downtown developers, ducked Los Angeles’ gang crisis during the 1980s until it was too late. Let him discover how the political Establishment avoided coming to grips with the social costs of immigration.

At this point we need some action, so let Bill be booted out of the library. It’s closing time. Because of budget cuts, some libraries now shut their doors at mid-afternoon.

Let Bill walk out in a huff and find a pay phone. Let him leaf through the white pages for the name of his City Council representative. Let him head down to City Hall and up the daunting steps. Let him demand to gripe to his councilman about the urban chaos that’s pushing him to madness. Let him get shuffled off to a staff aide. Let him storm out and stumble across the city Ethics Commission’s office, where they keep campaign fund-raising reports. Let him demand his councilman’s fund-raising statement. Let him seethe at the tens of thousands of dollars contributed by real-estate developers and slumlords, liquor industry lobbyists and the other influence-peddlers who have built so much more than fits comfortably here. Let him begin writing down the names. Let him begin visiting those guys.

Art is not required to be a civics lesson, or to paint a true picture, but at least it should give us answers, vision, wisdom. Art does more than utter an exasperated sigh, shake its head in confusion and quit. That’s all “Falling Down” does. It’s Hollywood at its worst: the veneer of perception buried in a belch of outrage.

Long ago, inside a mythical kaleidoscope of madness that Los Angeles has come to resemble, Bob Dylan confronted another set of forces that had twisted life’s promises and demanded the truth. “You’re a cow!” one of Dylan’s characters shouted at the villain of the song. “Give me some milk or else go home!”

There’s no milk in this movie. Only sour grapes.