The opening scene of Falling Down immediately establishes the location of the film, America; this is obvious to the audience with the American cars and yellow school bus with the stars and stripes hanging on the side. The lead character played by Michael Douglas is established as a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant (WASP) who is supposedly the most privileged class in American society. He is meant to represent the typical American white-collar worker.
The audience gets this impression of D-Fens (Michael Douglas) because he is smartly dressed with a white shirt and tie, he wears glasses, he’s cleanly shaven and is driving a typical American family sedan. This first impression of D-Fens is subsequently taken apart throughout the film and the audience later finds out that he is unemployed and discontent with American society. D-Fens’ car and the way he acts give the audience a early clue that he is not all that he seems.
D-Fens is stuck in a traffic jam and getting more and more frustrated by the things around him, he reacts very violently to the fly in his car and thrashes around trying to kill it, this gives the audience an indication that he is quite a violent person when he gets annoyed. Another indication is when D-Fens tries to cool himself down and his air conditioning system doesn’t work, so he tries to open the window but the handle is broken, the car is like a metaphor for D-Fens’ life shabby, worn out and not like it used to be.
There is quite a range of different social classes represented in the opening scene all seen from D-Fens’ point of view. In the back seat of the car in front of D-Fens is a young Hispanic girl who is staring impassively at him watching his frustration and breakdown unfold. D-Fens seems uneasy about this maybe because it reminds him of his own daughter and he feels ashamed that he can’t drive her to school anymore. This girl is shown in contrast to the children on the bus who are noisy and happy whereas she is silent.
She is sad looking and the car she’s in is also old these things make the audience think she also doesn’t have the happy life that the American dream is supposed to offer. This immediately brings up the question of race in the film and whether people from minority ethnic groups have the same opportunities as WASP’s. The camera then pans across to show another white-collar worker, a middle-aged woman putting on bright lipstick and trying to make herself look younger, this gives the impression that she feels threatened perhaps by younger women in her work place.
The next vehicle that comes into shot is the typical American school bus the children are very noisy and annoying, there is also a mixture of races represented and they appear to be getting along with each other. There is a black boy that is staring at D-Fens in much the same way as the Hispanic girl and it appears that non-WASPs are more of a threat to D-Fens and this perhaps suggests he is racist. Next to the school bus is a new sporty, convertible with two yuppies in the front seats.
They can be categorized like this because they have mobile phones, a nice car, and smart suits. They are represented as aggressive and impatient as the driver is honking his horn for no apparent reason. They are rude and loud on the phone and they appear arrogant because they don’t feel that they should be stuck in the traffic jam with everyone else. They seem to epitomise
The first one says “Financial Freedom phone … ” this also shows capitalism in America and that fact that many people live in debt and see themselves as being trapped with only money being the way out. The next sticker says “He died for our sins” and this shows how religious orientated American society is. The last one says “How’s my driving? Phone 1-800 EAT SHIT! ” this just shows how uncaring American society has become with many people being stuck in poverty, whilst many others are living in luxury.
The flashing ‘Delay’ lights, the heat, noise and smoke all come together and the quick straight edits from each of these elements build up the sense of desperation and threat until D-Fens finally has enough and gets out of his car and tells the man behind him that he’s “going home”. This phrase is repeated throughout the film and it becomes D-Fens’ quest. ‘Home’ is not literally his house but back to a time when D-Fens felt less threatened from foreign immigrants or non-WASPs, a time when his role in society was more defined and he was a family man and a breadwinner, a time when he felt proud of America and its people.
In the next scene the second main character, Prendergast, is introduced. He also appears to be a white-collar worker and a WASP but he is slightly older than D-Fens, his reaction to the traffic jam is in contrast to D-Fens’ because he is more relaxed and doesn’t let it frustrate him. He is represented as a wise old cop who is from the old school of policing and he is contrasted with the young arrogant policeman on the motorbike who enjoys his power but turns out to be a less competent cop than Prendergast.
There is also a smarmy salesman on the scene trying to offer the young cop help, which he rejects. He talks about his trade and how he gives discounts for officers of the law, this suggests that money can influence police and that they are corrupt. The third scene represents a single mother who turns out to be D-Fens’ ex-wife, she is shown as stressed and overworked having to get the groceries, walk the dog and look after the child all at once.
The house appears to be nice, quite large with a garden and white picket fence and it seems to represent the ideal American family home, although there are signs of it starting to fall into disrepair with the paint on the house peeling off and the front garden being untidy. This shows how D-Fens used to have a nice traditional family life and the suburban idyllic house that went with it, that’s when it used to be ‘home’. There is also a sign of how gun culture is very much part of American society with D-Fens’ young daughter playing with a realistic looking toy gun and learning from a young age the power that you can have by possessing a gun.
The fourth scene represents an immigrant shopkeepers in particular a Korean man. It opens with the well dressed, white D-Fens walking into a poor area of the city, this is shown by the graffiti on the walls, the rubbish on the streets and the fact that there are metal bars over the windows to keep the small shop secure. The Korean shopkeeper is dressed in old, unfashionable clothes and he appears quite impoverished because his till is very old fashioned and he is wary of a WASP coming into his shop in this area.
This shows the separation of communities in America and the lack of trust between them. D-Fens is very racist towards the shopkeeper in this scene and he shows no respect for him when he marches in and asks for change without even having eye contact with the shopkeeper. D-Fens sees himself as being dominant over the Korean man and he sets the price of 50cents for the can of Coke and he takes control. He sees the immigrant as inferior to him because he is a WASP and he still has the ideals of the time before.
D-Fens is racist because he mocks the Korean mans accent and the fact that he can’t pronounce the ‘V’ in five, then because the man is Asian he immediately assumes that he’s Chinese and this is a typical ignorant view of an American who are traditionally insular in their views. This is shown again later on in the film when Prendergast immediately assumes that his fellow Japanese cop can understand the Korean man. When D-Fens finds out the man is Korean he says about the foreign aid that his country has given to Korea and he therefore feels that this man owes him and in saying ‘my country’ he implies that the Korean man doesn’t belong there.
The image of the American flag is used once again in this scene when the container full of flags is smashed on the floor in a struggle between the two characters. This shows how immigrants feel that they have to be visibly patriotic towards America to fit in with society. The broken glass container could also be a symbol for how communities are now broken in America. Or it could symbolise how the American dream is broken for this shopkeeper and also significantly for D-Fens. D-Fens then says that he is “going to take prices back to 1965” before violently smashing up the shop.
This period of time is what D-Fens associates with “home” because at this time WASPs were the dominating group in society and there was prejudice against other ethnic groups, this was a time when he felt accepted and valued in society and he was a happy family man living the American dream and this is a time he wants to return to. The Korean shopkeeper is obviously used to violence and robberies living in the area that he does because he gets on the floor and shouts “Take the money! this is seen as a major insult to D-Fens because he sees himself as middle-class and in his opinion robbery is a thing that poor working class people do.
He also feels that he is justified in terrorising this shop because all he wanted was some change for the phone. This scene has been interpreted by many people as being racist and this is an understandable view because the Korean man is represented in a negative way. He is rude and scruffy whereas D-Fens is represented almost like a hero figure with traditional Hollywood hero lines and he appears to be fighting for consumer rights.