LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--The city of the future is having a nervous breakdown.
The symptom of the end of California dreamin' is, appropriately, a bad movie.
"Falling Down" stars Michael Douglas as a recently fired defense worker who cracks up on the freeway in South Pasadena and decides to walk 20 miles across Los Angeles to the home of his ex-wife in Venice. Then, in an unfortunate phrase in a Los Angeles Times commentary, "He does everything you've always wanted to do."
What he does is break up a Korean grocery store because the owner can't pronounce "five," win a street war with a couple of guys from a Hispanic gang, terrorize a hamburger stand with automatic weapons because they don't serve breakfast after 11:30 a.m., kill the nasty owner of an Army-surplus store and a rich old golfer who gives him a hard time, go after a construction crew with a heat-seeking missile. And more. The usual stuff -- off the front pages of your morning newspaper.
My wife and I saw the film in Santa Monica Monday night and then, in a restaurant nearby, bumped into a couple of prominent Angelenos. "That's a bad movie," I said. "Yes," each said in turn. "But that's the way things really are now."
That is the conventional wisdom, according to interviews done by Los Angeles Times reporters outside theaters. "It's not just Hollywood," said Patrick Walker, who lives in South Pasadena. "It's reality."
The in-the-street interviews were part of three full pages of "Falling Down" coverage under the headline, "Are We Falling Apart?"
The answer is yes. The defense industry is collapsing, and people here have to come to grips with the fact that they have been the prospering children of what used to be called "merchants of death." The public schools seem to be getting worse every day. And, mainly, the crime of the city's sprawling barrios and ghettos is now spreading west and north to richer neighborhoods where people had traditionally been safe from most urban maladies. Angelenos are terrified.
Los Angeles has lost confidence in itself. It is something like the fiscal crisis of 1975 in New York City --but worse. New York went broke; money was the focus of that municipal trauma. Here it may be harder to recover because the trauma is about fear and race.
The most common L.A. complaint reflects how good life was here in what amounted to the endless and ultimate suburb under perfect warm skies: "We want to get out, but the housing market is so bad we can't sell the house."
We will be seeing much more of this in movies, I fear. One of the small pleasures of L.A. living is that you know about next year's movies a year in advance. By my rough reckoning, 80 percent of American movies, in theaters and on television, are fictionalized versions of whatever was in the Times last year. And, as you know, there was a riot in Los Angeles after policemen were found not guilty in the videotaped beating of a black man named Rodney King.
Almost 20 years ago, The Economist in London published a long survey on Los Angeles, which began with a play on the words of Lincoln Steffens' quote after a visit to the Soviet Union: "I have seen the future and it works." The California line, circa the mid-70s, was: "I have seen the future and it plays." Now: "I have seen the future and it slays."
Guns. Guns. Guns. "Falling Down" is a bit pretentious, but in the end it's just about a screwball who gets his hands on automatic weapons, literally picking them up off the street.
There was, I thought, only one socially redeeming moment in the film. The ex-wife in Venice tells a policewoman that she needs protection from her marauding ex-husband, and the cop says tough luck. "What can I do?" says the ex-wife. "Think about that the next time you vote against a proposition to hire more policemen or teachers."
It's been almost 15 years since Californians voted for Proposition 13 to begin the cannibalization of their own government and its protection in an attempt to give themselves 19th-century taxation. Soon they will have 19th-century government and quality of life, too. Because there may be no law west of the San Gabriels.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.