Catharsis for the Clench-Fisted

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--It is axiomatic that no one thinks clearly with his fists clenched. Judging from the impact here of Michael Douglas' movie "Falling Down" -- anger, applause, recrimination, community introspection -- California has its fists clenched.

In this story of one man's meltdown in the melting pot of Southern California's ethnic stew, Mr. Douglas plays a laid-off missile builder who is divorced and under a court order to keep away from his wife and daughter. Worse, his car's air conditioner is broken.


Congealed in freeway traffic, he walks away from his car and into a slew of urban terrors and indignities that, we are invited to believe, would accost any pedestrian in Los Angeles -- aggressive panhandlers, drive-by shootings and snarling surliness all around. Mr. Douglas' flat-top haircut, short-sleeved white shirt, narrow dark tie and cluster of pens in a plastic pocket protector advertise his character's ordinariness, which invites sympathy with his orgy of murder and mayhem.

His first act of violence is against a Korean store owner who will not give him change for a telephone call, and who doesn't "have the grace to learn my language."


Nothing novel here. Korean shopkeepers, victims of "ethnic cleansing" during the rioting 11 months ago, also did not fare well in Spike Lee's movie "Do the Right Thing."

Soon Mr. Douglas has a baseball bat, a knife, a bag full of automatic weapons and a bazooka, with which he vents his rage, and perhaps that of the audience, at urban indignities. In the 1976 exasperation movie "Network," the rage of television performer Howard Beale just caused him to shout a lot ("I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore"). But since then there have been 18 years of the urban arms race.

Mr. Douglas riddles with bullets a fast-food restaurant that stopped serving breakfast three minutes before he entered; he blasts with a bazooka a road repair crew that is, he thinks, unnecessarily causing congestion; he provokes a fatal heart attack in a surly golfer (it's all right; the golfer is rich, white and male); and he slaughters a neo-Nazi skinhead (the movie does not strive for a delicate touch) who for some reason feels a kinship with Mr. Douglas.

"Falling Down" exemplifies a movie genre that can be called "catharsis cinema." Audiences experience in the dark the guilty pleasure of the release of aggressions that accumulate under urban stresses and anxieties.

In 1974 Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" featured a white liberal Manhattan intellectual (an idealistic architect) whose wife is killed and daughter is raped by thugs. He gets a gun and becomes the city's anonymous hero by wandering the streets tempting, and then dispatching, muggers.

What Fred Allen said of another entertainment medium ("Imitation is the sincerest form of television") is true of movies, too. There were three "Death Wish" sequels, but not before Bernie Goetz, New York's "subway vigilante" of 1984, had anticipated Mr. Douglas' portrayal of the nerd as action hero for the comprehensively irritated.

And in 1991 "Thelma and Louise" gave a feminist spin to the theme of consciousness-raising and spirit-enlarging violence. Violence, that movie suggested, is wholesome fun if directed against America's oppressive patriarchy.

"Falling Down" is too incoherent to deliver a clear message. It strongly suggests that Mr. Douglas represents America's most rapidly multiplying species, the "victims" of "society." But it also suggests he was half-cracked before "society" caused his tightly wound spring to snap. The movie also encourages the whiny self-pity of the middle class, thereby reinforcing the rhetoric of both political parties.


In Charles Dickens' "Hard Times," Sleary, the circus manager, says that in the modern age of machines, people "mutht be amuthed" by "something" in motion. He meant acrobats and performing animals. Many modern Americans are amused by entertainment featuring ricocheting bullets and crumpling bodies.

In Southern California, motion was supposed to be physical and horizontal on freeways, and social and vertical in the upward mobility of the Golden West's endless prosperity.

Nowadays there is too little horizontal motion -- traffic congestion is the universal complaint -- and the downward spiral of the economy has made the entire state queasy.

Perhaps the catharsis offered by "Falling Down" will allow Californians to vent harmlessly their social tensions. But when last such a theory was heard, it was uttered in defense of the legalization of pornography, which (this was before violence against women became a "normal" entertainment theme) supposedly would make society safer for women.

So far, the catharsis of "Falling Down" is not noticeably working here. Korean-American organizations report that since February eight Korean-American merchants in Los Angeles County have been shot, five fatally.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.