Elusive Trope's picture

    Falling Sideways


    In the 1993 film Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays a divorcé and unemployed former defense engineer, William Foster, who goes on a violent rampage across L.A. while trying to reach his daughter’s birthday party at the house of his estranged wife.  Roger Ebert writes of this character:

    What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.

    More often than not it would seem, the terrorists, foreign, home-grown, or, as in the case of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a mix of the two, could be defined as frustrated misfits venting their rage on innocent bystanders. Although each will have their own particular history, personality, and outlook on life (we are all unique, after all), there are usually broad commonalities that lead to their being misfits and feeling frustrated (we are the same, after all).

    One of the key sources of frustration around the globe is the barriers to finding and keeping gainful employment.  In the Middle East, a continuing problem plaguing the efforts to stem the radicalization of the youth is the lack of jobs for the growing population of young adults, many of whom are well educated.   

    While Falling Down at the time was described as exploring the angry white (American) male, William Foster was in many ways as much about the adolescent male in Cairo who sees no viable employment prospects for the future.  (A side note of not much consequence, but kind of weird: Falling Down was released on February 26, 1993, the same day that the World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists.)

    Ebert also makes a very significant  point, which is in part what I have been driving at in my previous blogs on the topic of the Boston Marathon bombings: in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news.

    This may resonate with me more so because some years ago I had a therapist who was fond of framing his response to my comments with the notion that I was operating on old scripts in my head.  If I was to overcome the things blocking me, such as social anxiety attacks, I had to get rid of the old scripts and replace them with new ones. 

    It may also be resonating more so because I have recently joined the ranks of the unemployed (although I would say at the moment that overall I am happier now than I was in the last years of that previous job).  At the time of Boston Marathon bombings, I was working on a blog about suddenly finding one's self without a job. 

    Herbert Blau wrote in Take Up the Bodies about that moment after his stint as co-director of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York came to an abrupt and quick end in 1967 after a disastrous production of Danton’s Death:

    Nevertheless,  I wasn’t long at Lincoln Center before I felt rather like Captain Ahab on the third day of the hunt -- log , chart, and compass gone -- throwing his hot heart against the whale and ending up wrapped around it, caught in his own line, sounding.  Or maybe it was a hubris less heroic, even foolish, like the Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon.  There’s nothing like failure to trip the images out of people.

    Even though I was downsized because of the economy, it still felt like a failure, or more accurately, there was a part of me that felt like a failure.  I probably don't have to elaborate too much for the readers of Dagblog about the dynamics of males and their identity and self-worth as a function of their job and efficacy at work. There are few who want to experience failure in the workplace and career realms, who want to be, in the society of commerce and materialism, to be...a loser.

    So at the time when one is having the images tripped out, one has to somehow still go forward and engage the world.  Blau relates about his moment after Lincoln Center to Karen Blixen in Out of Africa after she lost both her farm and her lover:

    ...she found herself looking for a sign.  One has to prepare the looking, the right climate of mind around the eye.

    As for himself:

    I saw no sign, but preparing, with some confusion, the right climate of mind.

    This preparing the climate of mind around the eye is the key.  If, as Ebert describes Foster, one has a core of sadness in one's soul, if one is weary and confused, what kind of climate is prepared?  Preparing takes energy and motivation.  The last things one has when one is sad, weary and confused. One quickly and unconsciously reaches for the old scripts, the scripts with which one is comfortable (even if they don't result in positive outcomes).

    Too often, especially with those of the male gender, those scripts contain rage against a perceived injustice or injustices, and rage quickly turns to violence directed outward toward the cause of the injustice(s).  When the cause is attributed to life just not being fair, when all one can do is shake one's fist at the sky, the desire to vent the frustration can lead to the innocents around to appear not so innocent.  

    And while this all may be evidence that creating jobs should be the top focus for the world leaders, I would point out having a job doesn't stop one from going postal. It really comes down to a clash between one's expectations about how one's life should be, how one's life turned out, and just how one's script explains the discrepancy between  the two.

    As David Byrne might say:

    You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
    You may find yourself in another part of the world
    You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
    You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
    You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
    Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
    Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
    Into the blue again after the money's gone
    Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
    You may ask yourself, how do I work this?
    You may ask yourself, where is that large automobile?
    You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
    You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife
    Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
    Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
    Into the blue again, after the money's gone
    Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
    Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was



    And the Michael Douglas character and all the real life persons that inspired him did their deeds without taking SSRI's. Unbelievable, I know, but it seems like just good old fashioned depression and related mental illnesses helped 'em do it. cheeky

    More seriously and sadly, there was another major "going postal" in southern Illinois today,


    though from what I've skimmed eslewhere, so far it looks to have been more custody-related than job-related. A reminder that in the Douglas character's case, it was both. Which brings to mind: isn't this one of the things that is a common denominator across all these kinds of crimes we have been talking about: HUMILIATION and its effects on the male-brain psyche? It's in terrorism, it's in gangs, it's in "going postal".

    Employment can help about the humiliation, but then, it can also be the cause of it! The "going postal" character is what I have always thought of when I have seen the argument  to just give all those follower-type jihadis some good jobs, that will solve the problem. And I would think: well I'm not so sure, not if their employer is an asshole.

    Humiliation is probably more to the point than frustration. Or to rephrase it: the lack or loss of dignity. Which is why having just any job is not the cure all. What fosters a sense of dignity and selfworth is going to be different from individual to individual, (sub)culture to (sub)culture. The refugees who have an advanced degree will feel differently about the dishwashing job than the immigrant who escaped deep poverty. Of course, one of the refugees might focus on escaping a war zone and feel gratitude, while another might focus on the humiliation of doing a job that is "beneath " him or her. And there is nothing like mental illness to lead a person to feel humiliation (among other things) when from the perspective of others, the individual has nothing to feel humiliated about.

    Praise due, Trope, for delivering all the main intertwined memes so well in this and your other recent posts. You've obviously been pondering all these things for a very long time.

    I agree. Good post.

    I have so many thoughts about this film.

    First, why Michael was not nominated for an Academy Award is beyond me.

    Cannes evidently liked the film, but I was just captivated when it finally came on the tellie but it has been a few years since I have viewed this movie.

    There is one scene with some dark humor that makes me laugh out loud every time I see it.

    That is the scene where our hero finds himself on the golf course.

    Why are these beautiful grounds being wasted on fat old white men? Why are not these beautiful grounds opened to children and adults praying to get away from urban blight.

    This is the sentiment expressed but not words directly from the script.

    That one old sombitch screams:


    And then he dies of a heart attack.


    See, I still cannot stop laughing.

    And this is a very hard tragedy to swallow really.

    When does one say:


    By the time I reach this nadir? I will be much too old and crippled to do anything!

    Anyway, this is one of my favorite films of all time although if it were aired tomorrow on TNT or something, I might flinch.

    Someone once said almost 40 years ago:

    I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"

    That was actually Paddy Chayefsky who "said" that, circa 1975-76.wink

    If you check out his bio, you will see that he was definitely a man from another era, "Greatest Generation," lived only to see 1981.  So it's not like he was steeped in our postmodern life. (Heck, I think "PoMo" was only in its very infancy in 1981...)

    Post-war existentialism was very much part of his generation, though, as I believe you well know...

    This line in his bio caught my curiosity:

    His intimate, realistic scripts provided a naturalistic style of television drama for the 1950s, and he was regarded as the central figure in the "kitchen sink realism" movement of American television.

    Looking up kitchen sink realism I read this [emphasis mine]:

    Kitchen sink realism (or kitchen sink drama) is a term coined to describe a British cultural movement that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in theatre, art, novels, film and television plays, whose 'heroes' usually could be described as angry young men.

    The more things change the more they stay the same.  Same as it ever was.

    However, Marty is a humble lonely loser who does not act out in violence but finds love and joy with another humble lonely loser.

    Edit to add: Apropos of my most recent comment elsewhere on this thread, I am just reminded by re-reading the plot synopsis that at the end it is implied that he opts out of the extended family that strangles and binds him, and goes for the individualism, for him and Clara together alone, happy.

    An illustration of our times maybe is that these days Hollywood gives us The 40 Year Old Virgin instead? 

    I will treasure this rant for the rest of my worthless existance. 


    I hereby render unto Trope the Dayly Comment/Reply/RANT of the Day for this here Dagblog Site, given to all of him from all of me.


    I really have never cared about toasters per se. hahahahahahahah

    Nicely done.

    I think Falling Down was a very touching movie for many of us.  I remember it made me cry.  Not many movies do and they are usually the ones that feature some sort of ordinary human triumph.

    The scenes that come most immediately to mind are of him leaving his car on the highway and his being a minute or so late for the fast-food breakfast. I guess those are the ones I could identify with most. 

    You're right about expectations.  You do what you have been lead to believe you are supposed to do but then everything falls apart anyway. Generally there is no one to blame specifically just an accumulation of choices by everyone that went awry. 


    You do what you have been lead to believe you are suppose to do but then everything falls apart anyway. The modern theme since Death of a Salesman? Or maybe it had fallen apart a long time ago and one is just now realizing it.

    In regards to the matter of changing scripts, the film did a great job of contrasting how Foster thought he looked like to other people with what other people actually were looking at.

    Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? 

    So any script is false for ourselves before it is false to another.

    A begging bowl that will be filled.

    But was what people were actually seeing only what they wanted to see, conditioned to see?  Could he be one of those who can see behind the veil?

    For a little while in college, I rented a room from a couple who owned a house in town.   The town itself had numerous Vietnam vets who were homeless, off the grid and living in the woods on the outskirts of town.  Most had some form of PTSD*, as did the guy from whom I rented the room.  On occasion a number of the vets from the woods would come visit him and conduct a kind of support group at the house (he being the only one who had a house to meet in). 

    One night I came home from campus and walked straight into one of these sessions.  Normally, both his wife and I would get a heads up when they would be meeting so we could make ourselves scarce, in large part because a number of the guys didn't feel comfortable around people.  So there I found myself standing next to a circle of seven Vietnam vets, most if not all of them suffering from some form of PTSD, after they had been spending the last couple of hours talking about the struggles of getting through each day (and night).  

    My first impulse was to bolt for my room, mainly out of respect, but also because the emotional tension in the room was more than a little heavy.  But they asked me to stay and have a seat.  And for the next hour, all seven of them, in effect, attempted to convince me that what they saw over there was "the true face of humanity," as more than one of them phrased it.  The rest of us operated in a sort of dream like illusion.

    For most of them, this knowledge, this perception which they carried back, made it impossible for them to re-integrate successfully with the status quo day to day living in the States.  It caused them to behave and live in ways (living in the woods et. al.) that didn't make sense to those on the outside who saw the world through the lens of the illusion.

    There are some who would say that the human dynamic that generates this illusion is the same dynamic creates the begging bowl that will not be filled.

    * the issue of trauma and its impact on the individual, whether the result of war or something else, not to mention the dynamics of the diagnostic process, is a far more complex condition than I can delve into here.

    This story really inspires my thinking, combined with the Network/Chayefsky quote and thinking about Chayefsky's time frame. Bear with me, it's convoluted. I am thinking along the lines that few in the western world considered fairness and a happy life as a birthright until after WWII. When the prominence of the nuclear family came about after the war, and release from extended family and tribe, individualism flourished, and you were no longer bound to do things like stay married forever even if you were miserable, nor obey your mother, father, great aunt (and your Uncle Ruslan) forever, nor practice the trade of your father and grandfather, etc. Prior to that, the right to a pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence were still quite radical words, even though they were just about pursuit. Seems to me that many Vietnam vets were the first vets raised to believe that everyone deserved to be happy, to believe that that just didn't happen by luck and that most people were miserable, and that everything could be good., that most people needn't live miserable lives.  Hence, seeing the "illusion" after seeing war.

    Maybe expectations of happiness and fairness are what's really new in the world?

    Yes. I would toss into this that here in America there was the post WWII economic boom, a rise in living standards and income (along with a rise in technological improvements) that has few equals in history.  I would argue that the collective notion that one's children should have a qualitatively (esp economically) better life than one had arose during this boom.  Before that most people assumed one would follow more or less in one's parents footsteps.  The rich stayed rich, the family farm stayed in the family, the miner's son became a miner. Life went on as it always had.

    I would also put out there that the Spartan children were less traumatized by the savages of war when they first encountered it simply because it was what they were raised to expect from life (and death).  Long ago I remember some pundit on PBS talking about how poverty in the Philippines was physically more harsh than in the United States, but more pyschologically painful in the US, mainly because one was surrounded by those not living in poverty, because they were constantly bombarded with messages that said they should have all these things

    The veil separating reality from illusion is a problematic boundary; a place or many places where people line up on either side to marvel at the unreality of the other.

    I am certain that those veterans you encountered saw a "true face of humanity" that the people back in the "World" did not. There are reasons to doubt that it is the only face. In his book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges speaks eloquently of how combat completely engages a person and that the experience of it can dull the senses of life outside of war. So for him, the land of illusion is mapped by means of a specific type of relativity:

    Illusions punctuate our lives, blinding us to our own inconsistencies and repeated moral failings. But in wartime these illusions are compounded. The cause, the protection of the nation, the fight to "liberate Kuwait" or wage "a war on terrorism," justifies the means. We dismantle our moral universe to serve the cause of war. And once it is dismantled it is nearly impossible to put it back together.

    Much has and can be argued about this statement but I don't offer it as a last word on the matter but as a use of a veil that places what is happening in a different light. Looking from this "reality", the veterans and the citizens they fought for are part of the same catastrophe, seeing each other in the reversed manner of a mirror.

    Disillusionment, the removal of the veil, is depicted by Auden in The Shield of Achilles as the moment the goddess Thetis watched Hephaestos  at work on her son's armor:

    She looked over his shoulder

    For athletes at their games,

    Men and women in a dance

    Moving their sweet limbs

    Quick, quick, to music.

    But there on the shining shield

    His hands had set no dancing-floor

    But a weed choked field.


    Your investigation of the common thread connecting why these "losers" lost it is worthwhile. I think the work requires many more than one axis or range of values for the comparisons to hit the mark. I will mention just one that I have been thinking about.

    There is the element of renunciation common in these stories that points to other choices than the ones made. Foster could have gotten out of his car and turned his back on every item that was on his agenda that day. He could have availed himself of Dharma and began freeing his mind from hatred. Or he could decide to do nothing but what occurred to him after deciding to leave his former life. The paths of freedom may not be infinite but more than my tiny mind can survey.

    Ebert's comments sort of touch on this aspect; If you are going to blow up your world, why is it the same world with the same obligations after the "break" occurs? In the language of scripts, there is a logic of pretending that deals with failure by pretending harder.

    There was an account by someone who knew Zawahiri when he was young that rattles around in my head (sorry don't have the reference at hand); the person spoke of Zawahiri as someone who engaged with the people around him when he was young and then a time came when the narrator met him and reported: "He was there but he wasn't there. I no longer existed."


    Wonderful blog, Trope.  I remember the film and the truth of it being a bit too unsettling for me to see it again, when it came on TV.  I just didn't want to dwell too long in that universe.  Nice to read such great replies to your blog too.  It's one of the reasons I love this site. Even when I have nothing of great interest to add, it's a pleasure to read the thoughts of all the people here.  P.S.  I think the bit about humiliation is spot on.

    Another fantastic essay, Trope.  I also remember Falling Down as damned disturbing.  There was something about the way Douglas voiced rational complaints while acting so irrationally.  Sorry to hear about your troubles.  Hope you land in a better situation.

    ...voiced rational complaints while acting so irrationally.

    Maybe part of all this is trying to see the rationality in what appears to be an irrational act (which is definitely not the same as justifying the act).

    Herbert Blau wrote back in the seventies [emphasis mine]:

    In the era of information systems, we don't know where we are, as if all knowledge (as it is) is the agency of illusion, part of the conspiracy, since we don't appear to know what we know either.  Thus, the life we actually live is threatened at the extremes, as if there were still at the periphery a barbarian invader.  The via media under tension becomes a virtually excluded middle, and all we appear to have left is the pathology of the margin, a via negativa, which is the path by which reason yields to the unreasoning for the sake of making sense of a dead end.

    Stop Making Sense.

    I spent some time looking at this timeline of mass shootings, 1982 through 2012, from Mother Jones, and your description here:

    Too often, especially with those of the male gender, those scripts contain rage against a perceived injustice or injustices, and rage quickly turns to violence directed outward toward the cause of the injustice(s).  When the cause is attributed to life just not being fair, when all one can do is shake one's fist at the sky, the desire to vent the frustration can lead to the innocents around to appear not so innocent.

    strikingly seems to fit more than a majority of them very well. Those like Jared Loughner and James Holmes with mental illness that exhibits as coldness, rather than rage, strikingly stand out as unsual outliers. Most of them seem to be very much about what you describe. I will throw in that most could also be labeled "losers."

    Note that the Mother Jones article also has a map of all the incidents on its first page which, if you hover on the dots, has details including whether mental illness was indicated. Also from page one, this is the criteria for their list:

    • The shooter took the lives of at least four people. An FBI crime classification report identifies an individual as a mass murderer—versus a spree killer or a serial killer—if he kills four or more people in a single incident (not including himself), typically in a single location.
    • The killings were carried out by a lone shooter. (Except in the case of the Columbine massacre and the Westside Middle School killings, both of which involved two shooters.)
    • The shootings occured in a public place. (Except in the case of a party in Crandon, Wisconsin, and another in Seattle.) Crimes primarily related to gang activity or armed robbery are not included.
    • If the shooter died or was hurt from injuries sustained during the incident, he is included in the total victim count. (But we have excluded many cases in which there were three fatalities and the shooter also died, per the above FBI criterion.)
    • We included six so-called "spree killings"—high-profile cases that fit closely with our above criteria for mass murder, but in which the killings occurred in more than one location over a short period of time.

    They are leaving out bombings, of course. But they are also leaving out many of these type of multiple shootings that did not occur in public places but in private homes, which, I think, would also fit your description.

    They are leaving out bombings, of course.

    Up until now, one could generally assume that if someone went over to that place where mass murder seemed like an appropriate solution to a situation, the impulse was to get a gun or two.  What we may be witnessing is a transition in this country where that impulse, given the evolving and merging cultural scripts, is just as like to be get a bomb or two, rather than a gun or two.

    I would consider Timothy McVeigh as a mass murderer (as opposed to a spree killer or serial killer).  He was a number of other things as well, but a mass murderer none the less.

    Seems to that a lot of "home grown jihadis" are shaping up to be William Foster types, the only difference being that it's not "the deck is stacked against white men who play by the rules," but "the deck is stacked against Muslims." The London perp has loser written all over him so far, couldn't even be successful with becoming a bonafide jihadi: He was arrested with a group of five others trying to travel to Somalia to join militant group al Shabaab.

    Not just the Tsarnaev story comes to mind, others like the Fort Hood shooter come to mind. Anwar al-Awlaki apparently really had skill in pushing this type's buttons....

    It would seem that the personality or mind set that makes one more likely to blow people up is also more easily manipulated by a dominate alpha male.

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