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Falling Down in El Norte: A Cultural Politics & Spatial Poetics of the ReLatinization of Los Angeles

From: Wide Angle
Volume 20, Number 3, July 1998
pp. 183-209 | 10.1353/wan.1998.0027

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Wide Angle 20.3 (1998) 183-209


"We can't help others up, if we are falling down"

from Internet discussion on Proposition 187, February 1995


Begin with a sharp intake of breath, the sound of life hooked up to a ventilator. Fill the screen with a man's parted lips, beaded with sweat. Move like a fly along the bridge of his nose. Stare into the eye which stares out through foggy lens at steam rising from car's engine. The outside world comes first as noise filtered, its base tones heightened, through water. The objects on the landscape come into view, one by one: Latina child-waif clutching blonde bombshell doll, her empty stare fixed on you; woman painting protruding exaggerated lips, scarlet red; schoolbus of screaming schoolchildren -- multiculturalism wrapped in American flag; Hollywood hustlers, smacking chewing gum, clinching a deal on cellular phone.

You are imprisoned amidst all these fragmented worlds of the metropolis in this impossible space -- the hardened arteries of the Los Angeles freeway.

The air conditioning fails. A fly buzzes invisibly but insistently around your head.

Repeat, close-up and frame by frame, at greater and greater speed: Garfield's barred teeth;"Jesus Died for Our Sins; The American flag; "DELAY... DELAY... DELAY"; "How's My Driving, call 1-800 Eat Shit"; to this music, a Cagian urban cacophony, an unbearable shrill crescendo.

The car door flies open. Our protagonist, D-Fens abandons his car to the highway.

"Hey, where do you think you're going? Hey! Hey!" an angered man parked behind D-Fens' car shouts, fist in air, horn honking.

Running for the embankment, D-Fens returns the volley, "I'm going home." Disengaging from the high ground of the highway, his normal life path through space, D-Fens enters the low ground of the inner city, where he begins his epic journey across the post-industrial wasteland of Los Angeles.

Place -- Panic

Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1992) begins thus, with an assault on the nervous system and with a powerful evocation of the sensory and emotional tone of Los Angeles at a particular historical juncture. In so doing, the film draws us in with a tentative exploration of the "psychic disturbances" associated with the contemporary recomposition of space-time-being in post-coldwar and fin de siècle Los Angeles. Film director Schumacher employs an array of filmic devices to produce an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy in his protagonist, and indeed, in his audience -- the sort of madness born of [late] capitalism's excess depicted in Deleuze and Guatarri's Schizo out for a stroll in Capitalism and Schizophrenia. This opening scene is a graphic evocation of what Jameson, drawing upon Lacan's theorization of the connection between linguistic malfunction and the psyche of the schizophrenic, argues is central to the postmodern condition: "The breakdown of the signifying chain... into a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers." In this opening scene, signifying chains have snapped, and D-Fens is left without a frame of reference with which to make sense of this changed grammar of urban life. D-Fens temporarily loses his capacity to organize his immediate surroundings perceptually and to map his position in relation to the external world.

Schumacher has here very effectively depicted the disjunction between D-Fens, the body, and the freeway, its built environment. The earlier modernist frame which gave meaning to action in this Los Angeles context -- the freeway commute between the bourgeois private sphere (the nuclear family) and the capitalist public sphere (the Fordist era workplace)--has been disrupted. As the film unfolds, we discover that D Fens's odyssey is set between two receding horizons. He navigates between a job lost to the downsizing of the defense industry and a home broken by domestic violence and divorce. D-Fens, in truth, has nowhere to go. He is a migrant in postmodernity. D-Fens could well, and does to some extent, serve as an intriguing foil for the examination of a distress and unease which some would argue as being particular to the late twentieth century: place-panic or an insecurity of territory.

Falling Down begins with a potentially powerful exploration...

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