Slant

D-FENS Mechanisms

Joel Schumacher, Falling Down, 1993, 35 mm, sound, color, 113 minutes. William Foster (Michael Douglas).

BEING A PEDESTRIAN IN LA has long put a person outside the bounds of normality: At best, they’ve made a mistake, gotten a DUI, failed to maintain their car, or crashed it; at worst, they’re already an offender, a trespasser, a prowler, or merely too poor to be considered at all.

Oliver Payne’s recent travelogue-lecture-performance-video Wandering About Falling Down, 2019, is a meditation on this unique combination of being both overexposed and totally invisible. This past February 26, viewers could catch up with Payne on Instagram Live as he crossed the city. Where was he at lunch? Where was he after work? As the morning and afternoon gave way to dusk, the audience experienced the same changing of light as Payne did in the video, all bounded within the decidedly noncinematic portrait orientation and UI screen furniture of Instagram (comment area, heart icon for liking, and so on). The choice of Instagram feels important here for a work that considers the use and abuse of public and private space, but it’s hard to forget that, despite the app’s ubiquity and accessibility, Instagram is, of course, a private company owned by Facebook. It provides the social space for us to enjoy this work but only insofar as it can monetize the data it gathers from our friends and us. In other words, you can use Instagram freely, but only at the cost of your soul.

In the work, Payne retraces the steps taken by the protagonist in Falling Down, a nasty 1993 film that proves you can’t send Joel Schumacher to do Paul Verhoeven’s job. The movie seemed to aspire to satire but could never pull itself free of the sinkhole of politically incorrect entertainment barfed out of Hollywood writing rooms in the 1990s. (Think Married . . . with Children or Family Guy.) Falling Down stars Michael Douglas as a laid-off defense-industry worker (his vanity plate reads “D-FENS”) who snaps and begins a bloody rampage through LA, from “The Stack” freeway interchange near downtown to Venice Beach; all the while, he vents his frustration about the way he, a professional white male who has always played by the rules, should be treated by “his” society, which, he believes, should match his expectations of it, regardless of what that means for others. After abandoning his car on the road, he beats and taunts a Korean shopkeeper, telling him to speak better English and that what D-FENS wants is for the prices to be taken back to what they were in 1965—that he doesn’t want to pay eighty-five cents for a Coke. His violent, regressive, and entitled perspective seems all too painfully familiar.

Wandering About Falling Down functions as a time machine, moving between the early ’90s and now, while also encompassing the arc of a day—specifically, the twenty-sixth anniversary of the film’s release. Payne visits the film’s locations: the sites where D-FENS beats up gang members with a baseball bat, stabs and ultimately kills a neo-Nazi, and fires a bazooka at a freeway under construction before continuing to rage through the pools and country-club golf courses of Beverly Hills. Through it all, Payne comes off as an itinerant Adam Curtis, spiraling in and out of different tangents, sometimes reading from prepared notes on a clipboard while at other moments seemingly improvising—he even holds the occasional prop in front of the camera—but he’s strongest when he focuses on the experience of walking in LA itself. In perhaps the best riff, he describes what it’s like to walk in a world designed to be seen while going at least thirty mph, moving slowly toward a Best Buy sign over thirty minutes as if he’s heading toward a “shit mirage.” As a fellow non-driving Angeleno, I felt seen and was thrilled by the simplicity of Payne’s metaphor for the experience of many American consumers struggling under stagnant wages in an apparently booming economy.

Oliver Payne, Wandering About Falling Down, 2019, Instagram Live video, color, sound, 27 minutes 49 seconds.

Frustratingly, Payne seems reluctant to probe these fundamental economic questions much further, as if the heart of America’s fascination with violence remains a mystery, when it absolutely is not. As he scrambles along the side of a golf course in Beverly Hills, he shows us a sidewalk simply ending—since he’s on foot, Payne could either trespass across the golf course (as D-FENS does in the film) or try his luck walking on a busy road, but at this point he simply turns back. Reading Payne’s tone here is difficult. Is he surprised the rich don’t care about pedestrians? Is he indignant? In the 2019 version of Los Angeles that Payne’s broadcasting from, the pedestrian classes will have to batten down the hatches and try to survive the city’s impending transformation into an Olympic host—with its attendant handouts to developers, brutality to the homeless, rent increases, and displacements that are already being added to a toxic climate of gentrification and property speculation. When the recreation of the rich is considered above basic public respect, you don’t have to look too far to find the reason why some lives are so cheap. Maybe Payne just feels like it’s too obvious to say?

Payne’s walk concludes on the Venice pier at dusk, where he reads a quote from Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden (1899): “You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled, and unbalanced.” We arrive here after we’ve been taken back to the climate of tension that initially surrounded Falling Down. The litany is daunting and depressing: Waco, school shootings, the violent police beating of Rodney King and the ’92 LA riots, and the killing of Latasha Harlins and the lenient sentence given to her killer. It’s almost like Payne brought us all to the pier to witness him throw himself into the ocean. But he also seems to be suspended between the past and the present—in a state that won’t let Payne go. With the ocean wind pummeling the mic of his cell phone and tossing the script on his clipboard, Payne dwells in the frank contradictions of a world built of violence, wherein he’s given a chance to live.

Steve Kado is an artist, writer, and musician from North York, Ontario.

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