FILM / Damaged goods in the shop window: He's upset America's Hispanics and Koreans, and he's not exactly the toast of Los Angeles. Is Joel Schumacher sorry? Is he hell. Sheila Johnston reports

Joel Schumacher must be the only former professional window dresser to be invited to Cannes to present his film in competition, although sharp-eyed observers might have detected an early vocation from the kind of window displays he created (this was back in the Sixties, remember, when conspicuous consumption was rampant enough for stores to be, like, subtle about selling).

'I worked at a store called Bendel's in New York, which was very progressive and so we were able to do shocking, interesting, exciting windows. We had mannequins committing suicide, but my favourite was, I got a piece of shatterproof glass the same size as the windows, backed it up to the real glass and then smashed it, so that from the street it looked like the whole store had been broken into. I had all the mannequins cowering in a corner. It was fun. Yeah, I've been working since I was nine and I've been wanting to be a movie director since I was seven and I made it. I made it (thank you, God]). And now I'm trying to do it well, a much harder task than getting in the door.'

At 53, Schumacher went through a hard slog before earning his house in Bel Air and his hotel room in the exclusive Cap d'Antibes. He grew up poor, rough and fatherless (from the age of four) in Long Island City, and paid his way through art school by doing the windows. Then he went West as a costume and set designer and wrote a few screenplays (Car Wash, The Wiz) until Hollywood finally gave him a crack at directing.

'It's the only way I could get in,' says Schumacher, who harbours no illusions about early efforts like The Incredible Shrinking Woman. He told the New York Times, 'Someone said to me, 'I can't believe you did D C Cab.' Well, let me tell you something, I needed the job. I was not sitting at home thinking, 'Should I do D C Cab with Mr T or Out of Africa with Bob and Meryl?' '

In between all this there were the excesses and the addictions (speed, mainly, shot up six times a day) that have etched their traces on his lean, lined face. Schumacher shook them off and attained a degree of commercial success. But he never strayed far from the popular end of the cultural spectrum: St Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Dying Young - all his films up till now were certainly interesting in their way, but not ones that collared critical attention or suggested that Schumacher was to be taken seriously.

But one thing's for certain, his new film, Falling Down, is not window dressing; it has detonated a noisy debate in America that will make it a keynote film of the early Nineties. In it, Michael Douglas plays a footsoldier from the forgotten legions of the disaffected white lower middle-class. He has lost his job, lost his wife and finally he loses his rag and goes on the rampage across LA. It's a vigilante film for the Nineties where the hero, simply known as D-FENS after his personalised number plate, is not a cop ('You mean, I'm the bad guy?' he asks at the end with genuine astonishment) and the pretext for his shooting spree is not the death of some incidental token female character. Douglas goes Awol because his car is gridlocked, there's a fly on his face, the convenience store is charging 85 cents for a soda and someone else is hogging the payphone.

'When Michael and I decided to do the film together, it was Christmastime. I went to the supermarket and was cashing a cheque. This manager was signing the cheque and I was looking at him. He was about 40, had the brush cut, short sleeve shirt, pen in his pocket. And something just swept over me. I asked, 'How long have you worked here?' and he said, '12 years.'

'I realised I had probably seen him at least a thousand times and never really noticed him. It shocked me because you know how we have the conceit to think we're sensitive and observant people. Liberal, creative people. Then I walked outside and from then on I started noticing all the armies of men that looked like that. They're not current, they're not trendy. They're not vain, or their vanity doesn't express itself in supercuts or trendy clothes. That's when I knew why D-FENS would feel invisible.'

Falling Down takes the (very short, hot) temper of a city caught in the most severe slump since the Depression. 'A lot of people think it was made after the riots. It wasn't; we were almost finished when they happened. Some people from the studio suggested we cut riot footage into this film but I had a few short words with them. And anyway the riots had a racial, economic thrust because of the Rodney King beating. This is about a white, middle-class American.'

There's the rub, and the reason why Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and all Los Angelinos with any sense of civic pride have been up in arms about the movie (it has been notably worse-reviewed there than on the East Coast). They say it doesn't really set up D-FENS as the bad guy. On the contrary, it encourages all the Joe Sixpacks in the audience to raise a sweaty cheer when he trashes the Korean convenience store, totals the Mexican-American muggers and generally decimates the city's racial minorities.

But Schumacher is smart enough to cover his bases - he claims that Robert Duvall, as the detective on Douglas's trail, is D-FENS's alter ego and the film's true hero (slightly implausible, this, since Duvall, a hugely respected actor, doesn't enjoy anything like Douglas's status as an international star). And he points out that D-FENS is an equal-opportunity bigot; he also has run-ins with a neo- Nazi and a couple of wealthy, white golfers whose defence of their patch is every bit as aggressive as the ghetto gang's (the film demonstrates just how much LA has been broken down into territories, how void it is of any community spirit).

'That scene is always forgotten because the punishment of the rich is not a dangerous issue. The Republican golfers did not send a coalition to tell me how upset they were at the way they were portrayed. I wish they had; it would have been a very amusing meeting.' Like others, he feels besieged a little by the political correctness lobby. 'In a sense, the film was a way of shaking myself free of that for the moment. And why shouldn't we talk about these problems? We read novels that are disturbing. We see theatre that is disturbing. We listen to opera, we even listen to rap songs that deal with violence and sex and political injustice. Why are film audiences always treated like retarded children? You know (stage whisper): 'Don't tell them we have problems, they can't take it]'

'One reason why Falling Down has been the centre of so much controversy is that there are few films in the US dealing with our problems, except for those by young African-American film-makers. If it had been like the Sixties, when so many people were making social-comment movies, this would have just been part of a group.'

There are certainly comedic / ironic elements in Schumacher's work (could those Bendel's windows be read any other way?) but, what with the vampires of Lost Boys and the leukaemia of Dying Young, it also contains a deep streak of morbidity - a death wish, even. In Flatliners, a group of medical students induce clinical death in each other to sample a few minutes on the other side; D- FENS in Falling Down is, according to Schumacher, a 'dinosaur' who goads Duvall into killing him.

'Well' - big grin - 'there's life . . . and there's death. I don't know any more interesting subjects. I think the problem is that, unlike our parents and grandparents and great- grandparents, who struggled with the wars and the Depression, we've grown up with the expectation that we're owed this happy life. We're supposed to find the right mate and have the right career. I'm offended by all these happy endings. This film has been accused of having one, but, if you try to think of Hollywood movies where the star gets killed, you'll be thinking a long time.'

Falling Down opens next Friday

(Photographs omitted)

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