May 052012

Film posters are crucial for communicating—often in a single image—what an entire film is about. It is the most important part of movie marketing, because millions of people will see the poster but only a tiny fraction of them will buy tickets to see the film.

The poster for Falling Down shows Michael Douglas’s character D-Fens / Bill Foster standing atop a graffiti-covered, crumbling concrete slab with steps leading up to it. The scene is an empty, abandoned field, though the urban skyline in the background signifies that it’s an urban story. (More skyline buildings were added in one horizontal version of the British poster.)

Atop this piece of steel and spraypaint-riddled cement platform is a middle-aged man in a white short-sleeved shirt, black pants, and a tie. Part of the character’s appeal is of course the inherent contradiction of an office drone (or nerd) with a briefcase, white shirt, and tie carrying a rifle. People associate guns and rifles with specific uniforms (such as military fatigues, law enforcement, or hunting outfits), not standard office worker uniforms.

The tagline to the right of the man (in the American poster, at least—the poster design varies slightly by country) reads, “The adventures of an ordinary man at war with the everyday world” against a smoggy sky. Below the steps is a bold, white-on-red film logo with the title, and below that is the line “A Tale of Urban Reality.” The words and phrases chosen in these taglines (ordinary man, everyday world, urban reality) evoke a populist sentiment, juxtaposed with the idea of a battle or struggle.

The poster image is fairly straightforward, but upon closer inspection we can find a few hidden symbols and meanings in the image—specifically in the concrete steps D-Fens is standing on. Much of the slab is covered with random graffiti, including the name “Pepe” written in black spray paint on the bottom left hand corner. There are also at least two skulls, one in red paint under D-Fens’s briefcase  (and to the left of the Coke can), partially obscured by sprouted rebar; and a smaller one in black paint on the third step, directly above the ‘G’ in Falling Down.

However there are also two identical silhouetted symbols of falling human figures in the image. The largest and most prominent one can be found on the far left facing side of concrete, to the left of the rebar and partly obscured by weeds. The second and smaller one can be seen directly above the ‘I’ in Falling Down. In the first instance the figure is falling headfirst (you can clearly see the outlines of the figure’s shoes), and in the second his head is facing up, perhaps falling up (or crawling) up.

"Pin man" figure in the Falling Down poster

Indeed, this falling figure was the original iconic image associated with the film. We know this because it appears on the hats and jackets given to the cast and crew during filming (see photos). The film’s poster image (including the falling figure) was not designed until after the film wrapped up shooting, and was likely completed in the marketing phase during post-production. In fact by comparing a cropped still image from that scene in the film with a cropped image from the poster we can see that both of the falling figures were not present at the time of shooting but were later added photographically in the poster art production (see images). The public would have no way of knowing what the original art was, but it remains as a hidden remnant in the final poster.

(click each image to enlarge)

Those are curious enough, but there’s an even more hidden symbol within the falling figures themselves. If you look closely you’ll see an outline of what looks like a bowling pin in white inside the figure’s torso. This also fits the film’s theme as well: people bowled over by a bowling ball of society and circumstance. You can, of course, take this metaphor as far as you like: the identical upright (and, perhaps coincidentally, white) figures standing in dutiful, orderly rigidity like office drones just waiting to be knocked down by an unstoppable force bigger than themselves. Like D-Fens and others like him, their purpose in this context is to stand there and passively accept the abuse against them; that is their role in society.

There’s yet another hidden symbol within the bowling pin image within the falling man silhouette. It is not clear enough to be seen in the film poster, but is easily seen in a close-up examination of the Falling Down crew hat and jacket:

(click each image to enlarge)

It is a circle with a short vertical line connected to (and centered over) a longer horizontal line, with a short line stroking up at the end:


At first glance it looks like it might be a symbol for a planet, but it is not; in fact I was unable to match it with any known symbols. In the end, it is probably exactly what it appears to be: the top half of a stick figure holding up his hands in surrender—another element echoing the film’s themes.

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