“Shoot up a KenTaco Hut or a Dunkin’ Donuts, in standard suburban-nutjob fashion, and you get two or three days of news coverage, tops,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “Shoot up the premiere of a Batman movie, and you become a symbol and provoke a crisis of cultural soul-searching.”
And so, at the end of a long and painful weekend, here we are, searching our souls and wondering just what it is that this mass murderer has become a symbol of. I’ll spare you the where-were-you-when details, but hours after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I rolled out of a bed in Texas for a quick check on email and the front page of the New York Times, saw the headline, took in what details I could, grabbed my jaw (and heart) from the floor, and raced out the door for a transcontinental trek turned epic by flight cancellations, delays due to mechanical glitches and other sundry aggravations too petty to mention in this context, but mentioned nonetheless to explain why a full day passed before I was able to look up a somewhat reliable account of what had actually happened. By that point, the inevitable commentary was already on the roll, the inevitable questions already being raised.
Among those questions, of course, is the one that Andrew O’Hehir puts this way: “Does Batman, broadly speaking, have blood on his hands for what happened in Aurora? I’m a film critic and a hardcore civil libertarian who has spent much of my career defending free expression even in its nastiest and most disturbing forms. I do not believe that symbolic or fictional violence leads to real violence in any direct or causative manner…. So it may surprise you to learn that I think the question is a legitimate one and that, considered properly, it lacks a clear yes-or-no answer.”
This entry, then, takes the exact opposite tack of, as it happens, the roundup on The Dark Knight Rises. That roundup is a blow-by-blow, link-by-link account of the critical reception of the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, from early ecstasy to sober analysis and, as a sideshow now darkened by the taint of foreshadowing, an account of fanboys’ verbal threats of physical violence issued to critics who dared to argue that Rises might not be the best movie ever.
For some, the answer to Andrew O’Hehir’s question is less murky than he proposes. Tom Shone, for example, strikes back at no less than three immediate responses to the shooting by New Yorker writers—there have been more, and we’ll get to them in a moment, but Shone singles out Anthony Lane, David Denby, and Richard Brody: “In an ideal world, film critics would have been given no more room to ruminate about the Colorado killings than teachers were given to editorialize about Columbine, or government workers to weigh in on Timothy McVeigh’s psychopathology…. After three decades of watching movies, the connoisseurship of spectacle has done nothing, I can happily report, to erode my ability to respond to the real thing: I will happily chortle through Tarantino’s latest opus and grow queasy at the thought of a splinter. To think otherwise is really a fond fantasy about art’s efficacy dressed up as a warning.”
Bill Gibron, a film critic for PopMatters, is no less confident that “to argue any link to The Dark Knight Rises is beyond ridiculous.” His primary counterargument is that in order to “kill as many people as possible, in a manner horrifically similar to shooting fish in a barrel,” a “crowded theater” makes for an ideal stage—and, it should be noted, Richard Brody is chillingly eloquent on this facet of the crime. Gibron: “It’s not a question of content. It’s one of criminal convenience.”
Phil Nugent, too, argues that “the movie can’t have inspired the violence. The man who entered the first public screening in his area, midway through the film, through an exit door and stood with his back to the screen and opened fire hadn’t seen it, either. But he did know where a lot of people would be when he wanted to shoot a lot of them at once and get it covered on the news, and if he has as much as three toes in the reality of our world, he knew that shooting people at the opening of this particular movie would provide an extra little kick that the media would cream over.” Emphasis mine. Because it’s here that the libertarian absolutists’ case begins to quiver.
As someone who has long favored criticism that considers films—particularly Hollywood product—not as hermetically sealed texts but rather as complex constructions within specific social, political and historical contexts, I find one point made by Dana Stevens in Slate worthy of serious consideration: “Nolan’s Batman trilogy has proceeded on the assumption that what happens on the screen in some way reflects what’s happening in the world, that fantasy and reality are mutually permeable—this is what makes his movies function as political allegories, if at times muddled ones. Why shouldn’t we assume the reverse is true as well—that the grim, violent fantasies we gather to consume as a culture have some power to bleed over from the screen into real life?… James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two.”
First, if he had, the “media” wouldn’t be “cream[ing] over” the resonance between the film and the crime. Second, Nolan’s Batman is indeed a trilogy that has “proceeded,” having begun to claim its sprawling spread across the global cultural landscape nearly seven years ago now. This nonsense about Holmes not having seen Rises specifically makes for a disingenuous argument at best.
Not to pick on Phil Nugent, whose furiously honest entries I’ve enjoyed reading for years. Here, for example, he segues into the crux (and yes, we do have to go there): “Generally speaking, whatever reasons someone might think they have for doing something like this, the proper answer to the question ‘Why did [fill in the blank] do this horrible, senseless thing?’ is ‘He’s a sick fuck.’ You can break that down into many pieces, but the piece that most desperately cries out for elaboration is, invariably, ‘How did this sick fuck get so heavily armed?'”
So now we turn to the other pieces blogged at the New Yorker this weekend. I urgently recommend reading all of Adam Gopnik‘s, but the gist is this: “Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened [Friday] night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.” You might chase his piece down with Alex Koppelman‘s on the reluctance of both Obama and Romney to even mention the issue.
I’ve waded through a lot of “cultural soul-searching” over the past several hours, and I figure I can best serve at this point not as the completist aggregator responsible for the likes of the Rises roundup but rather as a humble noise filter. A few notes, then:
It’s hardly a surprise that Michael Sicinski, writing for Cinema Scope, has given us one of the best reviews of Rises yet; but he’s gone further, attaching a post-Aurora addendum in which he takes measure of the possible unintended impact of his rhetoric.
At Movieline, S.T. VanAirsdale suggests that the movie industry might take on the NRA; a nice idea, Stu, but with all due respect, I do not see that happening.
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw looks back on the history of “copycat crimes,” that is, violent acts supposedly inspired by movies.
David Ehrenstein scoffs at the concern expressed by those reporting this weekend’s box office numbers.
Updates, 8/5: I never really intended to update this entry, but a few pieces have appeared that really shouldn’t be ignored, wherever you stand on the “issues” this event has raised. Very briefly: Francine Prose and Charles Simic have written thoughtful entries for the NYRBlog; Aaron Cutler recommends revisiting Jenny McCartney‘s 2008 piece on The Dark Knight for the Telegraph; in the Guardian, Tom Shone takes on some widely retweeted remarks Peter Bogdanovich has made in the Hollywood Reporter; and more from Mark Asch (L), Paul Constant (Stranger), and Jill Lepore (New Yorker).