It’s impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what future generations will say about 21st century America. But chances are it won’t be very nice. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps a scholar in the year 3000 will take the time to recognize some individual acts of kindness and compassion. But the historical broad strokes promise to be, at best, unflattering: toleration of genocide. Torture. Horrific poverty. Climate change triggered by rampant materialism and pollution. And shootings. Lots and lots of shootings. The likelihood that our descendants will congratulate us on the invention of the Instagram or Groupon seems terribly, terribly remote.
Sometimes it’s hard being hopeful. That’s especially true after yesterday’s news that twelve people were killed at a midnight premier showing of The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. What a nightmare. And, as both The Onion and The Washington Post correctly observed mere hours after the shooting, it’s a recurring nightmare: sickening, familiar, and absolutely predictable.
Reading about this for the first time yesterday, my first reaction was, “Here we go again.” Like the fictional Americans quoted in the Onion piece, there is little about the Aurora, Colorado shooting that surprises me. With one exception. I have to confess that I was expecting, and even dreading, the tired old debate over the relationship between on and off screen violence. But while there’s been plenty of chatter regarding the obvious similarities between events in The Dark Knight Rises and the shooting that took place during its screening in Colorado, most mainstream media outlets (with a few exceptions) have thus far pushed the subject to the sidelines.
Maybe that’s a good thing. After all, it would be absurd to suggest that The Dark Knight Rises caused James Holmes to kill twelve people and injure dozens more. For starters, unless he’d attended an advance screening, it’s probable that he’s never even seen the film. And even if you want to make an argument that the film’s predecessor, The Dark Knight, may have somehow served as an inspiration for this act of violence, that earlier movie has been out for four years. Millions of people have watched it. But they didn’t do what Holmes did. Even a madman must be held accountable for the choices he makes.
But it would be just as absurd to argue that the film and the atrocity have no connection whatsoever. Jennifer Seeger, a survivor seated in the second row when Holmes started shooting, said, “He had a gas mask on, he had Kevlar and a gun, and I thought it was part of the show at first.” And after all, what is it that makes this Batman different from the Adam West’s? Or Tim Burton’s? It isn’t just style, or an absence of camp. It is Darkness. Nihilism. And Realism. As with any Batman incarnation, Nolan has the impossible gadgets and ridiculous costumes. But there’s a reason why Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for playing The Joker, and Jack Nicholson didn’t. There was something terrifyingly plausible in the randomness of the Ledger/Nolan Joker’s cruelty, and utter contempt for human life. The website Comic Book the Blog, sums it up nicely:
The Heath Ledger Joker was unique among superhero villains. Usually they are bigger than life. Lex Luthor keeps trying to conquer the world, or at least destroy several states. Tim Burton’s Joker was already part of organized crime. Catwoman didn’t kill anyone except a villain who was trying to kill her….In contrast to most other comic book inspired movies, Heath Ledger’s character worked alone and was mainly interested in death and destruction for its own sake, especially if it revealed the worst side of humanity.
The blog’s author, identified only as “Mark,” tackles the issue with a lot more courage than America’s better known critics. Anthony Lane, Roger Ebert, and Glen Weldon are writers whose works I deeply, deeply respect. But their responses to the shooting are disturbingly similar: vague, cautious, and flabby. “…it’s easy to draw connections between film violence and a staggeringly senseless act,” writes Weldon. “Too easy. We look for reasons where no reason exists; we gaze in abject horror at an effect and comfort ourselves by imagining we can divine its cause.” Roger Ebert goes further to convince us that there is absolutely no connection between Holmes’ rampage and the film where he chose to stage it. “In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in. He was like one of those goofballs waving in the background when a TV reporter does a stand-up at a big story.” Lane uses his platform as one of the most respected film critics in the world to assure us that the shooter “needed no model in a fictional monster, just a profound hostility to regular folk who had gathered en masse, with their friends and soda to have fun.”
Wow. Ok then. Pure coincidence. Don’t read too much into this, folks. Nothing to see here. The connection between art and life, is at best, ephemeral. Just go about your daily lives. And for god’s sake, don’t start questioning your impulse to go to the movies.
These pieces were written by men who have built careers upon drawing parallels between life and the art that reflects it. They leave it to the survivors to get it right. “I thought it was part of the show.” Exactly. And there’s a reason that Seeger (who came, at least twice in that theatre, within inches of losing her life) initially mistook Holmes’ entry as part of a choreographed spectacle. There is a connection between real and imaginary violence. Why are we so reluctant to explore it?
Introspection is at best uncomfortable. That’s why our therapists make such a nice living. But what’s difficult for the individual is almost impossible for a society. The Nuremburg trials forced ordinary Germans to confront their complicity and participation with the Nazi regime. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did the same for South Africa. But what about the United States? Who will make us answer for our collective barbarism? The Violence Policy Center center cites an average of 30,288 firearms deaths per year. As is true with healthcare and the death penalty, we’re statistically closer to countries like Colombia and Thailand, while other countries in the “developed” world have handgun deaths in the mere hundreds, or even tens.
America’s bloodlust is even more pronounced when it comes to our foreign policy. I was grateful for President Obama’s words of comfort, but they sounded strange, even offensive coming from a man who legalized indefinite detention, and has refused to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, which employs a list of “enhanced interrogation” techniques including sexual assault and mock executions.
This, then, is the world that The Dark Knight trilogy reflects. And how could it be any different? This Batman is our Batman; this Joker, our Joker; this nightmare, ours to face and confront, but only if we dare.
So, that means that movie violence is just a reflection of the violence that we see in real life, right? Film makers are artists, after all, and can’t be held responsible for a senseless act of madness. They are exempt from moral responsibility, being merely the abstract and brief chronicles of the time – but not the time itself.
To paraphrase an earlier comment, that’s just too easy. And let me be clear, I am not holding Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, or anyone else associated with The Dark Knight trilogy responsible for the deaths in Aurora. I’m holding us all responsible. That’s right, you. And, me. And everyone in America who pays taxes and consumes pop culture. My wife and I parent a little boy who is about to turn nine, and that we have to wrestle with the question of on screen violence every bloody day. “Dad, when can I see The Avengers?” “Mom, there’s nothing wrong with X-Men!” “Guys, I’m totally old enough to see the new Batman movie!” And even though the extent of Nick’s computer game time is limited to Angry Birds and the low-tech curiosities of his old school Gameboy, Wendy and I notice that the content of his consumption affects his behavior. After a half hour of playing his X-Men game, his behavior becomes more aggressive. Ghostbusters or Scooby Doo, not so much. Wow, what a shock! Our experiences actually affect our behavior! Who would have ever dreamed it possible?
Here’s the thing: if we agree that this latest round of shootings has precedent (the tragedies in Columbine and Virginia, for example), then by definition, this latest one isn’t random. It’s part of a pattern that threatens to continue, and possibly get worse. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the victims, survivors, and law enforcement officials who were present on the morning of July 20th. They reacted. They responded. They tried to get out. And they risked (and in some cases gave) their lives to make it stop. How can we follow their example?
Gun control seems like a ridiculously obvious solution. If my seventh grade theatre class had a history of causing injuries with dangerous objects, I would take those dangerous objects away from them. I’ll bet our president would do the same with his own daughters. But he won’t do it with his own country: on Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney gave us the same old Democratic party blue dog dodge: “…the president believes we need to take common-sense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of Americans while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing laws do not get them.” And that’s exactly what he will continue to believe until enough of us to convince him and other elected officials to do otherwise.
But what about art? That one is much more difficult. I am no fan of our Second Amendment, but I love and revere our First. Artists have a constitutional right to produce whatever they wish. So you can understand why our major film critics are backing away from the tough questions: they lead to more tough questions, especially regarding our collective role as participants in elective democracy, not to mention creators and consumers of pop culture.
The answer, in this case, is not legislation, but conversation. Sure, an artist has every right to stage violence in any way that s/he sees fit. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Ours is an age of relentless irony and tiring post modernity. If I’m morally outraged, then I obviously just don’t get the joke. Or the critique. Or the message. Ok. Fine. Maybe I’m just getting old. Or old fashioned. Or maybe that now I’m a father, I’m just a hell of a lot more fearful. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that sometimes, maybe sometimes, a movie about a guy blowing up a whole lot of innocent people might not be anything more than…a movie about a guy blowing up a whole lot of innocent people.
Our son Nicholas heard some of the Colorado news story on the radio. My wife and I turned it off, and tried to answer his questions as best we could. It was hard, but while his evident distress concerned us, I found his empathy reassuring. Yet for some strange reason, there was something else in my conversations with Nick that day that reassured me even more.
Nick and I talked about another comic book, one that I’m sure you’ve never heard of. For over a year, Nick and his best friend have been developing a piece called Mr. Gumdrop the eponymous hero of their emerging work. Mr. Gumdrop hates the rain, and when it rains (as it often does here in Oregon), he stomps on the sidewalk, which opens a portal to another dimension called Mr. Gumdrop world. There, the protagonist has a series of adventures with both friends and adversaries, including Mr. Alien Dude, Mr. Eyeball Dude, and Bob.
As we took our dogs to the park yesterday, Nick described Mr. Gumdrop in remarkably lengthy detail. It was a much needed distraction from the harrowing news of the day. My favorite character is a figure that Nick calls simply “Stranger.” “You see, Dad, Stranger used to be a bad guy? And he was with the other bad guys? But then, after Mr. Gumdrop came through the portal, Stranger decided he was tired of being a bad guy. So he joined up with Mr. Gumdrop, and now they work together. Stranger’s not a bad guy anymore.”
Biased though I am, I realize that my son’s accomplishments are not on par with Christopher Nolan’s. But if there is a relationship between life and art, then that relationship exists between all life and art, especially when it comes to children. Nick’s Stranger gives me a sense of profound hope and encouragement. Of the possibility that our behavior isn’t fixed. That change is in fact possible. That perhaps, if we continue to look for the right portal, that a different world awaits us, where the task of profound introspection is not just possible, but even fun.
But guess what? That portal won’t open without stomping. And if you feel inclined to stomp, you’d damn well better put your foot down. Do it now, before it’s too late.
July 21, 2012