The Autumning Empire

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The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.Wow! The 2014 Oscar nominees have just been announced, and nobody is more excited than The Autumning Empire!

But how can we express our excitement, especially through social media where our opinions are so highly valued and so thoroughly masticated, swallowed, and digested? Never fear! The Autumning Empire is here with your very own Academy Award Social Media Mad Lib! Simply cut and paste the Mad Lib below, insert the appropriate parts of speech and numbers into those parenthetical sections, and presto! You have an opinion! Better hurry, though! You wouldn’t want to be bested by your “friends” now, would you? There’s lots of “nominees,” “but” “only” “one” “winner”!

2014 Social Media Oscar Mad Lib!



But what’s up with (ROBERT REDFORD)? Why’d they (VERB) him? That Academy! Every time they just (VERB) him and (VERB) him and (VERB) him! He was so good in “Barefoot in the Park”! I’m sure he was just as good in (THAT FILM I KEEP MEANING TO SEE BUT NEVER WILL). Oh well! Just goes to show you that the Oscars (ADVERB) get it (ADJECTIVE)!



David Berkson

January 16, 2014

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.


The Krypton Code of Silence: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About 9/11

Man of SteelIf you’ve noticed a disturbing trend in summer action films, you’re definitely not alone. Earlier this month on Vulture, Kyle Buchanan wrote a piece that finally gives voice to our moral misgivings by asking: “Is It Possible to Make a Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11? ”

Using Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as his point of departure, Buchanan indicts all our summer action fests, writing, “Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.”

American movies have been serving up generous helpings of mass carnage since Gone With the Wind. What’s new is a calcifying indifference to the human cost of violence. Buchanan cites cineplex orgies such Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers, World War Z, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But he saves his most blistering attack for Man of Steel:

(Superman) seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; Man of Steel 2similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, goes further, calling the film’s “intentional” referencing of 9/11 as “evil” and “sick.” These strong and convincing charges are made on the latest installment of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m a huge fan of this show; it’s the only podcast I listen to every week. And I’m an even bigger fan of Weldon: he’s one of the few pop culture critics out there who’ll rip into the moral core of a movie or TV show without getting self righteous. But as I continued to listen to the conversation, I realized that something wasn’t sitting right. For some reason, I had a feeling that an important part of the equation was being left out or ignored.

Spiderman 2After a while, I figured out what it was. A little later in the podcast, Man of Steel is pejoratively compared to two other superhero films that were made a few years back. Chris Klimek, a guest on the Pop Culture Happy Hour panel,  recalls two extraordinary moments of ordinary heroism dramatized in Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, respectively. Each film has a moment when at least one non-super hero character steps up in the face of danger and chooses to do the right thing. With no super powers or gadgets to protect them, these ordinary crowd members stand up and show us that we, too, can be heroes. What makes these cinematic moments so special is that they have “nothing to do with Batman” or Spiderman, but are, as Klimek puts it, a way of saying to the audience: “Hooray for us.”

I’m not sure if this is what he was going for, but by citing these two films, Klimek takes the 9/11 theory and turns it upside down. Sam Rami’s Spiderman 2 was released in 2004, three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit the theatres is 2008. Both films are much closer to 9/11 than this summer’s Man of Steel. If what we’re seeing on our screens today is the movie industry’s response to 9/11, then why has it taken Hollywood so long?

The answer is: it hasn’t. If you want to see Hollywood’s real response to 9/11, look to those earlier superhero films from the mid-2000s. To get a sense of how the attack initially impacted us, let’s look at the speech Bill Clinton made to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, while Spiderman 2 was playing in theatres:

Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all just wanted to be one nation. Not a single American on September the Clinton12th, 2001, cared who won the next presidential election. All we wanted to do was to be one country, strong in the fight against terror, helping to heal those who were wounded and the families of those who lost their loved ones, reaching out to the rest of the world so we could meet these new challenges and go on with our democratic way of life.

That’s not to say that in the days, months, and immediate years after 9/11, contempt for human life was completely absent from the world of American pop culture. (Anyone remember 24?) But the beauty of those earlier superhero movies is that they offered us something else: hope.  It’s the real life heroism of 9/11’s first responders – the firefighters, the policemen, and the medics – that Rami and Nolan paid tribute to in their mythical metropolitan chaos. It is saying a lot that a film as grim and nihilistic as The Dark Knight could give us even one of those moments – one that Klimeck remembers as earning audience applause when it first played in theaters.

So if films from the mid-2000s represent Hollywood’s response to 9/11, then what are we to make of today’s blood free genocidal building smashing action porn? Bill Clinton’s 2004 speech gives us another clue:

(President George W. Bush) had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies… (by) attacking Iraq…

Oh right. Iraq. Afghanistan. Those would be Washington’s response to 9/11. Buchanan hits the bull’s eye in his use of the term “collateral damage.” It is a well worn phrase employed by our military, the world’s largest, when referring to civilian casualties when we are the aggressors. Man of Steel and films of its ilk may think that they are about 9/11, and their use of its iconography must surely be intentional. But what the summer blockbusters of the 2010s truly represent are America’s  numbness to a perpetual state of war.

“There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them.” Kind of sounds like the American public. After all, Zack Snyder isn’t just a Hollywood director. He’s a United States citizen. That means he’s had over a decade’s worth of practice at ignoring the human cost of war.  The combined financial cost of both Iraq and Afghanistan  will run anywhere between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. As for collateral damage in Iraq, estimates range from 113,185 to 123,900 civilian deaths since 2003. For Afghanistan, the number is somewhere between 16,725 to 19,013 since the war began 13 years ago in 2001.

Oh, well.Seems like yesterday’s news, doesn’t it? With the U.S. reducing its military presence in both countries, Americans list foreign policy at the bottom of their list of concerns. How can our summer blockbusters reflect two wars that everyone wants to forget?

By helping us to forget them. By erasing the blood from the moral equation of violence. Battles don’t kill people; they just smash a lot of buildings and blow things up. Ten years ago, it was possible to believe that truth, justice, and the American Way were all members of  the same happy family. Today, a majority of Americans believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. What is the Obama administration’s most ambitious foreign policy goal? Hunting down the man who exposed its secret spy program. Complain if you want to, but most Americans support our in his quest to track down Edward Snowden and put the criminal behind bars.

And so, once again, when Buchanan writes about our alter egos, he reflects a hidden and deeply troubling truth that plagues our national character:

“Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now…

…they can only avenge them.”



David Berkson

June 25, 2013

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Les Critiques Misérables: The Tears, The Book, and The Backlash

Les Miz BackgroundThe Revenge of the Blogosphere

“Last night I went to a showing of Les Misérables,” writes blogger Matt Walsh. “And when I say ‘went to’ I mean ‘hogtied and dragged at gun point by my wife, her sister and her mom’.” Walsh then summarizes Hollywood’s 2012 adaptation of the London/Broadway musical:

You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”

I guess that means he didn’t like it. And unlike the film’s characters, he’s not alone. A student of mine named Annabel, fed up with all the Les Miz hype, shared Walsh’s blog on Facebook with the following herald: “World, I give you someone who hates Les Miz more than I.” The responses to his blog and her share were immediate and enthusiastic: “I’m alone in a world of Les Miz lovers so I’m glad I’ve found someone else.”

Of all the possible targets for backlash, Les Miz is by far the backlashiest. The Sweeping Love Story. The Historical Drama. The Based-On-A-Novel Pedigree of Respectability. The Obvious Bait for the Oscars. The fact that it’s kind of European. There are so many pretty costumes. There are so many pretty actors magnificently endowed (for the most part) with pretty voices.  And above all, the film is ubiquitous; the hype for Les Miz is just about everywhere. Omigod, you have see it. And you have to like it. In fact, you have to love Les Miz, lest the film and its disciples pursue you like Javert right down to the sewer’s bottom as you scramble in vain for escape.

Put David Denby into the mix, and suddenly your backlash has the dubious hue of respectability. Here’s a critic who wasn’t even assigned to review Les Miz; Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s other film critic, was given the task instead. But Denby’s is a voice that will not be silenced. The blogs of Denby and Walsh have pently in common, only Walsh is a much better writer. To be honest with you, there’s something kind of unsettling about reading Denby’s  There’s Still Hope for People Who Love Les MisIt’s sort of like coming downstairs and finding your uncle, the middle aged college professor, nursing a mean old hangover while he’s paddling around in his bathrobe shouting out at anyone who will listen about everything wrong with the world:

This movie is not just bad…it’s terrible…

 (Hugh) Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays.

The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise.

 I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.

Wow. I guess people who love Les Miz must be really stupid, huh? Whereas Walsh’s manifesto is pure  Lester Bangs vitriol, Denby takes it upon himself to educate his ignorant readers of the finer distinctions between high culture and low, fine cinema and poor, good taste and bad. “I want to render a public service,” he begins in an apparent attempt at irony. But by the piece’s end, it is clear that the critic means business:

…our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes.

Gee, Uncle Dave, I guess things were a lot better back in your day. Denby’s public service is recommending a bunch classic American musicals (Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, etc.) as a cure for those of us who were dumb enough to be moved by Les Miz’s transparent sentimentality. Call me crazy, but I’ll bet Denby’s blog didn’t generate a run on Gene Kelly musicals at Netflix.

The Critic’s Curse

Oscar Wilde once warned us: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.” And truth be told, I shouldn’t be so hard on Denby. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of spending more than five minutes with me at a party can probably tell you the moment he wished I was dead. “What do you mean you didn’t like (Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, Dead Poets Society, Whatever)? Can’t you just sit back and enjoy it? Do you have get all analytical and think about everything? Aren’t movies supposed to be fun? They’re not? Oh Jesus, fine then, have your opinion, but for god’s sake, keep it to yourself, because I like this movie!”

Sorry. And I get it. I really do. The “I have a right to like this” response is especially intense when part of the package is music. Stacy Wolf writes in The Washington Post:

There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when it’s connected to childhood; it reminds us of where we were in our lives when we first heard it. “Les Miz” feeds our hunger for familiarity in the present as well. The music is seductive because it’s repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if it’s our first time watching.

Of all Les Miz’s reviews, Wolf’s is the best. “Les Misérables should have feminists up inJackman & H arms,” she writes. “But I can’t help it: I love Les Miz.” She then proceeds to point out what should have been painfully obvious all along: women barely drive the plot. They live – and often give up – their lives for their men, their children, or both. Their roles are always subordinate, never primary. Rather than act, they merely “emote, propelling others to action.”

Yet unlike David Denby, Wolf never lectures us, or chastises. “Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.” For all her unflattering commentary, Wolf implicitly understands a little known cultural maxim: the critic who mistakes himself for a missionary is miserably doomed to fail. I’ll try to remember that the next time I go to a party.

Now Is The Time For Your Tears

But when it comes to a mega cultural event like Les Miz, passions prove hard to temper. I understand why Annabel and her posse feel so alone: the vast majority of my students love this piece. And when they talk with me, it seems pretty clear that they want me to love it, too. That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to tell them the truth: I find Les Miz phenomenon extremely troubling. It’s not so much the film itself, but the public’s response, which always begins with a confession that everyone makes after telling you they’ve just seen the movie.

“I cried.”

Almost without fail that is what leads.  I cried. Students, relatives, friends, and colleagues, they all tell me the same story. I cried, I cried, and I cried.

And, for the record: so did I. Lots of sad things happen in this story, so crying seems like a normal, healthy response. At least it was for me. But I’ve also cried during lots of other films like To Kill a Mockingbird and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with people about both of these movies, I’ve never talked about my tears. I’ve never heard anybody else talk about theirs, either. No, the usual conversations center around what happened in the movie: the story, the performances, or a particularly exciting scene. That’s not to say that these things don’t get discussed with Les Miz, but they’re never the first to be mentioned. The first thing is always: I cried.

What’s going on here? Why is this movie different? Why does Les Misérables make you focus on the intensity of your own emotional response?

The answer is simple: that’s what the film is about. Your emotions. Not emotions in the general or the abstract, but your emotions, yours personally, the ones that you privately feel. Because in this case, it is all about you. The costumes, the sets, and especially the story’s historical context – these are all bait to get you hooked in on the movie’s real subject: You. Me. Us. We – and our capacity to feel, to hurt, to suffer. So don’t feel bad if you’re in the omigodIcried club, because you fundamentally get this film in a way that the likes of Denby never, ever will. Les Miserables understands your sufferings. It suffers with you. It embraces your suffering, and wants you to suffer more, and cry as you suffer together.

hathaway criesWhat is the cause of your suffering? A-a-ah, don’t go there! Shhhh. Les Miz doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t even care why its own characters suffer. Poverty and injustice are certainly part of the plot, but in this film they quickly recede to the background and prove to be little more than a MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for the thing that sets the plot in motion, but is ultimately of little importance). Hurry up and get to Fantine so she can just start singing and cry. Quick, get those strappingly handsome political activists up in arms so we can be inspired by their awesome, youthful commitment to whatever it is that they’re awesomely and youthfuly committed to. And for God’s sake, closeups! Get me closeups! More and more closeups so I can see the pores, the tears, the sweat, and every angsty crease of the sweet and indomitable pain. Let the space between the actor and me evaporate, let all else cease to exist, so there may only be us in our beautiful new bonded struggle. I am Fantine. I am Valjean. I am Éponine. My suffering is her suffering. Her song is my song. Our tears are one.

Les Misérables Buy The Book. 

Ok, wait. Isn’t all art manipulative? Aren’t we supposed to identify with a film’s or a book’s protagonists? Sure we are. So perhaps we can say that there’s nothing wrong with this spectacle of mega personal identification. That it’s ok to become lost in a cathartic world of escape that is uniquely and entirely personal. Yes, I think we can say that. Until we read Victor Hugo’s preface to his 1862 novel Les Misérables, and realize that once upon a time all of this was supposed to be about something a little bit bigger:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells Death of Fantine
amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of
Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Unless we all fail to make use of them. Whatever praises the Schonberg/Kretzmer musical adaptation has earned – and its strengths are certainly legit – no one can credibly argue that its current cinematic incarnation shows any real concern with pauperism or hunger, the plight of children or social asphyxia, and certainly not ignorance or poverty. The production budget for Les Miserables was $61 million. And even though it’s currently in fourth place at the box office (Texas Chainsaw 3D is now at the top) Les Miz is well on its way towards doubling its initial investment with a box office take of over $104 million.

That’s an awful lot of money. I mean, sure, it’s a lot less than Avatar (#1 box office earner of all time) or The Avengers (#3) or even Transformers: Dark of the Moon which is – would you believe it – the fifth highest grossing movie in the history of the world, coming in at $1,123.7 million (beating out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 and The Dark Night Rises). I guess next to those behemoths, $103 million seems like a paltry little art house sum.

HugoStill, a hundred million’s nothing to sneeze at. And besides, the Transformers franchise is nothing but pure fantasy; it has no conscience to betray. Les Misérables is a different matter. Its creator Victor Hugo was an important political activist and infamous provocateur. His 1830 play Hernani was so ahead of its time that during the course of its two-month run fistfights routinely broke out in the theatre. After Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Hugo went into exile on the island of Guernsey for almost 20 years, where he wrote, among other works, Les Misérables. His commitment to social equality was clearly spelled out in his last will and testament, a five-sentence document that reads:

Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard. Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les Eglises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes. Je crois en Dieu.

Translated into English: “I give 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I refuse the prayers of the churches. I ask for a prayer for all souls. I believe in God.”

Victor Hugo died in 1885, one hundred years before the musical adaptation of his masterwork Les Miserables premiered in London; 2 million people attended his funeral. Were he alive today, against what forms of social asphyxia, ignorance, and poverty might he turn the power of his pen? Perhaps he would write about infant mortality. In the world 6.9 million children under the age of 5 died in 2011. That’s 19,000 children dead per day of  entirely preventable diseases.

Or maybe the creator of prisoner 24601 might turn an eye to the United States, which has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. These rates are hardly equitable. Young black men make up a disproportionate number of  our prisoners: in 2008, 37% of America’s black men between the ages of 18-34 were behind bars. What’s more, it is clear that many American prisoners of all races are not guilty of the crimes for which they serve. As of today 301 people have been exonerated through DNA testing; 18 had been awaiting execution on death row. Those exonerations came at great cost; according the Innocence Project,“These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.”

Be honest. Did any of these issues cross your mind when you watched Les Miz? Or were you like me: crying with Hugh Jackman and getting carried away with the music, the spectacle, and the power of your own emotions. Besides, what do you expect from a blockbuster movie? It’s not a documentary; it’s entertainment. And of course it made millions of dollars. That’s what Hollywood movies are supposed to do. I don’t want to pay $10 to see some movie and think about infant mortality or how many people are locked up in American prisons. And it’s not that I don’t care. I do care, really, really I do. But those people, you know, the people who are dying or in prison or whatever, those people aren’t me. Fantine is. And Jean Valjean. And Éponine. I identify with them. And the other people? The ones out there, outside of my darkened world of crying? They’re not really a part of my life. They’re just…well, they’re different. They’re the Unfortunates. The Outsiders. Les Misérables.

Bad criticism seeks to inspire personal shame at our gauche and abominable taste. Great critics like Victor Hugo seek to inspire collective shame so society can get off its ass and make the world better . The tragedy of inequality is in our failure to act against it. Is it absurd to expect Broadway or Hollywood to bring about fundamental social change? Perhaps. After all, the business of show business is business. Or, as Lily Tomlin used to say, they don’t call it “show art.”

Besides, the fault is not with Hollywood. That hundred million dollars is our money. We spent it on Les Miz. And Transformers. And The Hobbit. And hundreds of other forms of escapist fare while children die and the innocent rot in prison. Victor Hugo never intended for Les Misérables (or Les Miz) to distract us from these inequities. His work was to be of use.

Well? There’s no reason why we can’t use it. Interested in working to end world hunger? Donate to UNICEF now. Does it bother you that taxpayer dollars are incarcerating people for crimes they did not commit? Make a contribution to The Innocence Project. These are admittedly small steps, but to my mind they honor Hugo’s legacy far more our drops of sweet cinematic tears. If Les Misérables does nothing else, it shows with stunning clarity and power the urgent need to work for justice and social equity. Because in the end, Jean Valjean’s compassion and generosity know no bounds. Through his relationships with Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and finally even Javert, he learns that the world is a place where we are never truly alone. He  and the rest of us have an obligation to society, and his tireless work on its behalf is transformative, even redemptive. Les Misérables was never meant to distract us from our social ills, but wake us up so we could fight them. If we rise to Hugo’s challenge, then we may still cry. But our tears might now mean something different.

If not? Well then, rest assured that when it comes to Les Miz….

…it’s really still all about you.

David Berkson

January 8, 2013

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Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.




Our Darkest Knight: Ignoring the Truth About Art and Life

 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.

David Berkson

July 21, 2012

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