The National Conversation: What Our Response to Aurora, CO Says About Us

Comments (1) Film

I really don’t like writing about politics, so I suppose I’ll start by saying that this won’t be a political post at all. Roger Ebert—a much older, wiser man than I—wrote two different pieces about the major political debate stemming from the shootings in Aurora, Colorado; one in the New York Times, and one on his blog. He introduced the blog post on Facebook with the sentence “I won’t change a single mind,” and he’s right. The “debate” about gun control will continue on as a shouting match with little room for reasoned debate, and the events of July 20 will do little to move people on either side of the fence. Few, if any, shootings have.

When I returned from a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises early Friday morning, I immediately knew what’d happened in Colorado: Both President Obama and Mitt Romney were issuing statements of grief to the tragedy-stricken town, and, on Tumblr, I was witness to a deluge of tribute imagery. The next day, articles began popping up on the internet with titles like “Why ‘The Dark Knight Rises?'” There was talk that major theatre chains were going to ban customers from wearing costumes to midnight showings. A Representative from Texas postulated that the shootings may not have happened in a more god-fearing nation, and he wondered why nobody in the theatre had thought to bring their gun along. As the body count was finalized and the composition of the audience in Aurora became known, a legion of internet warriors took to their soap boxes to shame the parents who’d taken their young child to the new Batman movie, insinuating that violent films practically egg on events like this despite the relatively brief history of violence in movie theatres.

Thousands of midnight screenings of hundreds of hugely hyped films have happened for longer than anybody cares to think about, all without a hint of violence. Heck, thousands of screenings of The Dark Knight Rises happened on the same night as the shooting in Aurora. Why does nobody shame the parents of children who saw a midnight screening of Brave? Had the shooting happened during a different movie, would a blog post titled “Why Ice Age 4: Continental Drift?” be bothered with? (A Slate article helpfully pointed out that the gunman didn’t choose a screening of Happy Feet Two.) If something like this took place during one of many packed midnight showings of Magic Mike, would David Simond’s cartoon above instead depict a chaps-clad Channing Tatum kneeling down to place a bouquet of roses down in front of the movie theatre? Not likely, because none of those films involved Batman.

I recently moved back home, and, as a result, I’ve seen more TV news than at any point in the past six years. While the medium (and news media in general) has its merits, it is just as likely to talk around an issue as the news-board commentators engaging in victim-blaming. On Friday, amidst Obama and Romney’s remarks and pundit speculation that the mass shooting would make gun control a hot button issue on the campaign trail, entertainment news analysts, noting canceled premiers and reports that a theatre shooting scene in Warner’s upcoming Gangster Squad had been excised from a trailer and possibly the film itself, wondered aloud what the shooting would mean for The Dark Knight Rises‘ box office gross. This struck me as unconscionable, tying the success or failure of something as ultimately trivial as a weekend movie premiere to something as sad and important as a shooting, but it quickly became laughable in the wake of dozens of articles somehow implicating one of three parties: The government, the audience, and Batman.

Batman, of course, must be held accountable, much like violent video games and Marilyn Manson were taken to task in the aftermath of Columbine, an event that has not escaped mention this weekend. Also held under close scrutiny is the concept of fandom itself: Not only did the shooter identify himself to the police as The Joker, but the shootings took place in a week where film critics with a negative outlook on Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie received death threats for sullying a perfect, 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On, in the article actually titled “Why ‘The Dark Knight Rises?'” writer Elisabeth Rappe recalls what it was like for fans of The Matrix after Columbine, people who took after Neo and Trinity to the extent that they wore trenchcoats to school so soon after a national tragedy. In short, it wasn’t easy being a geek. No. Things were worse than ever.

Rappe’s article goes on to say that the same thing that happened to trenchcoat-wearing Matrix fans back then is going to happen to movie lovers and comic book nerds. She calls it “the price of going mainstream” and says that “we have to defend the integrity of the fandom we’ve all seen and experienced.” Given an article in yesterday’s L.A. Times entitled “The Big Picture: A message too ‘Dark’ for all?” Rappe’s fears seem justified. In it, Patrick Goldstein writes that the killer “wore a gas mask during his shooting spree that obscured his face, not unlike the ventilator mask worn by the villain in the film,” nevermind that gas masks, in addition to being intimidating, do a bang-up job against the effects of tear gas, which he used. And he must have been a nerd, otherwise he could have found his audience “at a crowded baseball game or pop concert,” ignoring the fact that major arenas have what suburban movie theatres often lack: metal detectors, dedicated security, police details, and so on. This from an article published in a major newspaper with two days to sit and really, really think about the killer and his motive. So of course, it must be Batman.

It has to be Batman because nothing we’ll ever learn about the shooting will be completely satisfactory, and this is in an instance where the killer has been apprehended. And the so-called geek culture (honestly, it’s tough to take this kind of labeling seriously after the billion dollar success of The Avengers and the proliferation of nearly every formerly geeky obsession in the cultural mainstream) will hem and haw that it is being put down by the pretty people on the news and the normal men and women sitting right next to them at the next screening of The Dark Knight Rises because it is much easier to see the world in terms of “us vs. them” than it is to rationalize the actions of a man like James Holmes.

(Believe me, I know. It has been five years since Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son before killing himself, and there are still small put-upon wrestling fans who believe that Benoit’s actions slighted them, that it slighted wrestling. There are still others who are upset that the WWE has banished Benoit to all but the most vague statements in its official history, that it does nothing with the hundreds of Chris Benoit matches it owns, that he will never be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Again, they’re the slighted ones here.)

In Edward Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, it is argued that Americans have come to require a constant wave of external validation. In a way, that’s why I’m writing this blog: in this hope that somebody will read it and agree with me and tell me how good a person I am or how well I write. It’s also precisely why the national conversation surrounding the shooting in Aurora, Colorado has had so much to do with the movie that happened to draw the crowd. In publicly venting dismay, one seeks validation by saying “I, too, am a fan. I, too, am wounded,” creating community in a void. By wondering if Batman’s to blame and reporting on the event like Christopher Nolan’s juiced-up fascist supervillain of fantasy is interchangeable with the deranged young man of reality, one is able to skirt real discussion in favor of something much sexier: trumped-up controversy. At this point, both should be fairly unpalatable.

Instead, we soldier on with our tribute images and our distasteful memes and our talking heads. And we’re not alone in our guilt. The image that begins this post, with its gun-smoke billowing out of the open doors of the Cinema 16, was printed in a British newspaper. Those worried about The Dark Knight Rises‘ meaningless battle for box office supremacy can simultaneously take heart knowing that it grossed somewhere around $160 million “despite tragedy” and grouse that, were it not for the 3D upcharge, it’d be well on its way to beating The Avengers. Those wanting to do something nice for the victims while simultaneously not doing anything at all can retweet one of thousands of tweets reading something along the lines of “RT this if you believe Aurora will #rise” or like one of hundreds of Facebook proposals that Christian Bale dress as Batman and visit the children who were in the theatre that night, which is as wrong-headed as it is good-intentioned.

All I know is that the conversation needs to change. This can’t be a Batman issue (there shouldn’t be such things as Batman issues), and while it may make some people better to look at a picture of Batman crying or asking The Punisher to drop in on the killer, it really shouldn’t. Despite the trappings, this wasn’t and can’t be painted as an attack on our way of life or our means of entertainment. It wasn’t an attack on a fictional character, who, by all accounts, did just fine. Real people were shot by a real person with real guns, and anybody looking beyond the tangible realms of reality for a source of blame are fooling themselves. Anybody looking to make Batman the hero or villain of this story is doing a disservice to those affected. I was watching ABC News this afternoon when a well-dressed man said that millions of Americans turned out to see The Dark Knight Rises to send a message to the gunman. How ridiculously patronizing. Millions of Americans went to see The Dark Knight Rises for the sake of seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Sometimes a movie is important. Sometimes a movie is just a movie. Movies, however, cannot be martyrs. It would be best if we remembered that.