I’ve sometimes thought about what would happen if a violent act happened in a movie theater. It’s an incredibly vulnerable place, actually — you go into a dark room with a bunch of strangers, and you all give yourself over to a story. If the movie’s any good, our lives go away for a few hours, and we’re enjoying a collective experience. It can be very intimate — we might be laughing or crying together, enthralled or scared shitless. We hand ourselves over, in the dark, amongst like-minded individuals, essentially to dream.
Last night, though, some of those dreamers never woke up. The lives they sought three hours of escape from managed to get away entirely. We’ve heard the stories before — Columbine, Virginia Tech. Too many of them, always hitting us like a punch to the gut. Almost always, the victims are right where they should be, conducting their day in a sensible manner when the senseless happens. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m an aspiring filmmaker, because I love going to movies so much, and because I go to a movie theater about once a week, if not more — but in the case of the Aurora, Colorado shooting, I feel particularly violated.
I don’t think it’s just me, though. I think there is something particularly perverse about the arena James Holmes chose for yet another mass shooting, perhaps even more perverse than a high school or college or post office or just in the middle of the street. Particularly in the wake of Columbine, there was that whole “blame the media” campaign, and for awhile, violence in movies, music, TV, and video games was closely scrutinized (and briefly sanitized). Does playing first person shooter games desensitize a person to committing such an act in real life? Normally, no. In some cases? Possibly. I don’t care to weigh in on that debate.
But for most of us, there’s always been a very distinct line between what’s real and not. When we go into a movie theater, real goes away. Or at least it’s supposed to. Hopefully we carry the experience with us as we leave, think about it and apply it to our lives, the way we might analyze a dream after waking and say, “Oh, yeah, now I get what it represents, that makes sense.” But not in the moment. It doesn’t work like that, if it’s working at all. It’s horrible that we live in a world where students have to fear going to school because they never know if one of their classmates will decide today’s the day to open fire; and now it’s horrible that we’ll have to walk into theaters eying the exits, taking a careful survey of who’s sitting behind us, what suspicious-looking bags they’ve carried in, maybe jumping a little extra at every crash and bang that state-of-the-art surround sound. It’s horrible that we don’t have that escape anymore.
Of course, no matter what movie this happened at, it’d be an unimaginable tragedy. (Forgive me such phrases. They’re overused — for all the wrong reasons.) It’s too early to know many details of James Holmes’ intent, but it’s clear his choice of The Dark Knight Rises was no coincidence. It’s guaranteed to be one of the year’s biggest blockbusters — even still, though opening weekend numbers will surely be affected — a bona-fide event movie, of which a midnight screening is guaranteed a sold-out crowd ripe for that bloody picking. It’s also an action movie. If James Holmes knows the meaning of the word, which I somewhat doubt, I’ll bet he thought he was being totally “meta.”
But it’s a particularly cruel irony that The Dark Knight trilogy is about this exact sort of violence. Against it, really. I haven’t yet seen The Dark Knight Rises, but even the trailer concerns taking a stand against evil — particularly, the mass-killing variety. (The trailer depicts an attack on a football stadium — another place, like the movies, where people go to kick back and take in some “safe” cathartic violence.) The villains in Batman movies think they’re making pretty grandiose statements about terror, too. Look at Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight for a sterling example of what happens when “deranged” and “deadly” make a baby. It was Oscar-winning. Iconic. One for the ages.
But real-life killers aren’t like that, no matter how infamous the atrocities they commit. We may remember the names of the Columbine shooters… though, now, the Virgina Tech shooter’s escapes me… and many will remember James Holmes’. There is something deeply wrong with these boys and men, who believe the only chance they have of leaving this world with any value or notoriety at all is to rob others of meeting their potential. But just as there was no Batman to swoop in and save the day last night for the 12 people who died in Aurora, there are no villains.
What were his motives? Well, that’s simple. A man who goes into a movie theater at midnight setting off smoke bombs and firing away at innocent civilians is, ultimately, attempting to be “cool.” He wants to stage a scene that’s as awesome as in the movies. He wants to be remembered the way The Joker is. But he won’t be.
Maybe it should go without saying, but killing a bunch of people is no way “cool.” It’s a desperate grab for power by those who have none. It’s pathetic. The movies need villains like Bane and The Joker and The Scarecrow and Catwoman to make grandiose statements about chaos and order and the futility of justice. To provide formidable obstacles for superheroes to overcome. But we don’t.
It’s quite clear enough, every day, all day, what kind of a world we live in. Whatever point a gunman thinks he’s making, we already know. We heard it loud and clear through the gunshots at Virginia Tech, and at Columbine, and in all the stupid slaughters that happened before. We get it. You’re a loser who can’t fix what’s broken in you, who blames people you don’t even know for your own misery, who can’t stand the thought of everybody going about their day not reckoning with your pain. Seriously, guys — we get it already. You won’t be inserted into the rogues gallery of Batman villains, but you have jumped on a bandwagon with some other unsavory types. The Dylan Kleibolds and Eric Harrises and all the rest. You guys should have a lot to talk about.
As for the rest of us? Our only respite from the chaos of the real world is to escape, briefly, into fantasy — a novel or a comic book or TV or a movie, where justice is meted out at a much higher success rate, and even senseless murders have a narrative purpose, at least. It is, of course, too bad this happened at all, but it’s particularly too bad it happened at a movie that thoughtfully deals with these very issues. The Dark Knight trilogy is no brainless popcorn fare, but the very rare studio movie that tackles challenging questions of morality head-on. So few are made already, especially at this level. Unlike many studio filmmakers, Christopher Nolan and company actually set out to make something meaningful, and the people who went to see it last night in Aurora paid to receive that message. We need more movies like this, not less. If ever there was a movie that didn’t need any tacked-on footnote from a hack with a firearm, The Dark Knight Rises is it.
The anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises is pretty much unprecedented for a comic book movie, as far as the marriage of art and commerce goes. It was the one superhero franchise people who like smart, sophisticated, adult entertainment could feel good about. And now? Well, I, for one, know I’ll feel a little uneasy when the lights go down at my screening of The Dark Knight Rises, whenever I choose to see it. Then again, after last night, I’d probably feel the same way at To Rome With Love. Because you just never know.
Why so serious, James Holmes? Things were hard enough before you came along, for you and the rest of us. We only have so much time, and so many chances, to escape these harsh realities. To think about them and comment upon them via entertainment. And you took that from us. I suppose you’re proud of yourself for that.
But if the world had a low opinion of you before, you sure haven’t elevated it. You’re no Bane. No Joker. You’re not even Mr. Freeze as portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It doesn’t take much to give in to the frustrations of the world and give up. It’s not hard to kill a lot of unsuspecting people, if that’s what you’re planning. It doesn’t make you like those comic book criminal masterminds, each with their own colorful backstory as to “why.” Oh, I’m sure you have a “why,” too. They all do. It’s the question on everybody’s lips, the unanswerable enigma. Every time. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
There will inevitably be some kind of fallout from this, and eventually, it will all revert back to the way things were. This tragedy, like the rest, will just be at the very back of our minds. Until the next one.
I hope we can put this behind us. I hope we can go to the movies and not think of James Holmes. I hope we can dream again, together. It’s not Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy but Inception that provides the true metaphor for how the Aurora shootings have affected us — a stranger has invaded our dreams and planted something unwanted there. Will we ever sleep soundly again?
I think we will. Eventually. But first, for awhile, we will have to wonder who, exactly, is sitting there in the dark with us. Another James Holmes? There’s always another.
The trailer warned us there was a storm coming. And now it’s here.