This being a movie blog, I thought it necessary to address the mass shooting that took place Thursday night at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) in suburban Denver, Colorado. A lone twenty-four-year-old gunman named James Holmes shot and killed twelve people, wounding at least 58 others, including people as young as only a few months old. In the rush of news updates, these estimates are subject to change, and soon I suspect we’ll learn more about the movie-going victims.*
My nightly ritual consists of watching ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and each news program dedicated last night’s episode to coverage of the horrific event and its aftermath. They were both hard to watch for a number of reasons, chief among them the featured amateur cellphone video of blood-soaked people exiting the multiplex and the repetition of terrifying eyewitness accounts. Tears welled up in my eyes, and sometimes I angrily shouted at the TV. Why did you bring your little children to a midnight movie screening? Why this movie in particular? I feel ashamed for so harshly judging people I don’t know personally, and I am thankful that Holmes’s attack didn’t produce even more casualties. I also couldn’t help but wonder, how could his mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, reportedly say, upon first hearing that her son has been arrested, that the authorities indeed have the right man? She possibly knew he was capable of such an atrocity and never thought to alert anyone that her son is a potential threat to society?
It has been widely reported that Holmes either dyed his hair red or wore a red wig to mimic Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), that he even announced—to the unassuming crowd watching the movie in Theater 9 before he started gunning people down and/or to the arresting police officers—that he was The Joker. Again, we won’t know the truth behind these details as everyone is still corroborating testimonials and processing exactly what happened. So it remains unclear what the relationship is between this hotly anticipated movie and Holmes’s intentions to massacre people. I agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote yesterday in The New York Times that Holmes more likely perpetrated his deadly actions in order to garner fame, infamy, or some twisted recognition rather than act out a movie-inspired fantasy. Seeing how the TV news media responded, devoting whole programs to “Tragedy in Colorado: Movie Theater Massacre,” makes me cringe, too. They’re just giving him what he wants, and they’re sensationalizing, I thought.
But I know one thing for sure, and it took me a while to make this realization: I won’t be going to see The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, and in fact, I’m not sure when I will feel comfortable going to the theater to do so.
I’m not a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy; his movies are long, pretentious, and moralizing. However, I had thought I was going to see it because, as I have previously stated, I am interested in what people go to see. I do want to be part of a larger conversation. How could I justify standing on the sidelines, lambasting so-called mainstream audiences’ tastes in movies, if I don’t watch them, too, to form my own informed opinions? (The Dark Knight Rise‘s first controversy this week involved movie aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes having to shut down their comments section because fans who hadn’t even seen the film yet were bullying or threatening film critics who published negative reviews.) A dear friend of mine tried unsuccessfully to convince me to go to a midnight screening; I had no desire to see a 164-minute-long movie at that hour in a packed, claustrophobic theater. Besides, I told him, so many special screenings are sold-out or nearly sold-out, making it more difficult to secure tickets. Despite the Colorado tragedy, the movie has grossed over $30 million from midnight screenings alone, and it remains to be seen how its grosses will eventually be made public since its distributor, Warner Bros., and other movie studios have pledged not to report the numbers out of respect for the victims and their families.
The main reason I’m not going to see the movie is because I think it will be too traumatic an experience. I cannot imagine what the people in Theater 9 have gone through, but I am certain that I won’t be able to concentrate on the film unspooling on-screen because I will be thinking about how all those innocent people eagerly attended a movie they’d been waiting months—maybe years—to see, at first perplexed that one cinemagoer seemed to perform a movie stunt tie-in at the front until it became clear what his true intentions were. I echo the film director’s sentiment, released as a public statement: “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” I have even written a short essay about my love of going to the movies, getting lost in the dark amid celluloid shadows and strangers. The piece is for a humor writing contest, and I have yet to submit it. I’m a little apprehensive to turn it in without mentioning what happened in Colorado, even if my memories of movie-going are overwhelmingly positive—funny even—and have nothing to do with the violence of the theater.
Truth is, I don’t know when I will be ready to go to the theater to see any movie. It’s all still so raw.
Some have expressed concern that this will negatively impact The Movies (Rebecca Macatee of E! Online is already labeling the newest Batman sequel a “would-be blockbuster,” given what’s transpired). I don’t think most people who have really wanted to see The Dark Knight Rises will stay away. All the power to them, I say. We cannot let one crazed man’s fatal attacks deter us from doing the things we love. We cannot live our lives in fear, to paraphrase Barry Otto in Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992). We should pressure President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to address the issue of gun control while on the campaign trail, as their tepid expressions of sorrow and compassion are not enough. (Their track records on the issue are not comforting if we’re looking for change, either.)
When it comes to Hollywood and cinema more generally, I do hope that studios, producers, and filmmakers reflect on their storytelling practices and recognize that they could make some changes, too, beyond re-editing the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and yanking TV spots and trailers for it and the upcoming Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer, 2012), which features a scene involving men powering machine guns through a movie screen, firing on the audience. I am not blaming anyone for what happened in Theater 9 other than James Holmes, but the fact that violence is so permissible in movies, often glamorized or sensationalized, is a cultural problem. Many of us have become anesthetized to graphic representations of violence, accustomed to watching people, buildings, cities, and even the world blow up on-screen. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of us know that this is not real, but there are those who might fetishize these images and seek to replicate them in the real world because the consequences of violence are barely ever the subject of sustained cinematic inquiry. One recent example of this more desirable filmic exploration comes to mind, though: Lynne Ramsay’s stark, impressionistic portrait of a mother coming to terms with the attack her teenage son perpetrated at school in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). It is a challenging, beautiful movie, and I guarantee it will stick with you. If more films addressed the viscerality and destructiveness of violence, perhaps they would remind us all that it is never cool, never something we should wish to emulate.
* The New York Times has just published (circa 10.30 pm on Saturday, July 21st ) the names of the twelve victims as well as the first in-depth attempt to get a handle on James Holmes’s character.