Friday, July 20, 2012

Haunted screens: 'The Dark Knight Rises,' Aurora, and spectatorship

I had already planned on writing a separate piece this weekend on the cultural and political prisms of The Dark Knight Rises, in addition to a review. In my mind, it would be a close (as much as can be allotted off of one viewing) look at how the politics of Batman have changed over the three films in accordance with the changing political landscape.

But after this morning, all of that seems feeble. For not. Pointless. As pointless as a Rush Limbaugh rant trying to connect Bain Capital to Tom Hardy's Dark Knight villain. This morning, as I'm sure you've read, 12 people were killed and over 30 wounded as they sat watching The Dark Knight Rises at a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado. Some reports say the shooter, a 24-year old PhD student, was dressed as the Joker, firing off gas cannisters and rifle fire. I've resisted watching any video or looking at any images of this event because, frankly, the thought sickens me to my core.

There are a lot of awful, evil things that happen every day in the world, but this one hits close to home.

As a writer and a thinker, I want to explore how we interact with the movie screen, what the experience of spectatorship, of watching a movie is like. I believe we aren't just mindless at the movies, that we're rather constantly engaged in various kinds of analysis and interpretation--from merely following the sequence of events to deriding a multitude of themes and broader meanings. It's, in many ways, a model that might be idealistic, conceiving of the cinema as a kind of reverent church; a place to experience emotion or acquire some kind of knowledge; a place to see, if not a mirror of the world, than a representation of it.

Films are made up of choices before they even get to this point, though. They are the product of massive industrial, creative, and artistic assemblage -- thousands and thousands of choices from costume to lighting to editing to writing, all combining for our enjoyment, our consideration, our enlightenment. It's a rather hermetic way of thinking about the process -- a text is presented for us to watch and decipher in a particular kind of atmosphere -- that has been shattered today, if not for The Dark Knight Rises as a singular event then for moviegoing in general for what I imagine will be quite some time.

A similar thing happened to Nolan's The Dark Knight in 2008. When Heath Ledger died in January 2008, the film became an event not just because of its craftsmanship or its messages about the fragility of society and the methods of terrorism -- it had as much to do with Ledger himself. Almost as if he was revived, frozen in eternity, we could come and stare one last time (okay, not the last time--he did appear in Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus the following year) at a revered actor. His performance seemed to come from beyond the grave, giving much of The Dark Knight a haunted quality (at least to me, and to many others I've talked about this aspect with).

The effect of The Dark Knight Rises will be much more visceral, much more saddening. The "message" and the "meaning" of Nolan's work has been wrenched from his film and inscribed within senseless, evil violence. I plan to see the film tomorrow afternoon, and I expect it to be an incredibly sobering experience. You see, all morning I have been thinking about my best memories of watching movies in crowded theaters -- Raiders of the Lost Ark just this past year, Star Wars in its 1997 re-release, The Lord of the Rings on opening day, among dozens of others -- and how much that experience has meant and continues to mean to me.

It goes beyond "scholarship," "academia," or "analysis." This cuts to the very heart of why I care so much about cinema -- we share it with each other. I can only imagine being at that midnight show in Colorado, so excited, so thrilled to be among the first in the nation to see a long-awaited movie, only to have one wretched individual destroy lives for no gain. Just because he could be an "agent of chaos." Because for these people, it wasn't just about seeing the movie -- it was seeing it at midnight with a massive crowd. The very event of seeing the film was so twisted and undone by this massacre.

I'm not trying to be political, and I'm not trying to trivialize this. I can't speak to the meaning of this massacre, nor can I really offer an interpretation beyond my own sense as someone who loves the movies and has been in a state of shock since 6 a.m. All I know is that when the credits roll on The Dark Knight Rises, and I talk about it with friends and peers in the coming weeks and months, I'll be a part of a discussion that will forever haunt a theater of people, and that 12 of those people will never get a chance to be a part of.

That saddens me greatly, and it saddens me more that violence had to intrude into a place people go to seek comfort, to seek entertainment, to seek refuge. I usually enjoy trying to be clever, to offer up a neat little conclusion to anything I write -- as those who've been reading me since "That's Entertainment!" remember -- but there's no kind of conclusion here. Our screens will carry the weight of this moment for quite some time, I know that, but I won't stop seeing movies. I can't. Nor should you. Stay in your seats until the very final credit rolls on The Dark Knight Rises, or any movie you see this weekend.

Entertainment has helped us come together after tragedies before; that's the power of the communal experience. Don't let one person rip that away from us.


Anonymous said...

"Very moved by all the kind words about my piece today. I'm glad it's meant something to people."

Probably not the appropriate time to be publicly self-congratulating yourself.

James Gilmore said...

Hi Anonymous,

I think you're mistaking my humility with vanity. I don't profit off this site; there's nothing for me to congratulate myself over. Friends and peers said some genuinely kind words to me, and I responded. I am sorry you felt otherwise.