20 July 2012

Batman and violence

As I'm sure every sane person is, I'm kind of reeling from news of the tragic shooting in Colorado this morning. I've been praying, in a sort of almost subconscious murmur, for -- what? Healing for the wounded, comfort for the grieving, sanity in the collective response, justice for the criminal, probably?

I want to reflect a little bit on the film context of this horror, without -- of course -- assuming or suggesting that I have all the facts or any kind of particular insight into the event. And most of all without losing one ounce of my sympathy with the real human pain. But since this blog is on art and faith, it seems appropriate to reflect on a real-life incident in which art  and violence have been flung together into a meaningless partnership that just screams for faith to make sense out of it

First, I wonder what the right response is, as an empathetic human, to the tragedy. Put simply, should everybody go see the movie now, right away, tonight, as planned? Is it better to deny ourselves that one little pleasure, in order to reflect on the terrible losses? Or is it better to go out, to honor those people by not allowing a psychopath to interfere with art, with the reputation and profits of those who made the art, with a "normal" weekend life? Why should the movie-makers suffer as a result of one madman's evil?

But of course, it isn't nearly that simple. My going out or staying home doesn't make a difference to those who died. It doesn't make a difference to their families, or to those who are wounded. And if everyone stays home, or everyone goes out? It doesn't bring back or heal anyone. 

Any statement made by any particular moviegoer is ambiguous. The statement made by collective movie-goers is ambiguous. Neither a boycott nor a box-office record would make a simple statement. Actions are texts, and texts are subject to multiple interpretations. 

Textual actions as response are scattered over all the usual venues: social media, news channels, print media, public conversations. And how do we read those textual actions? There are calls for vengeance. Expressions of sympathy. Politically-slanted protest slogans.

Next, there is the movie itself. 

I do not know whether the particular movie played into whatever twisted noise-feed served in place of rational thought in the brain of the killer. I doubt that anyone knows, yet. And it really doesn't matter. If it did, if he chose that movie because he loved it, or hated it, or wanted to be in it, or simply because it has loud shoot-out scenes, what difference does that make?

It could make several kinds of difference, again, depending how we read it.

Here is one consideration. The Daily Beast writes that "descriptions of what happened—a deranged man in a gas mask opening fire on innocent victims—eerily mirrors a scene in the movie, where the evil, masked Bane (Tom Hardy) aims a machine gun at a crowd of people in Gotham City, massacring bystanders left and right." Other news articles reported that the killer was wearing "full black assault gear," like Batman? Or like the antagonists? 

Does that mean the movie bears even the tiniest bit of blame? Is Tom Hardy, or Christopher Nolan, or Warner Brothers, even the littlest bit responsible for, if not the killer's actions, at least his choice of staging, costume, casting, blocking, and narrative? 

Yes, maybe: If the killer had gone crazy in a previous blockbuster season, maybe he would have dressed up as an orc, or a stormtrooper, or a Sith lord. That hardly matters. Those are "accidental" characteristics of this crime, in the philosophical sense, not "essential" characteristics. The essentials resided in the evil imagination of the killer. The fact that he sought out accidentals and opportunity in Dark Knight Rises by no means implicates the movie in his crime, because....

No, absolutely not. The movie is not to blame...Because the point of the Batman movies is that crime is evil. Batman is fighting crime. The very purpose of the fictional world of these films is to create a scenario in which the hero can stop men just like this morning's madman. He missed the point. The point is not that shooting and death and mayhem are glorious. The point is precisely that they are not. 

The point is that the bad guys lose

If even one miniscule good thing comes out of this universe of horror, there is a chance that it might remove some of our unhealthy voyeurism-of-violence. I find that I can't even watch the trailers right now; they are too sickeningly like reality. I want to see the movie. I'm sure it's a brilliant piece of cinematic art; the first two were. I was going to see it tonight. But it's just to hard, humanly speaking, to watch a terrorist take off a black hood, revealing a gas mask and “full assault gear,” then walk into a football stadium and start blowing things up. It's too hard to watch bodies falling and hear people screaming. And that's good. I shouldn't enjoy violence. Even though I know (without actually knowing the ending) that the good guys win, in some sense or other, I should not enjoy watching the little people die. Every little person matters. Nobody in that theatre was Batman; nobody was the epic hero of our times. But there were heroes in there. There were members of the military, for starters. And each person who died took with him or her an entire universe of thoughts, feelings, and dreams. I just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. There's a line in that book, when the man and the boy are walking along among burnt bodies. The man thinks something like, “So many thousands of unnumbered, unrealized dreams.” That's a huge part of the horror of death, from an earthly point of view. Each unfulfilled dream is now permanently unfulfilled. That is part of why we feel worse over the death of a young person; more dreams unfulfilled. For that reason, I hate our cultural insensitivity to the “expendability” of minor characters. Nameless deaths. Crowds wiped out. And we enjoy this as backdrop for our hero's dramatic rescue of the named characters, played by top-billed stars. We shouldn't enjoy that.

So I think it's probably OK to go see the movie. Maybe not right away. And certainly not with the usual callous attitude towards crowd violence. We should learn that lesson, at least.


Rosie Perera said...

Excellent post, Sorina. Thank you for collecting your thoughts so well and so soon after the event and sharing them with us.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Rosie. I hope your friends in Denver are OK?

Wonderer said...

I found this article from Rosie's FB page. Thank you for highlighting how hard it is really to make any kind of sense of all this- and for pointing out the universe contained within each person, no matter how distant our connection with them.

Rosie Perera said...

Sorina, I do know a couple of people in Denver. One has checked in on FB so I know he's fine. And it's not very likely the other would have gone out to a movie theatre in the suburbs at midnight. Didn't recognize any names of victims.

Anonymous said...

*comment 1 of 2 comment post

I have a few thoughts here, in response to your thoughts. First, concerning the 'right response', I do not think there is any reason people who wanted to see the movie shouldn't go see it when they had originally planned to. If it is wrong to see a film right after people were killed in a movie theater, wouldn't this also necessitate that individuals stay home from their respective schools after a school shooting like Columbine? If an individual is murdered on a road, should we all forsake roads for a period of time? In the case of mall shootings such as the Westroads Mall shooting, should all individuals avoid malls and other shopping centers for a while after the attack takes place? If there is a shooting incident inside a bathroom (as was the case here:, must we show our sympathy for the victim by neglecting the use of normal bathroom facilities for a time? None of these cases make sense to me, and therefore it does not seem that 'the right response' in the Colorado mass murder incident should involve forgoing watching the Dark Knight Rises. This is not to say that the students of Columbine should be forced to return to school right away; but rather ALL students shouldn't be given off because of an isolated incident. The same follows for the rest of the examples i used, except for the example involving a road.

Secondly, you question whether "the movie bears even the tiniest bit of blame? Is Tom Hardy, or Christopher Nolan, or Warner Brothers, even the littlest bit responsible for, if not the killer's actions, at least his choice of staging, costume, casting, blocking, and narrative? ". I find that The Dark Knight Rises bears the same blame Jesus does for his death; they both drew crowds which others wished to exploit towards their own ends. That is to say, it is absurd to blame either TDKR or Jesus for what happened as a result of their crowd-drawing qualities.

Iambic Admonit said...

[I accidentally deleted the second half of Anonymous's comment, but still had the text in my email -- so, here it is. Thanks.]

*comment 2 of 2 comment post

Finally, I disagree with your assessment that our culture fosters insensitivity towards 'minor charactors' as you dub them. If a 'minor character' is a character that a film spends less time allowing the audience to get to know, then it seems reasonable to assume that we will react with less sensitivity towards this character's death than one we have spent the entirety of 2+ hours (or more if the character has had an entire franchise based around them) getting to know. That is to say, I am more sensitive towards the death of someone in my family then I am with someone I have not seen before I witness them die. Therefore, I do not understand why you are confused when audiences react less towards minor character deaths than they would a major character's death.

Additionally, police officers and others are trained to function in the face of tragic deaths, and therefore must not become numbed to inaction when confronted with horrible deaths. That is to say, a police officer serves a function and he necessarily must possess the ability to postpone his sensitivity towards violence if he is to serve that function. If we hypothesize that a film aims to draw its audience into the story as the main character, then, and that main character is a cop, soldier, superhero, etc. tasked with performing a function not to be disrupted with sensitivity towards violence; is it any surprise that the audience adopts the main character's seeming indifference towards the violence surrounding them? This is to say, if a film does its job correctly and draws the audience into thinking and feeling as the protagonist does, then in any film where the main characters performs a function requiring the postponing or delayed processing of violent images (I'm referring to anything our eyes see as 'images'), we should expect the audience to react similarly. Therefore, I am not sure our culture does possess an 'insensitivity to the 'expendability' of minor characters" as you claim.