Monday, July 23, 2012

On the Aurora, Colorado Shooting: Mobilizing Terror

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 1:47 PM

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The natural responses to the murder of at least a dozen moviegoers shot at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, in Colorado, are so evident—sympathetic grief, political disgust—that, if one is to write on the subject at all, one risks saying things that are either already said better by others closer to the subject, or are willfully and offensively marginal. But to the extent that the venue of the massacre is at all relevant to our understanding of it, I do feel a bit compelled to speak. (That someone went on a shooting spree in a movie theater seems to have made a number of movie critics, either willingly or reluctantly, into experts on grief counseling and gun laws. I suppose it's impossible to talk about violence in our culture, a subject upon which recent events beg a movie critic's response, without talking about these things, but I'm still wary of appearing presumptuous.) And in any case, it seems to me that the actions of one James Holmes, at Aurora, Colorado's Century 16 last week, are wrapped up in the movies in ways that are inevitable, and genuinely problematic, though only up to a point.

In his comprehensive Cinema Scope review of the film and its surrounding culture, Michael Sicinski writes that "many of us can conceive of cinema only as the Will to Power." He means, I think, to suggest that the ugly tone of the film's pre-release hype, with comments-section vigilantes promising to firebomb houses and do assorted other violences to heretics of the Bat-Gospel, is not so easily severable from the obliterating spectacle of Nolan's Batmovies (or other similar films).

In bringing the fanboy firebombing thing up in the current context, it's not that I, or anyone else, needs or even wants (honest!) to "draw a connection" between the spuming violent fantasies of fans of a violent movie, and a violent fantasy that was actually realized (though people should generally think about what makes them different from the truly despicable, and try not to behave in a such a way as to complicate that difference). But the notion of "cinema... as the will to power" is intriguing.

"Event movies" do often achieve their status by "mobilizing"—to borrow a military term from Nic Rapold's L Mag Dark Knight Rises review—the resources of large-scale filmmaking and corporate cultural currency. Thinking about art as will to power, I think about Don DeLillo, in Mao II, talking about terrorism and the novel, the way in which art and disruptive violence can similarly command the public imagination. And indeed, now that competition is so stiff, movies, really important movies, don't just blow stuff up any more. The public spectacle hijacked by mass violence is itself a frequent trope of the ambitious action film, which seeks to hoist itself into the national conversation not just through brute force but with a bit of scary relevance for extra leverage.

Often, the public spectacle in question is a football game: in John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday, or the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears. Another such scene was among those released months ago, to stoke anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises itself. (Indeed, much of the power and relevance of Nolan's Bat-movies is in their own spectacle's explicit if not particularly coherent allegorical parallels with contemporary terror.)

When movies do this—when movies demonstrate their own potency as spectacle by folding rival spectacles into their address to us—it's a commentary on, but not necessarily a critique of, their ability to do what they depict, to compel our attention with global reach and aesthetic persuasion. Ripping from the headlines to help put across a fictional spectacle is also an inversion of how terrorism works, which is by harnessing large crowds, and larger broadcast audiences, to burrow into our narrative. Last week in Colorado, a man tried to do what terrorists do, what movies do, what terrorists in movies do, not least terrorists in Nolan's Batman movies: to violently claim authorship of our public dreaming. (To incept us?) To turn the witnesses to spectacle into its props.

One thing that's as horrible as it is precedented about the act of terror perpetrated in Aurora is the apparent lack of any motivation, besides delusions of grandeur, for the shooter's intrusion into our dreams. Whether or not the choice of the new Christopher Nolan Batman movie was a deliberate element of the mad calculations leading up to the attack, that's a link to The Dark Knight's self-described "agent of chaos" The Joker—whom the shooter in question may or may not have declared himself to be before opening fire, as Ray Kelly took such relish in suggesting last week. (I dislike The Dark Knight because in its zeitgest-grabbing invocations of hot-button political issues, it raises questions that, within the inherently black-and-white superhero format, can't help but beg solutions resembling the policy proscriptions of our actual Manichean political party. Although if The Dark Knight actually is an allegory for the necessity of weapon-carrying sovereign citizens willing to stand firm against the assaults of unmotivated chaos, well, it should be noted that stopping the Aurora shooter would have demanded the efforts of an actual superhero.) At this juncture, it needs to be said, though it's been said before, that this would hardly be the first time a disturbed mind has found, in the cinema's syntax of the spectacular, a form for his pathology. (Any more than it would be first time anyone found, in the movies, a way to dream about nobility, charm, transcendence, glory, prosperity or sex.)

That the Aurora shooting is inherently cinematic in nature is true whether or not the Joker proves to be a red herring. I say this not to condemn cinema, but to try and draw as clearly as possible the line that movies walk right up to—it probably goes without saying, but the fact that movies and acts of terror use similar means in the service of similar aspirations doesn't mean that they're actually morally equivalent. (Though Nolan, in his self-mythologizing way, seems increasingly obsessed with the potential dark implications of his own apparently unfathomable power, especially in his grim, flagellant meta-movie Inception.)

What we acknowledge and permit, when the football stadium blows up onscreen, is that the jolt comes from the recognition that if the football stadium bombings are crypto-movies, then the victims are, well, us. And the terror can be genuine and visceral: the terror is in the violation of our trust in public space. We permit this violation of on-screen audiences, our mirror selves, because, after all, it's only a movie. The particular horror of this attack—which is not to say the primary horror, just a distinguishing characteristic—is that our contract with our public spaces and our public art has been violated. How awful and unfair, to die because you went to a movie.

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