Is Batman to blame?
I remember reading a magazine article many years ago about the tiny cinema at the White House, and the most treasured films watched there by US Presidents. There was a photo showing the Clinton family ensconced in huge, cozy red seats, all eyes fixed on the screen, unguarded and vulnerable, lost to the glare of moving pictures above them.
The photograph and feature stayed with me, perhaps, because there was something strange and unsettling about discovering that those at the uppermost echelon of power were escapists too. US Presidents (so I must have naively assumed) were supposed to be in control. They weren’t supposed to need heroes, or to fantasize about heroism.
It turns out classic western High Noon had been something of an obsession for the post-war presidents, the most screened movie in White House history, a firm favourite of Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton (who watched it 17 times). The most popular commanders-in-chief of the late 20th Century looked up, literally, to Gary Cooper as he marched out to meet danger.
I couldn’t help be reminded of the Clinton family photo again as the details of the mass shooting at an Aurora Colorado cinema began to emerge; something of the defenselessness the picture revealed. In the hours after learning of a gunman opening fire upon a packed theatre, we must have all found ourselves imagining the moment of terror when reality flooded into the precious space set aside for make-believe.
No one put it better than critic Alyssa Roseberg: “We are vulnerable when we go to the movies, open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.”
The debate since then has focused, quite rightly, on gun control. It is the issue of central importance. Yet the unique pop-cultural circumstances of the murders are, sadly, too striking to shake easily from the mind. Clearly the killer wanted to seize something from the power and excitement of an event he understood - the nationwide premiere of the Batman trilogy’s final installment - to create his own terrible spectacle, playing out some warped version of Gotham’s superhero / super-villain saga going on in his head.
Very few commentators have been very willing to give any credence at all to the idea that Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Heath Ledger’s Joker, or movie violence more generally could ever be the source of real-world mayhem. Film and entertainment writers have been especially protective of the blockbuster bubble in the aftermath of the shootings.
But I’m not the only one who has found it difficult to dismiss the link to the Batman trilogy’s bleak mood, disturbing themes (disorder; terrorism; the struggle to make moral distinctions) and James Holmes’ particular set of Batman-related delusions (he told the police he was “the Joker”). As Slate’s Dana Stevens has written: “James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two”.
In less grim circumstances, writers, storytellers and artists are only too happy to discuss ways in which culture can influence or even dramatically change the world for the better. As a Batman fan since early adolescence and an admirer of the graphic novels dreamed up by Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb and Grant Morrison, I’m satisfied with the idea that one of America’s greatest mythic figures has the capacity to “teach us” something about the urban experience. If we blithely grant stories' society-altering powers, might it just be possible for stories to re-shape the real world in darker ways?
Speaking to the experts last week provided some sober reassurance about boundaries. Forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone said it would be foolish to believe a movie could be the root cause of the mental disturbance necessary to carry out this kind of crime. University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman, who has sifted through decades of research on the subject, explained there was simply no pattern of evidence establishing a casual connection between violent crime and exposure to media violence.
No evidence either, said Freedman, for a general desensitizing going on among young people reared on media violence. “People are able to make a clear distinction between fiction and the real world - they know make-believe when they see it…The evidence shows that people watching violent movies and playing violent games are very upset when they encounter real violence.”
Yet the nagging doubt about some kind of connection remained, not helped by Holmes’ appearances in court with cartoon-like dyed hair. Why Batman? Why now? How did we arrive at such feverish anticipation of the final film? How did Nolan’s franchise re-boot accumulate such power?
Searching for answers may bring us back to the business of leadership and heroism. It is not too far-fetched to read the trilogy as one of Hollywood’s more ambitious takes on post-9/11 politics. The Dark Knight concerns itself quite directly with terrorism and efforts to thwart it through extra-judicial violence (as a signal of intent, the very first shot sees the camera moving steadily into the side of a huge downtown tower block to capture the shattering of glass).
Batman writers have long been absorbed with the problems of evil and moral decay. The costumed crime-fighter is a noir-ish urban update of the classic Western story. The hero is forced to step into the gutter and be equal to the brutality of the outlaw to keep civilized America ‘clean’. In the 21st century big screen incarnation of the caped crusader, the demands of the dual role, the task of remaining ‘clean’, is pushed vanishingly close to breaking point.
How could it be any other way? Our leaders, at least the ones in high office in Britain and the United States, have failed to keep us above the fray in the post-9/11 crusade against terrorism. Images of air strike explosions, wailing, bloodied children and hooded prisoners in dark cells have entered our consciousness through the nightly news.
The unsettling consequences of rendition flights and drone bombings have seeped in more gradually, chipping further away at whatever hope we had of calling ourselves the good guys with any degree of confidence.
If storytellers have little choice but to absorb the world around them, the trick of imagining heroic, justifiable and order-restoring violence becomes harder than ever to pull off. The moral high ground made available in a film like High Noon has disappeared over the horizon. As mob-boss Tony laments in more than one episode of The Sopranos, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”
So if the Gary Cooper-type has quit town, never to return, who or what are we left with? Theatre after theatre of blockbuster violence, a universe in which different kinds of high-tech weaponry distinguish protagonist and foe. Warring ideals are overshadowed by the clash of chosen hardware.
Still, it seems slightly unfair to pick on the Batman films for tech-fetishistic nihilism, even if they veer close to something like it for large chunks of the trilogy. The latest, The Dark Knight Rises, does hold on the ideal of noble sacrifice, even if its air of near-hopelessness might leave us wondering whether a chaotic, fallen Gotham is really a world worth saving.
In this respect, the Batman trilogy’s bleak vision reflects our anxious, pessimistic and leaderless age as well as anything shown at the cinema since the collapse of the twin towers.
It amounts, essentially, to Hamlet’s theory about art holding “the mirror up to nature”. If film-makers are to be relevant, even in a fantasy setting, they can do no more than show a convincing reflection of ourselves. If Nolan’s movies feature muddied morality, unpredictable violence, and a doleful sense of decline, well – that’s our world, too.
Does any of this matter in Aurora, Colorado? That nothing found in a movie could ever justify mass murder hardly needs said. It would be foolish to hold the creators of any fiction responsible for every interpretation, every strange fancy or twisted parody. Some ripples and echoes are impossible to anticipate or control.
Perhaps it’s easiest to think of James Holmes’ movie-related hair, gasmask and choice of booby traps as nothing more than the macabre details bubbling on the surface of an apparently deep underlying psychosis.
There is, nevertheless, something haunting about these details, if for no other reason than they point us back toward Hamlet’s mirror and its powerful reflections, leaving us to wonder about the mysterious relationship between fiction and reality. If Holmes’ already warped mind needed some kind of narrative to dress up his demented urge, the dark, violent, eerily relevant world of Gotham City is, uncomfortably, the obvious candidate to claim the imagination.
It might just be a good time to pause and reflect on the kind of films which now thrill us most, the kinds of characters which now act as archetypes, the kind of stories our age cannot help but bring into existence.
If we ever want to look up again at heroes who can reassure us while we are sitting in the dark - the Gary Cooper-type of hero - we might have to create a very different kind of world outside the movie theatre.