WHERE IDEAS GO WHEN THEY DIE
The following blog post originally appeared at the IFP’s site and is cross-posted with permission. — Editor.
May 15th, 2011.
I am given a book by my favourite poet, Bob Hicok. In it there’s a poem about the 2007 Virginia Polytechnic Institute massacre – to date the deadliest shooting of innocent people by a single gunman in US history. This excerpt from the poem speaks for itself –
People wrote, called, mostly e-mailed
because they know I teach at Virginia Tech,
to say, there’s nothing to say. Eventually
I answered these messages: there’s nothing
to say back except of course there’s nothing
to say, thank you for your willingness
to say it. Because this was about nothing.
A boy who felt that he was nothing,
who erased and entered that erasure, and guns
that are good for nothing, and talk of guns
that is good for nothing, and spring
that is good for flowers, and Jesus for some,
and scotch for others.
March 23rd, 2012.
Two kids get in a fight on the platform of an L train stop in Brooklyn, New York. Both fall in front of a train coming into the station. One of them leaps from the tracks just in time and flees the scene. The other is dragged down the platform by the train, right in front of my eyes. His body half under the train, his arms grabbing at the side of the train, his torso spinning like a propeller, his blood smearing down the side of the carriages. I turn away in disbelief, my brain numb as people run past me screaming in tears, vomiting as they run. There’s one girl standing still in front of me as everyone rushes past both of us. She’s looking at me, her face all wet, her eyes pleading at me as if somehow I can provide an answer. The best I can do is not look at her.
The kid is still alive. There’s a woman crouched down by him trying to help him in whatever way she can. Unsure about what I can do I turn and leave. Halfway up the steps I curse at myself, and turn back. A few of us gang together try to push the train away from the body, so we can get him out. It’s a hopeless exercise. Soon the Fire Department arrives and we are all ejected onto the streets.
People are opening their front doors and letting those clearly in shock come in and rest a while. I call my friend, whose apartment I’d just left 15 minutes before, and he talks me through it. He invites me back over to his, but it seems to make more sense to walk home alone.
July 17th, 2012.
A friend posts a photograph on the internet that he’s taken of a poster from the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Below the photograph he’s excitedly left the comment –
THREE. MOTHER. FUCKING. DAYS.
I type my response beneath it. My words expounding on my similarly outrageous levels of enthusiasm. My friend replies, and our proverbial high-five is over just moments after it began. The occasion and the words we used are swiftly forgotten about.
July 20th, 2012.
In Aurora, Colorado, a 24-year-old man opened fire on his fellow cinema-goers during a screening of the new Batman film. Thanks to our phones, everyone everywhere knows about it moments after it happens.
Soon after New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, a friend of my father’s, publishes a thoughtful and lengthy article swiftly reminding people of art’s inability to drive people to kill –
Having a mind to kill, at least in any systematic fashion, means that your mind is ready-warped; that the warping may well have started long before, perhaps in childhood; and that you may perhaps seek out, or be drawn to, areas of sensation—notably those entailing sex or violence—which can encourage, inflame, or accelerate the warping. Whatever we learn of the Aurora murderer, whatever he may profess, and whatever the weaponry, body armor, and headgear that he may have sported, and however it seems like a creepy match for what is worn, by heroes and villains alike, in the Batman movies—despite all that, he was not driven by those movies to slaughter.
July 21st, 2012.
Some time in the afternoon I receive an email from a filmmaker friend of mine that simply read –
Dark Knight Rises murders is the most bleak metaphor of art and cinema in American cultural history.
This coming from a man with two children of his own, and a deep-set distaste for exploitative artwork. I wrote back saying that I was inclined to agree. I said that it reminded me of when my father read from a newspaper article in 2001. An article that was suggesting that part of what made the World Trade Center attacks so powerful, was what an artistic gesture they were. 911 being the emergency services number in the US, and the two towers being hit by one commercial airplane each, and both completely collapsing in such a seemingly unlikely way as a result. My father also added that film and television are of course also responsible for making violence appear to be something beautiful.
Back in the present, film critic Roger Ebert weighs in on the continuing debate about the connection between violence and art –
I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. I don’t know if [the Aurora killer] cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.
LA Times reporter Patrick Goldstein blames advertising –
This, of course, has happened before. In 1981, Taxi Driver became embroiled in controversy when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan after becoming obsessed with the film, whose character Travis Bickle attempts to kill a presidential candidate. In Hinckley’s case, he was affected by the movie. With the Colorado gunman, the inspiration may well have come from the pull of a mammoth Hollywood Big Event.
In almost any big city today, it’s nearly impossible to avoid being exposed to the wall-to-wall advertising for a global behemoth such as “Dark Knight.” The result is almost Orwellian — nearly everywhere you look, your gaze meets the stern glare of Batman and his nemesis, their eyes full of menace. On TV, the film’s ads are chock full of thunderous collisions and mass brawls.
Talk about life imitating art. Days before the film’s release, the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes had to suspend user comments on reviews of “Dark Knight” after readers made derogatory and threatening remarks about the critics who wrote them. Incensed fans heaped abuse on one critic, Marshal Fine, saying he should “die in a fire.” Rotten Tomatoes’ editor said it was the first time the site had suspended user comments, explaining that “it just got to be too much hate.”
July 22nd, 2012.
A friend and I race back from a New Jersey beach town to catch an afternoon screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Manhattan. 15 minutes into the film we are aware of a group of four men behind us talking loudly and occasionally walking up and down in the isle next to us, using their phones as flashlights. I turn to tell them to shut up, and so does my friend. The looks we are greeted with from these men leave us speechless, and we quickly turn back to the film. I suddenly feel unsafe and start looking around me in the darkness. It dawns on me that this is the first trip to the cinema since the killings the week before. I start imagining how the same thing could happen to all of us in this room. The words of my filmmaker friend the day before start going around and around in my head. Eventually the film rescues me from these thoughts and I lose myself in its story.
As the film ends and I’m left slightly shaky by its moving denouement, a second wave of fear sweeps over me. I have to quickly pull my hands to my face to hide a wash of quite unexpected tears. I feel in a moment like I’ve lost something very dear to me. I realize that it feels like we have lost the sanctity of the cinema. I realize that until this point I’ve used the cinema as a place I can completely escape from the world, no matter what. It feels right there and then like this is now gone.
I try to relate this to my friend afterwards and he tells me I’m talking nonsense. Coming to my senses in the outside air I realize that I probably am.
July 23rd, 2012.
I mention to a friend and co-worker that I’m thinking about writing about my feelings on the Dark Knight Rises murders. He sits down on the couch opposite my desk and we talk it through. Half-way through the conversation he points out that as far as he was aware the last time there was a killing in a theater in US history, it was when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, as noted elsewhere in the Goldstein piece quoted above, perhaps similarly chose a place to commit his crime that would give him the necessary ‘stage’ for his actions. One similarity between the events that did seem to gel with this, was that Wilkes Booth shouted a line from a killing in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar before shooting Lincoln. This seems to tie to the fact that the Aurora killer later told police he was The Joker, a murderous character from the previous Batman film. Wilkes Booth’s Shakespearean line of course being that famously uttered by Brutus before the murder of Julius – “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” This literally translates as “Thus always to tyrants,” and is also the Virginia state motto. Wilkes Booth was from Virginia.
July 24th, 2012.
The documentary film maker and director of Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore, just posted an article on his website asking America to think deeply about their obsession with killing. He points out that it’s likely not the guns. He states in fact that it’s the American people and their apparent inability to care for each other, hinting of course at the country’s precarious healthcare system –
We are an easily frightened people and it is easy to manipulate us with fear. What are we so afraid of that we need to have 300 million guns in our homes? Who do we think is going to hurt us? Why are most of these guns in white suburban and rural homes? Maybe we should fix our race problem and our poverty problem (again, number 1 in the industrialized world) and then maybe there would be fewer frustrated, frightened, angry people reaching for the gun in the drawer. Maybe we would take better care of each other.
Oliver Gettel, the same day, publishes an article for the LA Times in which he pulls together the responses to the killings from 6 of the western world’s more notable film critics. A comment beneath the article reads –
What’s completely lost in all this chatter is that the hero of The Dark Knight Rises saw his parents murdered by a gunman and DOES NOT CARRY A GUN for that reason. Also during the movie, he knocked Catwoman’s gun out of her hands saying “no killing”. John Blake, on using his gun in self defense, found the whole thing distasteful and threw his gun away. If there’s one hero who would be the symbol this is Batman.
July 25th, 2012.
US President Barack Obama is on national television addressing the issue of gun violence in cities, stating that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not criminals. He continues to say –
When there’s an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there’s always an outcry immediately after for action. There’s talk of new reforms. There’s talk of legislation. And too often those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere. But what I said in the wake of Tucson is we’re going to stay on this persistently. I will continue to work with members of both parties and with religious groups and with civic organizations to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction.
Warner Brothers is pulling trailers of its forthcoming film Gangster Squad, which depict assailants with Tommy-guns shooting cinema goers from behind a cinema screen. The film has also been pulled from the studio’s Fall release schedule.
July 26th, 2012.
I sit down to write this article, and just moments after I’ve written a working title I get a message on my phone. The message tells me that someone has replied to the comment I left on the internet on the 13th. They’re replying to the comment I left beneath my friend’s photograph of a Batman poster, just days before the killings. The reply simply reads –
A week later, your comment doesn’t sound like the best wording, does it?
I’m confused. I quickly scroll back up to my original comment, and read it again –
Better be good. Really good. World crushingly good. So good it actually kills me. So good everyone in my theater dies. Like end of the world good, you know?
I look back at the essay I’m writing. I almost vomit. I close the computer. I reply to the person on my phone apologizing profusely, but my comments feel futile. I know it’s extremely unlikely that I’m responsible in any way, but nevertheless my thoughts are racing. I call two friends and ask them to talk me through it. I then go for a long walk. I need to be out among people.
July 29th, 2012.
Michael Moore is on American national television for the first time in 10 years talking with talk show host, Piers Morgan, about American gun laws. He’s remarking upon President Barack Obama’s comments about his awareness that it could have been his own daughters in that screening that night. Michael Moore, undeniably a fan of Obama, doesn’t hesitate to fire back at the President –
If President Obama is watching right now — and I — and I say this with all due respect — what if it were them? What if it were them last Thursday night? Would you stand at the microphone the next day and say I feel your pain and, you know, we just — we — the — the existing gun laws, that’s what he said — the existing laws are enough. Is that really what you’d say, Mr. President? I don’t think so.
August 1st, 2012.
An anonymous comment has appeared at the bottom of Michael Moore’s July 24th article that reads –
American Pop Culture Quiz
How many High School kids were shot in Compton this year? How many of them made the news or got their medical bills paid? Why are kids from Colorado so much more important than the ones in L.A.?
Dozens. None. They’re White!
August 8th, 2012.
It’s midnight. I’m sitting down to watch a film with my brother that’s been produced by an old friend of mine. The film is called Boy A, and is based loosely on the aftermath of the killing of the 2-year-old James Bulger in England in 1993. The two kids who committed the killing splashed their victim in blue paint, in imitation of the 1991 film Child’s Play 3.
Boy A is good, and my brother and I end up arguing afterwards about how sympathetic the killers friends would have been ‘in reality’, compared to the film.
August 10th, 2012.
I am sitting at my laptop in my brother’s apartment in London, sun streaming in through the windows. It’s an unusually hot day, after what’s been a very rainy English summer. There have been at least two more widely-publicized shootings in the US since the Aurora killings. Unable to escape the feeling that I should write something, I delete everything I’ve written and start over.