Sunday, July 22, 2012
I am profoundly sad to hear of the tragedy that occured in Aurora, CO, during the midnight premiere screening of "The Dark Knight". This tragedy has touched my heart in many ways, for numerous reasons.
I, too, was at a July 20th midnight screening - and much like victim Alex Sullivan, I was ringing in a new year, celebrating my birthday. The difference was, I got to go home.
I consider movie theaters sacred places. I am an avid fan of the "movie theater experience" which like many rituals, is at the mercy of change. Sure, people still attend theaters, though the process has become much less "ritual" and more of a chore. I remember the days of the movie theater ushers in vests, who ripped cardboard tickets to stubs, and the buckets of freshly popped kernels that shared your seat (or guarded one for a friend). Believe it or not, there really was a time when silence was golden, and people generally understood that the movie theater was a time and place to stop talking and indulge in fantasy in a dark cavernous air-conditioned space. Despite the rising ticket prices and more environmentally-friendly packaging used at concession stand, less people appear to see movies as simply an experience you lose yourself in - but rather a social space that allows you to keep one foot firmly rooted in the "real" world of gossip and gadgets. $15 dollars now buys you a chance to share a row with a glowing cell phone screen, ringing mobile, chatty guest, or the occasional patron who invested so little in hygeine preparation for a theater visit that he has failed to shower or decides to floss his teeth mid-movie (yes, this has happened). I am a big believer in the ritual of the movie theater and its innate magic, still present in an increasingly small number of screens (mostly art house establishments) tucked away in unassuming streets, overflowing with history and personality - as opposed to those homogenous cineplexes. To sum up the romanticism - movie theaters are meant to be fun and full of surprises - on screen. Audiences are meant to partake in their suspension of belief and let themselves go - real life isn't supposed to exist outside those four walls for the duration of the picture. Perhaps this made the unprecedented events of July 20th even more confusing to moviegoers watching an action sequence when rounds were fired that claimed innocent lives and injured countless more.
In the wake of such inexplicable and maddening tragedy, the public will undoubtedly scramble to find sense and meaning in such a horrific act where often, there is no logic or reason to be found. Talk will inevitably spread and fingers will be pointed. In such a scenario, the media is always the first to be blamed. Norway's mass shooter was reported to have played 'Modern Warfare 2' and the Columbine school shooters were known for playing 'Doom' and listening to Marilyn Mansion; violent puppets strung along by their addictions to modern media. (For the record, Aurora's shooter was reported to have an addiction to 'Guitar Hero' - yes, the innocuous rock and roll guitar game.) During difficult events, the public wants answers immediately, and they look for simple answers to complex problems and situations. No one is denying that media does have some impact on our behavior and perception - we can look no further than the real-life decimation of the shark population following the on-screen arrival of 'Jaws' or the insecurities many girls feel about their bodies as a result of being subjected to constant media portrayals that represent an unrealistic body type shared by only 5% of the general population. However, when someone commits a violent act, they are ultimately responsible. Many people are rushing to judgment about the killer's mindset, insisting he is insane. That is for a team of mental health experts and a courtroom to decide, studies have shown that those afflicted with mental illness are no less violent than any other segment of the population and these attacks were clearly pre-meditated and heavily calculated. Again, this is not for me to decide nor does gossip achieve fast answers, but there is a danger in assuming someone is simply crazy and writing them off as absolved of blame. Gun control issues and political debates will also swirl. The 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution allows citizens the right to bear arms. Certainly, America's Founding Fathers lived in a different time and couldn't have imagined such an event - or the advent of an AR-15. The debate will rage on, the public will pick sides and argue, and none of this banter can bring back the innocent lives lost or forever changed by these horrible cowardly acts.
Changes to movie theaters will also inevitably be drawn up and discussed, as will policy alterations. Supposedly, the killer used an Emergency Exit though no alarm sounded when he entered, security detail was clearly lacking on this fateful night. The public will clamor for solutions; including increased security guards, bag checks or metal detectors, all too reminiscent of what happened in post-911 America. Is any of this truly "American"? Why has the instinct to tragedy been to overprotect and allow fear (the intention of those who commit terrifying acts) to win out? Many citizens have expressed fear at seeing the film or going to movie theaters. It's a sad fact that bad things can happen in any place, at any time - Yet we continue to wake up, leave the house, and go about our lives - we move forward. "Moving on" does not have to mean forgetting a tragedy or dishonoring the fallen. If they had a chance and a voice, I imagine those who perished would want their family and friends to continue to enjoy the precious gift that is time, breathing, and living.
Censorship at movie theaters will no doubt be discussed - paranoid reactions include comparisons to the Roman Empire that reveled in the sight of blood - only for them it was a stadium (and real) and not a movie screen. "Are movies too violent?" Parents and concerned citizens ask. They speak as though the world was once an idyllic place where violent acts never occured in the romantic past. (Nevermind the World Wars or gang violence that swept the country during the Prohibition Era... How many violent movies were people watching then? And what of music - There was a time when Elvis was blamed for causing juvenile delinquency for swinging his hips...) Naturally, investigators are combing through Batman comics trying to find references as to what might have "inspired" such a killing and will look for answers and a link anywhere they can - including new reports an old Batman comic features a theater shooting. Coincidence or comics as villain? As a proponent of media literacy, I must concede that media does have some impact on us, and that our individuality, sanity, and life experiences (and family intervention - or lack thereof) play a role in how we internalize what we see. Parents do have a responsibility to discuss violence with their children, who sadly will grow up in a world where violence and negative happenings do exist, regardless of the presence of media. Does shielding them from reality help or hurt? More debates. What is known is that a 3-month old baby was harmed in the event and a 6-year old girl was killed, both were taken to a movie that was neither G or PG, and past midnight. Clearly, these parents had no idea such a tragedy was waiting for them, yet one has to wonder why these children were there to begin with. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children what is appropriate, educate their children about violence - both in real life and on screen - and must take an active role in molding their children to be effective citizens and decision-makers, this is not Hollywood's job nor is it the role of the music industry or media. The killer was not inspired to go on a rampage because of "The Dark Knight" - he had not even seen it, it was premiere night. Naturally, the media will take full advantage of this awful night to promote their own agenda as only they know how - inciting more fear and sensationalism to sell papers and gain ratings. In the blame game, there are no innocents.
The bottom line is that no simple answers abound nor do instant solutions, and no quick fixes will bring the lost back. The best we can hope for (and do) is to not allow this tragedy to get the best of us or allow fear and evil to win. Even in the movies, the bad guy rarely comes out on top. Lets put down our pointed fingers and remember and honor those affected by such an unfathomable event. Lets embrace the cinema and continue to live our lives as we always have - with an awareness that tomorrow is never a guarantee, and thus we owe it to ourselves and those who are no longer with us to seek comfort in the challenges of creating new memories and experiences with those we love and to indulge in our passions, simple pleasures and rituals. This is how we win and overcome.