"And so, into this little tortured mind came the idea that that gun had been produced for use. And use it he did." --Hildegarde Johnson, His Girl Friday (1945)
"Gunman turns movie into surreal horror: 'This is real'" - News headline (Aurora Shooting)
"Those who see and are seen seeing are seen because they destroy. Recognized subjects are seen because they destroy and because they destroy what they see. Those who merely see have a lot of destroying to do before they can be seen seeing. - Jon Beller - The Cinematic Modes of Production (p. 279)
"Monsters come out of screen! Invade audience!" - Promo
Even without the the Aurora massacre casting its shadow, DARK KNIGHT RISES would be a lot to take in; shadows of Occupy Wall Street, terrorism, aging, irrelevance, environmentalism, and vigilante ethics all merge together in coded idolatry of the Kennedys and revulsion at the French revolution. Add Aurora's shooter--who opened fire at a midnight premiere showing of the film--and one allegory emerges from the rubble, Peter Bogdanovich's first film, TARGETS (1968).
Boris Karloff plays more or less himself as Orlok, old bogeyman who's lost his bogey because real life mass murderers are so much scarier than some old man in a robe with a candelabra walking along shadowy Corman corridors, he thinks. He gets a chance to test that theory when things get all post-modern during a confrontation with a Whitman-style mass murdering sniper who has opened fire at a drive-in showing THE TERROR (1963). Karloff/Orlok is scheduled to make his 'final personal appearance' there and when he figures out what's going on, he steps up to the plate with relentless big star authority.
If you watch some of the video footage shot outside the Aurora theater (above) during the attack you see just how disturbingly apt this comparison is; there is after all a lot going on at a big multiplex even at midnight, making the event seem strangely muffled; while wounded survivors file out of the building all bloody and red in the face from tear gas, there are enough people in Batman costumes standing around in the lobby, enough loud video games being played, that it's hard to think the blood isn't part of some fan tribute; the people aren't screaming and causing a commotion, they're wandering through the lobby like stunned, doped-out, half in-shock viewers who've just been traumatized by a particularly brutal horror film.
In deconstructing the tragedy in Aurora please note I mean no disrespect to the victims (or the violence in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin which erupted as I was writing this) but since the actual text of RISES involves random acts of political violence and random mass murder--and the subtext critiques America's love for guns and action movies, celluloid, tear gas, blood and torn flesh--it's worth noting the metatextual resonance. The real-life violence in Aurora was senseless and horrific, but there it is, and has to mean something in relation to the themes of the film, even if neither the shooter nor Chris Nolan meant it that way. It can't be an accident, even if it's totally random. One must find the metatextual kernel, the Rorschach blot of terror mustn't stay unlabeled, because no man is an island, no act ever isolated from its context. So perhaps this post is sort of like the cracked 'production for use' explanation Hildy dreams up for Earl Williams, the murderer of the 'colored policeman' in Howard Hawks' HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Williams' having been enthralled by a soap box preacher's sermon on 'production for use' relates perhaps to whatever the Aurora shooter gleaned from the America's own obsession with guns and violence, particularly in Arizona, where half the population has concealed weapon permits. Never using your expensive gun collection for anything other than target practice has to create some deep resentment on the part of gun nuts; they all, I theorize, secretly long for a zombie attack or commie invasion so they can board up their house and start blasting with impunity. If they should lose touch with reality via schizophrenia, or angel dust... then that attack may seem to have already happened, so anything you do is all right with the law, God, and the talking dog next door.
|His Girl Friday (1944)|
The question of who's at fault has still never been answered, but Peter Bogdanovich had already the writing on the wall and over 40 years later the craziness of his white-clad sniper finds an even more horrific expression.
"If someone comes to a movie with a gun, who's at fault?" asks Warriors' film editor David Holden. Someone did just that at a drive-in showing on the night of February 12 in Palm Springs, Calif. and killed a teenager. Some 165 miles away, on the same night, an 18-year-old bled to death in a darkened theater in Oxnard, Calif. after being knifed by an unruly gang. And three nights later a Boston high school student was murdered outside a subway station, allegedly by two young men who had just come from the film." -- (People Magazine) (see my piece "Manhattan Sinking Like a Rock")
The bland new breed of bogeyman in TARGETS isn't a gang-banger or orange-haired schizophrenic but a young man named Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly), who is still something of a 'nice' boy, with a big normal man smile for the world. But things aren't right under the surface: he and his wife still live with his parents and sleep together in his old room, an extended family shoved into a nuclear suburban space. We see a scene of Bobby and his dad bonding over shooting some cans out in a field, demonstrating their excellent aim, and talking of a hunting trip, so clearly this is how Bobby Thompson sees becoming a man, a head of the household, eventually getting out on his own--with a gun. Of course that's conjecture too. Bogdanovich leaves the man's motives for his random violence deliberately vague.
Don and I had decided that it was vitally important to go back as soon as possible to the movie theater and finish watching The Dark Knight Rises. The shooter’s intent was to cause fear, injury, and death. We escaped injury and death. Whether it was due to luck, fate, our military training, or all three, we’ll never know. But we both refuse to let fear consume us. We refuse to allow this one madman to injure our minds and spirits the way he tried to injure our bodies. If we let fear overtake us and prevent us from living bold, authentic lives, the shooter—and other murderers like him—wins.I love the rhetoric in that quote, because it sounds so much like the dialogue of DARK KNIGHT, a grand statement of principles. By seeing RISES, it implies, one is taking a stand against those who would prevent us from living bold, authentic lives. Of course this can't actually be true in any literal way unless seeing a film (where people are shot at) through to the end is more 'authentic' than the real life act of being shot at. But the real reason I bring it in to this post is to illuminate the way 'real' violence is, as we perceive it when it's happening around us or to us, in the moment, is more unreal and dream-like than the violence onscreen. The military training of this couple saved their lives since they were familiar enough with tear gas and guns through their basic training and service overseas that their feet carried them out faster than most of the audience, who didn't have the response deliberately built into their reflexes.
I can only imagine being an Arizona suburbanite, a bit sleepy from waiting around for hours past bedtime to catch this screening, and now, just when it's getting good, this nonsense. It was probably, some thought at first, just some kids sneaking in from outside and setting off smoke bombs and firecrackers to get people to run out of the theater so the kids could grab the vacated seats. That's probably what I would have thought. Having never been to war or boot camp or fired a gun more than a few times years and years ago, I doubt I could have shaken ff my complacent, hypnotized film viewer veneer-- and react appropriately --- in such a short time (see my piece on the '70s Savagery Switchpoint' here). In Israel or Iraq I bet you they'd be on their feet and outside in seconds, and six armed guys or girls in the theater would return fire, but in the U.S., even those with concealed weapon permits aren't going to bring their gun to a midnight movie.
But back to the idea of 'authentic lives' --- why is it so easy for the digital sound, massive crowd scenes and swooping CGI of Gotham City under siege to resonate as authentic but not the actuality of a 'real' in-theater attack, which conversely resonates only as a surreal nightmare? Maybe because movies start at a certain time, and the placards for no talking, smoking or cell phones, the darkening of lights, the playing of the theater chain's theme music all work like Pavlovian hypnosis to prepare us to submerge into the realm of a group waking dream. But when a madman opens fire in real life where are the Pavlovian triggers to warn us, to signal to our reptilian brains to disengage from heightened relaxation and into fight or flight? The theater is generally one of the only places outside of our own homes where we feel, if only for an hour or two, secure.
But I wonder if Nolan feels the same way. He seems to need to justify the idea of a rich orphan in tights and a cape. He wants to make an 'important' picture about the 99% but he still needs to factor in superheros, gadgets and villains. Half the movie goes by with Wayne and his butler and Commissioner Gordon talking about how important it is that the cape be worn, as if the film is afraid someone will laugh at it instead of with it, like some jocks will sneer at old Batman as he flies by and crush his iron spirit. But what Nolan doesn't understand is that we can accept a guy in a bat costume easily as long as he's onscreen. Offscreen he's just a nerd. And nerds aren't a threat.... r-r-right?
Wrong. We don't need civics lesson sermons to think of Batman as 'important' to Gotham. The more you try to make a superhero 'realistic' the less realistic he is. For example: I have lived in New York City since 1993 and inhaled some white dust during 9/11 and there was nothing noble or heroic about it as a bystander (rescuing people or being rescued was different I'm sure). For me and my friends at least, it was just surreal, like a Bruce Willis movie came down and swallowed us whole. We thought the world was over, and here we were with nowhere to go or idea of safety, so we went out and got ice cream. I didn't get the full emotional weight until I went to my uptown AA meeting which had always been rich with cops and firemen -- and half their friends and co-workers were gone. If Batman had raised his hand in that meeting and started croaking sanctimoniously about how this beautiful city must be saved because the people need a hero and blah blah we would have shaken our heads in disbelief the way Jebediah shakes his head at Charlie Kane thinking he can "make them a present of liberty."
And that's why on some level--within the context of the film and not in any real life anti-American way way---Bane becomes the real hero of DARK KNIGHT. Bane's posh Germanic nasal accent makes him continually hilarious--he's the Arnold Schwarzenegger body with the Jeremy Irons as Claus Von Bulow voice, and even if his whole shebang turns--SEMI SPOILER--out to be a dead ringer plotwise for a certain Bond movie co-starring Sophie Marceau, and is structured like an inverse version of V FOR VENDETTA--END ALERT, Bane's got natural charisma and oomph that contrasts with Wayne's morose state of Hughes-ish retirement and preference for natty ethics lectures over light-hearted capering.
As for the rest of DARK KNIGHT there's the feeling of constantly counting down to some big event that never quite lives up to the momentum and gravity of the build. "The storm is coming" as Cat Woman (Anne Hathaway) says, and for awhile we can really feel it, as if the stretch of time in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS between when Hannibal first snatches the paper clip to when he 'unmasks' in the ambulance is stretched out to an hour length. But after that, RISES loses its momentum and gets stuck in the sand, no longer SILENCE but HANNIBAL.
Incidentally it's Anne Hathaway as Cat Woman who saves the movie, with flexibility, roundhouse kicks, gigantic pointed heels (which she uses like Elektra uses sai) great eyeliner, and a flair for one-liners rare in this genre. As did Heath Ledger before her, she figured out how to vibe with Nolan's gloomy urban studies project and still have a good time. She reminds us that what made the 1960s TV show so amazing was that we were always secretly rooting for the hip villains. Batman and Robin were hilariously square and anyway it was just endless fisticuffs and letting the other side get away either by not chasing them very hard or letting them keep their utility belts even after tying them up and subjecting them to that week's cliffhanger deathtrap. That sense of droll sportsmanship was removed for the original Tim Burton remake and never returned. Compared to the Dark Knight series, the serio-operatics of Burton are like slapstick comedy, replaced by a doom metal depressive version of a metropolis, where courage and honor and pain and blood are endlessy debated in low, hissing whispers as pounding tribal drums vibrate the theater into submission.
The surreal meta highlight for me, seeing the film this afternoon in a dingy black shoebox theater at the edge of Prospect Park, was the momentary silence amid the din of thundering, booming percussive soundtrack, the momentum which has been slowly increasing for the last hour suddenly stops and it's just a child singing the Star Spangled Banner at some sparsely attended football game. The whole incessant countdown of Bane's evil plan of citywide rising up from the sewers of unemployment, lost boy syndrome, and toxic repression, is go, and the rockets red glaaare / bombs bursting.... and in the silence of just this kid singing suddenly I looked around and up at the round dimmed lights above and around me inside the shoebox and there was a sound like a radio or some other movie maybe blasting behind us, and around us, and it seemed like it was playing in the stadium onscreen and for a moment the film loomed forward and swallowed us like an inverse 3-D.
Actually in a weird synchronistic turn of events, the actor who plays Klaus, I mean, the Humongous, or toe-cutter, is Thomas Hardy, who was set to star in MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD.... as Max. But it stalled... two years ago. This apocalypse, sshhhhh, never happened.
|What a puny plan.|
|Just walk away|
Actually RISES and ESCAPE are a lot alike. Both have heroes who talk in whispers like they're trying to be super tough (don't forget that, like Bale, Kurt had been a child actor), and both have great premises--Manhattan with the power out as a criminal utopia--and both spend an hour leading up to some big promise of a huge apocalyptic adventure that never pans out--but at least one takes itself seriously enough to not take itself serious at all. And that one has Adrienne Barbeau and Black Moses.
DARK KNIGHT is also, among other things, about becoming old and established and suddenly dreading the dirty unkempt youths clamoring at the gates. "The world belongs to the young -- let them have it." says Orlok in TARGETS. Like Wayne hanging up his mask, Orlok surrenders the keys to horror's vehicle to the bland mass murderers like Holmes, Whitman, Huberty, and Bobby Thompson while Wayne lets Gotham turn Batman into a villain to protect the reputation of Two-Face. "I'm to old for play acting; it's not fun anymore," Orlok repeats, as his assistant, agent, and Bogdanovich himself as a writer, try and talk him out of leaving. As Orlok gets drunk he sound like Bruce Wayne arguing his justification for hiding out to Alfred.
Orlok's little tantrum is in a way as detrimental to those around him as Wayne's feeling of irrelevance, or Sullivan refusing to make any more comedies while people are starving in the world. Orlok doesn't realize that we've never been really scared by films like THE TERROR, rathery they serve a purpose similar to Sullivan's Ants in Your Plants of 1939, or the 1960s Batman TV show; they actually reduce terror through a kind of camp filtration. We recoil from the mundane reality of true horror; we wince to see how Bobby's clothes and family home furnishings even match the industrial white/gray of the industrial silo tower from which he first opens fire on passing commuters, reflecting him as the ultimate product of banal American conservative conformity. Bobby's mass murdering rage is a result perhaps of feeling trapped in the kind of beige neo-realist movie Sullivan wants to make, the kind Orlok thinks would be scarier than his Victorian Gothic Poe adaptations. What Orlok, Wayne, and Sullivan dosn't see from their upperclass vantage point is that people like Bobby Thompson are already walled-in, buried alive, beyond help, THE PREMATURE BURIAL or Madeline Usher writ upon the dry-wall and beige house paint of suburbia.
And the flairs of conscience that come through Orlok's smug drunk countenance in TARGETS are a nice mirror to Bobby Thompson's vague attempts to try and talk to someone in his family before his sprockets blow. But neither can escape their destiny, Bobby's family can barely move their eyes away from the comedian on TV as he tells them of his vague dread and Orlok's conscience compels him to attend the drive-in premiere he vowed to miss.When Orlok finally gazes down at the face of the new banal evil he's been fearing not impressed--his rage overwhelms any fear of being shot and he advances on Bobby like he truly is the kind of unstoppable killer Bobby only pretends to be 'in movies.' Bogdanovich films Karloff looking down in rich dark shadows, his face menacing, the bullet graze on his forehead ignored, and suddenly he's the looming monster he was in THE CRIMINAL CODE (1929), which he and the director Peter B. watched--drunk--on TV the night before.
If we can learn a lesson from either--or both--DARK KNIGHT RISES and TARGETS it's that in the end, the celluloid always wins. The intended victims must go back to finish watching the movie with no further 'real life' interruptions, or else live inauthentic lives. Whether it's a super-expensive three-hour tour of guns and sound and urban studies-signifying fury, or just a super-cheap Gothic faux-Poe AIP Corman production like THE TERROR, the show must go on. And in a world full of banal chaos and unlimited ammo, the old monsters with their castle basement torture devices, bats, spiders, science gadgets, high-tech motorcycles and swanky bullet proof bat armor-are our only true defense.
Of course I see it all through my own life lens, as someone who has THE TERROR on blu-ray and loves it to death even though he knows it pretty much sucks. My mom decorated our house growing up in the same damned beige and sickly pale greens of the Thompson house in TARGETS, and I climbed the walls like an entombed Usher before I learned to escape into the deep shadowy colors of whiskey and 60s horror movies on TV. I survived thanks to Karloff and thanks to Vincent Price as Dr. Goldfoot and Egghead and thanks to Julie Newmar and Ceaser Romero in the 1960s BATMAN TV show, and Howard Hawks' SCARFACE, and Tom Fergus as Claude in OVER THE EDGE. I didn't survive because of gritty urban neo-realism--ugh! who needs it?--or movies too mature for gaudy capes and ray guns. But if angry young hotheads of the future can similarly escape thanks to Anne Hathaway and Thomas Hardy, can avoid going postal by one more viewing of their favorite DC superhero, then Frank Miller and Bob Kane be praised, even if it means that things are so weird out there that the urban grit of neorealism has seeped into our escapist universe and the screen will eventually widen until its edges can no longer be discerned and CGI will be bleed into our 3-D world like the soul bled into the flesh of Ahab as he stays home to catch White Whale Week... only on the Discovery Channel. Thar she blows, right after this message.