"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, an old bogeyman who's lost his yen for making horror films 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.
From accounts of the Aurora incident, there was naturally some initial confusion similar to that in TARGETS, as a gunfire-racked action film full of masked armed weirdoes must have seemed to spill right out of the screen, launching bullets into the audience in a random attack style that opens so many action films (especially now that 3-D is back). It's the sort of thing midnight spook shows used to do all the time in the 50s and 60s, as in MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY, presented in 'Horror-Vision' (which meant actors dressed like the characters came out from behind the screen at key moments)
If you ever watch the video footage shot outside the Aurora theater 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, especially the Thursday at midnight debut of a big superhero franchise film. The loud noises, diegetic gunshots, and video games in the lobby all make the aftermath seem very subdued: wounded survivors file out of the building, all bloody and red in the face from tear gas, zonked--not screaming. There are enough people in Batman costumes standing around in the lobby, enough action film peripherals, that it looks almost like people in the lobby thought the bloody survivors were part of some fan tribute. These people exiting their particular multiplex theater register as little more than 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 indiscriminate 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. For my own sanity I 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. Even if it is.
|"Sure, that's it... Production for use..."|
And this not the first time 'real' murder has mixed with the movies in a very uncomfortable way. There was all that gang violence that erupted at screenings of his 1979 film, THE WARRIORS:
The question of who's at fault when life imitates art (if art imitated life first) has still never been answered, but Peter Bogdanovich had already seen the writing on the wall:
"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, part of an extended family shoved uneasily into a nuclear family 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 them from living bold, authentic lives. Of course this can't actually be true in any literal way. Seeing a film wherein people get shot can't be more 'authentic' than the real life act of being shot at. But the letter does illuminate the way 'real' violence, as we perceive it when it's happening around us or to us, in the moment, seems 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 the average member of the audience, who lacked the benefit of having a quick survival response deliberately built into their reflexes through rigorous training. I can only imagine my own responses based on similar midnight showings I've been to. I'd be a bit sleepy from waiting around for hours past bedtime (or staying moderately sober) to catch this midnight screening, and now, just when it's getting good, this nonsense. I would have first thought; it's just a security guard, or 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 how my mind works. Having never been to war or boot camp or fired a gun more than a few times, I doubt I could have shaken off my complacent, hypnotized film viewer veneer in time to save my own life, to notice the violence onscreen had spilled out in real life and demanded quick action (see my piece on the '70s Savagery Switchpoint' here). In Israel or Iraq, though, I bet 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. Hopefully.
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 submerge us 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 enough to let our guard down.
But I wonder if Nolan feels the same way. He seems to need to justify the idea of a rich orphan brutalizing the lower class. 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, 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 the experience. For me and my friends at least, it was just surreal, like a Bruce Willis movie came down and swallowed us whole. It was like a kind of low level shock. 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 loaded with cops and firemen. A good 1/3 of them were gone - and all were totally shaken, pale and worn to nubs, eyes glazed over, trying to stay sober and work their overtime details. I saw their eyes, and that was as close as I came to the 'real' of the event. I could process it through the mirror reflection of an action movie. But the event had cracked their screens, their ability to cloak the horror in illusion was damaged if not destroyed. 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." The shock and ashen faces were the proof what happened was real--what was onscreen, on TV, was just more imagery. Going downtown to J&R Music World, feeling the weight of the dust in my lungs, even six months later - that was as real as it got. And why was I there? To buy a Blu-ray of THE HURT LOCKER.
And that's why on some level--within the context of the film and not in any real life anti-American way way---the masked sewer villain Bane becomes the real hero of DARK KNIGHT. His posh Germanic nasal accent makes him continually hilarious--he's the Arnold Schwarzenegger body with the 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 it's structured like an inverse version of V FOR VENDETTA, Bane's got natural charisma and assured swagger, which contrasts with Wayne's morose state of Hughes-ish retirement and preference for natty ethics lectures over light-hearted capering. Bane's the screen-shredder, and Bruce Wayne is an agoraphobic TV addict who likes to dress up in black and go smack guys around, but insists there's nothing gay about it.
In DARK KNIGHT, there's the feeling of constantly counting down to some big event that never quite lives up to the first hour's momentum or draggy gravitas. "A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne" as Cat Woman (Anne Hathaway) says, and for awhile we can really feel it coming, as if the stretch of time in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, between when Lecter 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. She offers flexibility, roundhouse kicks, gigantic pointed heels, great eyeliner, and a flair for one-liners rare in this genre. As did Heath Ledger before her, Hathaway figured out how to vibe with Nolan's dour urban studies posturing 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, the villains were the best (and they kept underlings, which means they had more friends, rather than aloof Batman and Robin) and anyway it was just endless fisticuffs and letting the other side get away, either by Batman not chasing the criminals when they flee the scene or the criminals 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, replaced now by a doom metal depressive version of New York City, where courage and honor and pain and blood are endlessly debated in hissed whispers as Hans Zimmer's pounding tribal drums vibrate the theater into submission.
Seeing the film this afternoon in a dingy black shoebox theater at the edge of Prospect Park, the real meta moment--Aurora still fresh in the headlines---was the momentary silence amid the din of thundering, booming percussive soundtrack, that surging clockwork momentum which had been slowly increasing for the last hour suddenly stops at the entrance to a football stadium. The drums go quiet. Pause. Suddenly it's just a child singing the Star Spangled Banner as the crowd waits stands. The whole incessant countdown of Bane's evil plan of citywide rising up from the sewers of unemployment, lost boy syndrome, and toxic repression, all the planning and drumming and quick cuts are now in the past, they are 'ago', 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 from the shoebox opposite the door behind me. The tinny radio -which would have been blocked from the soundscape by all the drums for the whole last half hour-- suddenly was behind us, and around us, in the film or in the hallway, from the walk talky of an usher, an usher at the game onscreen or in the theater behind 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, the walkie-talkie static and voice like a hook snaking out from the screen to yank us off the stage of our seats and into the image, into the dream.
This is it, we thought. And I thought that same thing at the DARK KNIGHT RISES. The moment 'reality' is absorbed into the movies, never to return isn't coming, it never even came, it already went, and we're just hoping for a chance to sneak out without getting shot.
Actually in a weird synchronistic turn of events, the actor who plays Klaus is Thomas Hardy - who is set to star in MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD. This apocalypse, sshhhhh, never happened.
|What a puny plan.|
|Just walk away|
Actually RISES and ESCAPE are a lot alike in more than that respect. Both have heroes with boyish faces who talk in whispers like they're trying to be super tough (don't forget that, like Bale, Kurt Russell had been a child actor - where being older than you look is part of the job), and both have the same great premise: Manhattan with the power shut off = criminal utopia. And both spend an hour leading up to some big promise of a huge apocalyptic adventure that never fully pans out. At least one takes itself seriously enough to not take itself serious at all. And that one has Ike Turner, aka Black Moses aka the Duke of New York... A#1.
DARK KNIGHT instead has Morgan Freeman, and it prefers being about becoming old and established and suddenly dreading the dirty unkempt orphans 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, gives them to the bland mass murderers like Holmes, Whitman, Huberty, and Bobby Thompson. Wayne lets Gotham turn Batman into a villain to protect the reputation of Harvey Dent.
I'm too 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 sounds like Bruce Wayne arguing his justification for hiding out to Alfred, and he even looks a little like 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 because people are starving in the world. Orlok doesn't realize that we've never been really scared by films like THE TERROR or worried over Batman's fate at the cliffhanger end of every other episode of the 1960s Batman TV show. They actually reduce the severity of our daily dread through a kind of sacrificial straw dog camp filtration. We recoil from the mundane reality of true horror, the interminable banality of this limbo world we've made, but Karloff represents a chance to escape into a kind of alternate realm where the horror is more ritualistic (giving shape to the devil weakens his power).
I love the Gothic trappings of THE TERROR, despite it's jumbled narrative, but watching TARGETS, safe at home, we wince to see how Bobby's clothes and family home furnishings 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--the sort we go to movies to escape. Bobby's mass murdering rage is a result, perhaps, of feeling trapped in the kind of beige kitchen sink middle class movie Sullivan wants to make, O Brother Where Art Thou, the kind Orlok thinks would be scarier than his Victorian Gothic Poe adaptations.
What Orlok, Wayne, and Sullivan don't see from their upperclass vantage points, however, is that people like Bobby Thompson are walled-in, buried alive, beyond help, THE PREMATURE BURIAL or Madeline Usher writ upon the dry-wall and beige house paint of suburbia. There's no sense keeping someone buried alive alive, it's torture - but death is freedom. For 25 cents a day you can feed a child in Africa, but then he needs 50 cents --cuz he's bigger, then he needs a dollar, because he's married, and then five, for his kids which you made possible through your charity, and so on. Death is the ultimate air conditioned vacation no one wants to take. It's the ultimate escapism, but the Sullivan/Orlok/Wayne artist thinks it's 'wrong' somehow to not to prolong all life, thus dooming us all in a poisoned, overcrowded white sterile suburban prison, the sort Bobby tries to blast free of.
And Orlok's flairs of conscience, his need to protest his own craft's irrelevance in TARGETS, mirrors Bobby's trying to confess his feelings of dread to his family. Neither can escape their destiny: Bobby's family can barely move their eyes away from the comedian on TV as he confesses his mounting derangement, nor can Bogdanovich and Orlok look away when watching THE CRIMINAL CODE. But when Orlok finally gazes down at the face of the new banal evil he's been fearing (and in a way, surrendering to), he's not impressed. His rage over this interruption of his film 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 while literally 'at the 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 caves, castles, 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 who has THE CRIMINAL CODE on VHS, because he reveres its director Howard Hawks and Karloff -- not because he likes it. My mom decorated our suburban tract 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 and thanks to Julie Newmar, and Howard Hawks, and Tom Fergus as Claude in OVER THE EDGE. I didn't survive because of gritty urban neo-realism. I hate it. Movies too mature for gaudy capes and ray guns are no defense against the banal eternity we dread. 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 have not scribbled in vain. Even if it means that things are so weird out there that the urban grit of neorealism has seeped into our escapist universe, that the screen will eventually widen until its edges can no longer be discerned, and that CGI will be bleed into our 3-D grungy suburban wasteland of world like the soul bled into the flesh of Ahab as he stays home from the sea to catch White Whale Week... only on the Discovery Channel. Thar she blows, shipmates. Production for use.