When Sense of Wonder meets Senseless Tragedy: Thoughts on the Dark Knight Rises Massacre

dark knight rises crowd chaos

I might as well warn you up front that I have nothing original or perhaps even very insightful to say about the terrible tragedy that took place at 12:39am on the morning of Friday, July 20, when James Eagan Holmes opened fire on audience members watching a midnight premier of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in an Aurora, Colorado theatre. Incidents such as these shock our sensibilities in such a way that our minds reach out for answers and explanations – or at least insights. The apparent chaos pulls back the veil from our sense of ordered reality – revealing, we fear, an empty void, the existential abyss that we seek to ignore or camouflage in order to main the illusion (if not the reality) of peace of mind. Whether or not nature abhors a vacuum, we – as a species – do. Humans want answers, not the hollow empty echo of questions asked in darkness, with no reply offered in return.

Unfortunately, I have no answers to the big questions arising from the terrible event that took place inside the Century 16 movie theatre, shattering what should have been a joyful moment of shared communal experience. When I look for words of comfort, I find none of my own; inadequate to the task, I reach elsewhere, seeking wisdom from others. In particular, I keep coming back to an excerpt from the speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

For my part, what I want to address here, in my own small way, is the search for answers – the quest for meaning that will somehow make sense of it all. We want some kind of understanding that will help us take our fractured reality and glue it back together. It doesn’t matter whether the cracks show;  these metaphoric scars become, ultimately, honorary medals – tributes to our resilience in the face of physical and emotional devastation. This quest is vital and necessary; unfortunately, it is so desperately necessary that it can sometimes lead us down dark alleyways that may reveal more darkness than light.We jump to conclusions or accept explanations that easily fit into pre-framed narratives.
I do not want to indulge in idle speculation about what motivated the killer, nor will I reach conclusions about what moral lessons we should extract. (Would more stringent gun control have stopped Holmes before he started, or would a couple dozen armed members of the audience have brought him down when he first opened fire? Is violence in movies to blame for violence in real life, or as Michael Moore pointed out, would it make as much sense as blaming bowling for what happened in Columbine?) My narrow focus – trivial, perhaps, in the light of the tragedy – is the weird intersection of art and life and how events such as the Aurora mass murder affect our perception of both.
I use the word “trivial” because discussions of a film’s aesthetic merits seem trivial, in light of real-life suffering and grief. What film could possibly be worth the loss of life? What entertainment value could possibly outweigh the value of another day on this Earth, another moment shared with friends and family?
And yet, regardless of the inadequacies of a fictional film to counter-balance actual death and destruction, film as a medium is not trivial; it rightly holds a place among the arts (in fact, as the “liveliest art,” according to the title of my late professor Arthur Knight’s book on film). Life is important, but life is more than mere survival; love, philosophy, religion, a sense of purpose and/or higher aspirations – all of these help make live worth living, and so do the arts, including film. And film, with its immersive quality, holds a special place among the arts, as our shared dreamland.
We are stunned by the violence that interrupted THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, because movies represent to many of us an escape from reality. In actuality, film, like any art, can and should be a great deal more than that. As novelist John Gardner noted:

Art is essentially serious and beneficial – a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. […] Art builds temporary walls against life’s leveling forces, against the ruin of what is splendidly unnatural in us: consciousness. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.

Yes, movies are “popular entertainment” – a phrase that suggests what Gardner would call a certain “frothiness:” an ephemeral oasis from ennui, a brief vacation from the ordinary – but cinema, especially cinefantastique, can be wonderfully “serious and beneficial” – and invigorating and inspiring. For those of us in the non-reality movie community (i.e., those with an appetite for horror, fantasy, and science fiction), the movie screen is a magic window revealing mystical vistas, electronic labyrinths, and oceanic alternative realities, all of which ignite our Sense of Wonder – the buzz inside our brain, the fire inside our souls, that makes us reach out to the stars, yearning to become one with the universe, able to believe if only for a moment (but hopefully much more than a moment) that “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

It may look like a news photo from the scene of the tragedy, but this is a shot from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
It may look like a news photo from the scene of the tragedy, but this is a shot from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

When the ugly outside reality intrudes, it is with the hideous impact of a nightmarish Freddy Kruger disrupting what should have been our communal dreamscape. The luminous glow is extinguished as the crude matter is torn mercilessly asunder. We are left feeling not merely shell-shocked but spiritually diminished. The void opens before us. The Lovecraftian Crawling Chaos threatens to consume our souls. We find cold comfort, if any at all, the the empty-sounding promise that time heals all wounds. With no great faith or insights to offer, it is really only a willful act of refusal on my part that keeps me from surrendering to despair, that keeps my Sense of Wonder alive. “It’s what I choose to believe,” as scientist Elizabeth Shaw says in PROMETHEUS, echoing the faith of her father – a faith that she willfully maintains, in spite of the grizzly events and damning counter-evidence she endures.
That the dreamscape of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES includes violence is not necessarily indicative of any profound lesson about life imitating art, even though there are indications in this case. (Holmes had dyed his hair bright red or orange and apparently identified himself to police by saying, “I’m the Joker,” a reference to the villain from the previous Batman film, THE DARK KNIGHT [whose hair, by the way, is actually green.) This point of connection, however tenuous, does drive home an inescapable fact, one that normally goes unnoticed – or, more rightly, goes without saying: life and art – at least our perception of art – are inextricably intertwined. To discuss works of art solely in abstract aesthetic terms is to overlook the obvious visceral connection we make when we recognize bits and pieces of our world and ourselves up on the screen.
In one of his essays, the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges wrote something about literature that applies to film as well: no work can be exhausted, because the passage of time brings new context, which changes our perception of the work, opening up new avenues of interpretation. (Borges also illustrated this premise in his story “Pierre Meynard, Author of Don Quixote,” in which a 20th Century author attempts to rewrite Cervantes classic – word for word – but the meaning of the resulting work is entirely different, because of the context in which it was written.) Films do not exist in a never-land, separate from our perceived reality; whether films reflect reality or not, our perception of reality affects our perception of films. Thus, to cite one example: on September 10, 2001, GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS was a light-hearted, entertaining fantasy with lots of “ain’t-it-cool” destruction; after September 11, 2001, all those collapsing buildings became painful reminders of actual horrifying devastation.
However cosmically unjust it is, however much we despise this terrible truth, James Eagan Holmes created a new context for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and to ignore that context suggests a form of self-imposed myopia. As fans and critics of cinefantastique in general and director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy in particular, we at Cinefantastique Online could find ourselves nervously twisting rhetorical utterances into convoluted knots (much as the art critic at the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial twisted her handkerchief into knots, while praising the photograph’s work for its symmetry and shadow – and simultaneously ignoring its deliberately shocking content). We may try to resist the ugly reality, but we would be foolish to do so.
the dark knight rises football stadiumGood or bad, great or indifferent, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES now exists in a reality distinctly disjointed from the one in which it was made and meant to be enjoyed. Classics have weathered such changes, but on a more gradual scale of time. How Nolan’s film will fare in the long run remains to be seen, but not having been made in answer to the events of Aurora, Colorado, it cannot address the issue directly, cannot likely offer us any answers or comfort regarding the tragedy now attached to the film. A few images – a crowded football stadium full of fans suddenly reduced to abject terror, SWAT teams responding to unexpected violence on a disturbing scale – will strike chords of recognition in our hearts, but the Batman’s latest adventure can never salve the wounds of those directly affected by the Aurora massacre, nor perhaps can it even do much to assuage the feelings of those of us who know the event only indirectly.
What it can do – or at least try to do – is what any work of art can attempt: to offer us some entertainment, stir our emotions, make our lives feel a little bit better for a few hours – and perhaps, if it is a great film, for a long time after that. We can watch it, and try to enjoy it, because our enjoyment keeps chaos hidden behind the veil. But the distant echo of gunshots reverberate in our minds if not in theatres, and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to the living and the dead.