By Armond White
The Christopher Nolan Batman movies are not exactly life affirming, so why do pundits refuse to connect those films to last week’s Aurora, Colorado, massacre at the midnight showing of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises? Instead, the problem of the films themselves has been swept away by a torrent of political distraction over gun control. After this clash of cinema and reality, have we forgotten that culture either dooms or defines us? Over-smart responses to the shooting resemble the mindless state of most contemporary cultural commentary. It takes escapism–whether in movies or journalism–to a maniacal extreme by uniformly ignoring the causal relationship between the Christopher Nolan franchise and the murderous actions of James Egan Holmes (12 deaths and 70 injured persons) whose disguise resembled the role that Heath Ledger played in 2008’s The Dark Knight; even referring to himself as Ledger’s character, The Joker.
Holmes’ joke made the connection plain. Yet, standard-setting media consistently ignores the effect of movie content and idly promotes film as product. (See Charles Hurt’s marvelously blunt denunciation in The Washington Times http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/jul/24/hurt-letter-christopher-nolan-sean-penn-warner-bro/?page=2)
In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, confusion began with Roger Ebert’s misleading reaction in a New York Times Op-Ed on July 20. Evincing sociological and cultural denial, Ebert turned “I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence” into a meme for his followers. Once again, tolerance for movies without substance or morality bled into social discourse. Another publication defended Nolan’s franchise, claiming Holmes “was not driven by those movies to slaughter…His actions needed no model in a fictional monster.” But facts, such as Holmes’ guise and diabolical plotting, prove the exact opposite.
Even before the film’s opening, a mainstream outlet’s essay broke the “embargo” studios usually impose on critics so as to prepare the movie’s social and political Pop status. That critic made facile, specious analogies between the tent pole event and the upcoming November Presidential election, a favorite tangent for Left pundits but a disastrous one for critics to risk unless a film has actually made an impact on the world. It’s difficult to assess this impact when Obama went to see The Dark Knight on vacation during 2008’s primaries; the publicized event sanctioned the film as a culture choice. This authorized Batman as a cultural totem and, eventually, one reviewer’s glibly mixed adjectives of improbable, genre-defying interpretations: “He is savior and destroyer, human and beast, the ultimate radical individualist and people’s protector. Yet as the series evolved, this binary opposition has grown progressively messier, less discrete…[it] further muddies the good and-evil-divide.”
The only thing that critic got right (she’s probably embarrassed now) was her blurb that “[Nolan’s] timing couldn’t be better.” Holmes might have been reading–along with customers of that fateful midnight premiere.
For years now, we’ve all read movie reviews that justify a culture of death and destruction. Can we ever recover from movies’ spiritual decline over the past few decades? Standard praise for “dark,” “wicked,” “twisted,” “subversive,’ “transgressive” dramas or comedies has lowered film culture. Can we continue to pretend this has no effect? That it doesn’t influence the already deranged? That legislated gun control answers a spiritual and aesthetic crisis?
The crisis begins with filmmakers who are not conscientious. A new hierarchy of Archnihilists holds sway: Nolan, Soderbergh, Cronenberg, Haneke, Tarantino, Fincher, Aronofsky, Winterbottom plus a newsmedia that indulges the fashion for anti-humanist entertainment.
A bizarre twist of cultural values could be felt in reports that endlessly repeated a catch-phrase describing The Dark Knight Rises as “the year’s most anticipated film.” By whom? Mainstream media fails to identify or particularize the audience that is susceptible to Batman hype; it perpetuates the idea that the series’ appeal is universal. Intrinsic to that fraudulent notion is an attitude that absolves Hollywood of any artistic or moral responsibility. Film critics who dared hold forth on the Aurora catastrophe all demonstrated a simplistic boosterism: “No matter what, don’t blame Hollywood.”
To draw a connection between Holmes’ killings and Nolan’s negativity requires rigorous critical thought which media pundits, quack psychologists and politicians are reluctant to do. Attributing this catastrophe to lax laws overlooks the effect that popular culture has on individuals and how it might eventually lead to a broader, dangerous social effect.
Ebert’s unhelpful commentary continues his box-office-friendly, Pulitzer-prised film reviewing. This links to the absurd Dark Knight Rises hype just before Holmes’ rampage–the media’s embarrassing trifle over the Rotten Tomatoes website’s commentary pages where routine insults and death threats were exploited to further promote the film’s release. RT’s prominence derives directly from the careless approach to film that Ebert instituted on television, nullifying critical response to grades, rating, sound-bites–thumbling.
This popularized, non-evaluating approach is the basis of the Internet free-for-all that has been declared as “democratizing” criticism. But it essentially minimizes the insight and sensitivity and taste that ought to be brought to cinema. Here is where fanboys rule, especially their juvenile hostilities. (Death threats have been posted at Rotten Tomatoes for years, especially following negative reviews of Toy Story 3, Inception, District 9, so it’s no surprise that they’re viciousness is eventually reflected in James Holmes’ gruesomely realized death threats). This anarchic, indiscriminate approach to criticism parallels film culture’s laissez faire permissiveness and pseudo-sophistication.
The most life-affirming movie so far this year is one most critics ignored, Andre Techine’s Unforgivable. Techine’s film contains one of the most violent scenes in any contemporary work of serious art. It rates detailing in light of The Dark Knight Rises’ widening aesthetic and political confusion.
When an emotionally disturbed youth reacts to a cruising gay man by angrily pushing him the into a Venetian canal, the would-be suitor gets even by killing the youth’s pet. The latter sequence jolts audiences every time I’ve seen Unforgivable; Techine ensures that we feel the shock of violence and goes further to convey the troubled youth’s pain, the gay man’s pain and the terrible, conflicting motivations of each. The political resonance of that hideous act electrifies current attitudes toward violence and makes them problematic; it challenges our loyalties–especially toward the sanctity of identity politics. Techine’s probing look at a modern family’s unconventional histories and interconnections flirts with antisocial behavior but, despite a photogenic cast, never glamorizes transgressions. This is adult art, not pop trivia derived from comic books, which means its complexity derives from life-awareness. Nothing in Nolan’s Batman movies is as complex, nor ultimately as illuminating about the nature of human behavior and society‘s complicatedness. Nolan simply wants violence to be fun–and to be rich.
Consider the praise describing Nolan’s “postmodern, Sept. 11 epic of ambivalent good vs. multidimensional evil.” This is a recrudescence of Reagan-era knee-jerk rebellion; retreating to juvenile pop culture as a safe, if overblown, expression of political dissent. And the same critic’s assessment “Batman has always been a head case,” recalls the facile countercultural psychoanalytic preferences–secularized attitudes, divorced from moral precepts–that now dominate mainstream film culture through negative emphasis on dystopian storylines and apocalyptic scenarios. Nolan’s Batman films epitomize this pessimism.
It is obtuse to excuse such nihilism as expressing a legitimate social vision, especially when Nolan uses the Batman legend to exploit 9/11 and entertain the destruction of society through hyperbolic acts of terrorism and assassination. Despite media puffery, Nolan is dealing with political ideas he doesn’t understand (as in a ridiculous evocation of the French Revolution via Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). His repetitious, though extravagant, action scenes reveal an undeveloped sense of good and evil as proved by the confused motives of his hero and the obscured motives of his villains, the murky League of Shadows, The Joker, Two-Face Harvey Dent, Catwoman, Bane.
However you look at the July 20 tragedy–and I didn’t want to have another go at The Dark Knight Rises but this occurrence makes it necessary–it doesn’t take a forensic scientist to see how Holmes (“The Joker”) laid out the problem that the mainstream media desperately evades. (Remember how Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton’s 1989 film defaced the very idea of “Art“?) Holmes did it on Nolan’s own decadent terms.
But praise for The Dark Knight Rises shows that we have lost a proper sense of tragedy (it’s muffled in Nolan’s deadly “ambivalent“ heroism and fantastic villainy), which is to say we’ve lost the humane scale of measuring popular art. Another prominent reviewer praised Nolan’s work as “a visually stunning series of ruthless set pieces that made almost zero sense as a narrative…A jolly sadism was the dominant effect.” This is exactly the kind of prevarication that let loose the anarchy of midnight marauder screenings where unwise parents took children to see mindless, violent spectacle.
Credit that critic for admitting “I was in a foul mood when [2008’s The Dark Knight] was over.” But he seems to have lost the confidence to trust his aesthetic instincts. Instead, he went deferential: “When I talked to some very smart young friends about it, the absence of logic and perverse cruelty was exactly what they thought was cool. For them, the dissociation from emotion freed an aesthetic response to extreme acts, to beauty. But even aesthetic ecstasy should run into a wall at some point.”
However, “aesthetic ecstasy” contradicts “a foul mood.” Where’s the beauty when narrative coherence is missing? Those “very smart young friends” could only have been other deluded film critics. Rightly noting that “The sophisticated response to movie violence that has dominated the discussion for years should now seem inadequate and evasive,” that reviewer is not talking true sophistication, just sophistry. Morally bankrupt and in willing collusion with the film industry.
To inflate pop culture with meanings it doesn’t earn jeopardizes a critic’s purpose. The challenge–and argument–are as old as movies itself. The use of violence as Pop Art makes the discussion vexing. (And I intend this to be a discussion; not an “attack” on other critics but an attempt to encourage discourse.) Nolan’s use of the Batman fantasy doesn’t represent the complex fears of modern, post-9/11 culture; sadly, he reduces those fears to mere entertainment.
But critics cannot have it both ways.
Nolan’s uncertainty about heroism and evil does not serve our urgent need for clarity. Instead, it dissolves our concerns into miasma–the dismal circumstances by which Colorado citizens sought pleasure in chaos.
Our infatuation with dystopic behavior in movies has come home to roost. It is hypocritical to pretend that after years of celebrating sociopathy (as in Oscar tributes to such ugly characterizations as Charlize Theron in Monster, Denzel Washington in Training Day, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, Monique in Precious, Ledger in The Dark Knight) that we don’t recognize James Holmes’ madness. The widely broadcast photos of him sitting in court with his orange-dyed hair, wearing a petulant, unreachable scowl, in fact bears striking resemblance to hiphop’s favorite badboy, Eminem in one of his patented hoodlum-prophet guises.
Desensitized audiences and critics have lost the ability to argue on behalf of edifying or socially redeeming art. Nolan traffics in foul ambiguity and nihilism. Selling “darkness” to teenagers and adults will almost certainly have repercussions and it’s simply thoughtless and dishonest to deny this–whether in bad midnight movie-going choices or psychopathological which, unfortunately came together in Aurora, causing pundits to scramble for the lamest excuses. Make no mistake, promoting gun control is just a lazy, blameless reflex. (Afraid of artistic censorship, pundits petition for public censorship.)
Before entertainment media became politically slanted, the issue of violence was discussed honestly. Back during the controversies surrounding Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, Walking Tall, Taxi Driver, the aesthetics of film violence were openly debated. Since then, in the Tarantino years, violence has simply been accepted as another Hollywood excess we blithely accept and that critics automatically promote. Nolan’s Batman movies differ from controversial films like Taxi Driver that drew clear moral lines between its protagonist’s deranged behavior and the public good. Even Scorsese’s shades-of-gray gangster-movie follow-ups, while being sensationalistic, were clear-cut.
Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) addressed the crisis in The Hollywood Reporter: “The fact that these tent pole movies are all violent comic book movies doesn’t speak well for our society. Obviously, there is violence in the world and you have to deal with it. But there are other ways to do it without showing people getting blown up.”
With aesthetic argument now crushed like a rotten tomato, Nolan’s drab, sadistic, numbing approach to dystopia and death becomes validated as a hipster’s vision. If we don’t learn from this how culture defines us, then the Colorado debacle won’t even be a turning point, just another catastrophe like The Social Network premiering to hosannas the same week that Tyler Clementi was bullied to death on Facebook.
Most critics today are too “sophisticated” to care about the effect cinema has on the world beyond the box-office. Inured to movie violence, they consider themselves saner than James Holmes, they no longer expect movies to “put the sting back in death” as Pauline Kael once said about Bonnie & Clyde. Hollywood, where is thy sting? In Aurora.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair