Monsters in the theater

Rationalizing madness is a fool’s errand.  There is no master narrative, no psychological Rosetta stone that can explain the madness of a James Holmes.  Maybe one day experts will put a label on his madness, but that is just to call it something else, not to explain it.

As the image of Holmes at his first court appearance hit the internet, my first reaction–and I bet lots of others thought the same thing–was that he looks like a villain in a Batman movie.  Wipe that dazed look off his face, and who wouldn’t believe that he was playing, in his mind, a sinister character in a Batman film?  I expect that his appearance was designed to give just that impression and that the timing of his onslaught at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises was very much a part of his sick plan.

I’ve never been a believer that media and art cause (by themselves, at least) violent urges.  But I think they do shape how those urges play out.  Naturally, the social and cultural environment influence the manner in which the violence takes place.  Gunning down innocents by a crazed madman in a theater seems, to me, culturally consistent.  We are appalled at the act, yet if the same scene took place on the screen instead of in the seats, we would simply call it entertainment.  And the more atrocious, the more tickets would be sold.

I doubt I will see the new Dark Knight.  The last one was disgusting enough.  I do not have a problem when filmmakers undertake a study of dark subject matter, including examining characters with violent mental illness.  The world has a lot of darkness and film, as well as other arts, can cast light into that darkness, or at least help us see it and know it.  Many stories, from the serious to the whimsical, center on a battle between good and evil.  Nothing new here.  But what Dark Knight did was revel in darkness.  It celebrated it.  That Batman is a hero set out to fight against evil is of little consequence against this backdrop.

The Dark Knight was well-crafted in every detail, including the masterful and disturbing performance of Heath Ledger.  But to what end?  Ultimately, people (especially testosterone-charged young men) flock to movies like this not for an escape to another world where good conquers evil, but to revel in that evil.  Most American boys are spending the better part of their free time immersed in the darkness and violence of video games.  They go to movies that stimulate those same pleasure centers.  The Aurora tragedy was sickening, but who can really find it surprising?

The most disturbing part of the Dark Knight franchise (and the countless similar movies that pursue the same ends, just less artfully) is not that the films induce violent urges, though perhaps they may.  Instead, what we should all fear is that they cause so much pleasure.

The night is dark, indeed.

10 thoughts on “Monsters in the theater

  1. If you do not see a link between the content of the film and the act of the assasin then why do you fear the interest in and success of the film?

    1. What I’m saying is that violent, aggressive urges are going to exist (all you need to explain those urges is a knowledge of testosterone levels). But how those urges are acted upon is shaped by culture. Some argue that violence and movies are actually escape mechanisms. That is plausible, but I’m very skeptical.

  2. If that was your beef with the second one, you should see the third. The main theme in this one is redemption. Standard trilogy arc, really.

    1. I would feel better about the second movie if I had observed more people leaving the theater subdued and disturbed. But the more common reaction was, “That was so cool; let’s see it again!” The measure of our society is not that people saw the (2nd) Dark Knight film and thought it was well done but that people wanted to see it again and again. That is the truly disturbing thing.

  3. “But to what end? Ultimately, people (especially testosterone-charged young men) flock to movies like this not for an escape to another world where good conquers evil, but to revel in that evil.”

    The ultimate reason people watch Batman is to revel in evil? This is hilariously put. Are all movies about good vs evil like this, or is it just Batman movies?

    Did people go to see the 1989 Tim Burton movie to revel in the evil of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker? Or was that different? (What about Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter?)

    What do you mean precisely by “revel in evil?” Do you think people view villains in these types of movies positively?

    Out of genuine curiosity, is there a way to portray good vs evil in a way where you think people will not “revel” in that evil? Do you have an example of a film or other fiction that fits this example?

    I mean I understand the complaint that various films pornographically engage in violence and brutality for no other purpose than spectacle (sorry Michael Bay), but as, perhaps you recognize, The Dark Knight movie is engaging in something more than that. It is grappling with a many questions about the escalation of violence, the justification of surveillance, etc.

    I mean really, you seem to be leveraging a complaint against all artistic endeavors with violence in them that provoke any level of pleasure from its audience. It’s not an invalid philosophical question, but I don’t think it’s valid to claim audiences go see action movies to revel in evil.

  4. I think Sven’s really onto something here about how culture shapes what people enjoy or don’t enjoy and that this could encourage various forms of evil, but does the Dark Knight (or the sequel) really do what you’re saying, Sven?

    “[W]hat Dark Knight did was revel in darkness. It celebrated it. That Batman is a hero set out to fight against evil is of little consequence against this backdrop.”

    It seems to me there would be a possible test of this claim. Which would do better at the box office? A movie where a Heath Ledger-style Joker defeats Batman or a movie where Batman defeats a Heath Ledger-style Joker? The latter kind of movie clearly gets made a LOT more often than the former.

    Horror movies are kind of an example, where the evil can win, but even there, far more often than not, somebody needs to get out alive (Ripley wins more often than she loses).

    And that’s a problem with the thesis that the superhero genre revels in violence. The more moral character simply has to come off conquerer or the audience isn’t going to fall in love with that story. I think that fact says something even deeper about people (or at least the American movie market). It’s difficult to make a really successful movie that does portray a lot of violence without having the good guys win (Memento was critically acclaimed, but would never touch the box office numbers of a mainstream superhero flick–even some of the bad ones). Moral context still matters for most people. Let’s hope that trend continues.

  5. Sven, I’m hearing a strong puritanical thread in your point of view. I’m old enough to remember the hand-wringing over the movies ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, ‘The Godfather’, and ‘Bullet’, all of which glamorized violence and mafia style criminal activity. In the end I think it has been shown that rational people understand that movies are just movies, and a strong interest in a particular type or genre means nothing much more than that.

  6. I hadn’t seen either of the previous films but they were on my DVR and I finally watched them on the Saturday before the shooting.

    It seemed to me that the parallels to our recent American experience were incredibly immediate and transparent. Not down to every detail, but more the general sense of anger and anxiety that seems to be taking over. And I think people do revel in that atmosphere. Maybe Chris Nolan is just the best at giving them what they want?

    It’s hard to fault art for being too powerful, but I think there’s a reason for the “long time ago in a land far, far away” buffer that typically accompanies pointed allegory. That, I think, is the difference between this series and the 80s/90s series. Those movies were campy enough to keep that buffer intact. The Nolan movies (IMO) threw in some scattered camp that seemed very out of place in an otherwise grim reflection of our current situation. That’s very engaging for the audience, but it might be too much for the fringe to handle.

    But that’s not the art’s fault. We should probably use it as an opportunity to reevaluate what we’re demanding from, and rewarding in, our art, and our culture in general.

  7. There have been some thoughtful replies on this post, which I appreciate. They point me to wonder about the more general question of what draws people to particular kinds of movies. What urges are being satisfied, and is it a good thing (for society) to satisfy those urges? And are urges being satisfied or nourished? Clearly the majority prefer a moral context where good triumphs over evil, although there are many ways that drama can be represented, including different levels of graphic violence.

    And I’m not so sure that movies like Bonnie and Clyde or the Godfather are as harmless as Steve suggests. Just because rational people don’t come home from a movie, cut off the head of an animal, and put it in the bed of someone they don’t like doesn’t mean that those movies have no effect on the coarsening of the culture and the escalation of violence in society through a variety of feedback effects we don’t understand. Of course we had brutality and violence long before we had films, but the argument isn’t that simple.

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