Tim Kelly has already written a thoughtful piece about the Aurora, CO murders last night, but, for reasons I’ll explain, I have a real need to type this one out for myself as well. I thank you in advance for your indulgence.
For those that haven’t run across the news for whatever reason, the news is simply this: an extensively armed, armored man walked into an movie theater auditorium in Aurora, CO and opened fire on a large crowd assembled to see a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The 24 year old entered the theater though an exit door moments after the crowd had settled in, let loose gas canisters, and during his rampage managed to kill at least 12 and shot a total of perhaps 71 people. The screening was attended by adults with small children, teenagers, and even military personnel from a nearby base. The man was captured and discovered to be James Holmes, a student of the University of Colorado who apparently “was a doctoral candidate in the neuroscience program there. He enrolled at the school in June 2011 and was in the process of withdrawing, the school says.” Unfortunately it also seems as though the killer may have been screaming about being “the Joker” and may even have died his hair, though that’s not entirely confirmed. I won’t be including his widely-circulated (pre-shooting) picture, but it is easily found elsewhere.
The details beyond will unfold in the news over the next day, while everyone from the National Association of Theater Owners, to Warner Brothers, to the President make their statements of condolence. Warner Brothers has been falsely rumored to be mulling a decision to cancel some number of screenings of their blockbuster film, which has been on track for the largest opening of all time, and has already shattered midnight records. What they will do is pull the Gangster Squad trailer, which unfortunately features an explicit sequence of men opening fire on an auditorium of movie-goers.
Like most, I was disturbed to read about this horrific massacre, and I found it particularly difficult to handle having spent vast majority of yesterday holed up in a large movie theater watching the Dark Knight trilogy in IMAX at a suburban cineplex not unlike the one in Aurora. Considering I crashed at 4:00am immediately following the marathon and read about this literally a few moments after I woke up, I spent a while kind of affected by this in a surreal way. For nearly 10 hours I sat in a theater flanked by my parents on one side, and two of my best friends on the other, and it was tough not to place us all in that scenario. Dozens of families with their kids, excited teenagers, and costumed superfans had all assembled to put in an entire day simply watching movies together, and it’s profoundly difficult to read the vivid, horrifying descriptions of the event from victims and bystanders and not mentally play out the details in the theater full of people that I became so familiar with.
It’s not often you have ten hours to grow so attuned to from where in the auditorium the teenaged girl’s laugh is going to come at the rare funny moments, or from where a little boy is likely to audibly gasp at the most epic reveals. With anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour between the films, I had time to meet a few of the people geeking out, to snap a picture with the chubby guy in the bane outfit… There was nothing so romantic as friends made with the guy who got shit for wearing the Spider-Man shirt to a Batman marathon, but it was an unusually personable group experience. For all our romanticism about the communal experience of seeing films in theaters, you so rarely share a face-to-face interaction with the other folks staring in the same direction as you in the big room.
However, an event film like this, especially one that becomes a once-every-few-years cultural phenomenon, is a very special thing where tens of thousands of people do make new friends and put faces to other fans as they stand in hours-long lines, or find their seats the moment the auditorium is opened and then have the next hour of bad music and pre-shows to distract themselves from. We’ve been lucky enough to have two such event this year, but now one of them has been irrevocably tainted, as a crazy person with an arbitrary goal of executing as many people as possible has exploited that cultural moment to bloodily carve his name in the side of it for all to see. We now have to remember James fucking Holmes to some degree whenever we think of this date, this film, these theaters, or this kind of release. The bastard has also managed to trivialize something that would otherwise have been special and fun- so rarely in our fragmented cultural do we have these kind of unifying moments anymore, but who can shed a tear for Warner Brother’s tainted opening or get giddy about broken records when over a dozen people are dead and a dozen families have been senselessly made to suffer wounds both emotional and physical?
Still, the story will become whether or not people still venture out to theaters this weekend, and I suspect that largely they will. Despite the hysteria that the media often puts the biggest lens on, most people know a lightning strike when they see one. On twitter and film blogs there is already the call for people to very deliberately patronize their movie theaters this weekend as a way to show that this doesn’t have to be an event that drives peoples farther from each other and more exclusively into their own homes for entertainment. I fully support that idea, and I hope this represents nothing more than a singular horror, not a point at which a more steady decline in theater attendance can be marked, or the moment when violence in movie theaters became a thing.
And while it does not ultimately matter what was unspooling on that screen when this mad man struck, it is equally foolish to ignore the obvious truth about the subject matter of the Nolan Batman films, especially in light of the recent reports of the killer’s inspiration. Amidst the comic book heroism is an examination of the kind of evil that preys on the fear created by violent spectacle and terrorism, and the big silly villains of the films deal a lot of death by means of automatic gunfire on the innocent. I suspect there will be a lot of silent twinging on faces at some of the colder violence or speeches about fear, and I definitely can’t imagine crowds cheering for the Joker and his madness today as they did last night at my screenings.
Personally, I’m now left a little confused and numb, but I’ll still be going to a movie again tomorrow, and every day after that I have an opportunity to do so. The theatrical experience is too special of a thing to allow a mad man to tear away from me, and I hope the rest of the country’s movie-goers feel the same way. But as I walk beneath the auditorium marque and sit in my seat, I’ll be thinking of the dozens of people that recently did the same, but left their auditorium forever scarred; physically, mentally, or emotionally. I’ll be crossing my fingers tightly for the speedy recovery of anyone hurt, and for the families of the departed as they rebuild from what they’ve lost. We’ll all peek at the exit doors a bit nervously for a while, until we forget and the daily tragedies in all manner of other places crowd out our mind’s ability to be afraid of everything everywhere.
What I think many will discover this weekend though, is that it will be much easier to process these events, feel safe and become hopeful again when they’re surrounded by dozens of others that are themselves looking for catharsis and a brief escape, rather than despairing about the state of the world from behind four walls and a locked door. The movies will keep projecting, the world turning. Whatever debates get stirred up about guns, metal detectors at theaters, or other ways of us feeling like we can fight back or adapt to such madness, it won’t change that sad truth that insanity can come from any place, at any time, and will always find a way. We heal, we remember, and we keep living. That’s what we do. And, hopefully, we keep watching.