When I first heard about the Colorado shooting, I thought immediately of something my father told me. He once described seeing a movie trailer in a theater, sometime in the ’60s, in which a curtain opens on a movie screen, revealing a skeleton in a hooded robe holding a machine gun, who then opens fire on the audience. Hokey as it seemed, I found this image terrifying. I also had no idea what made it so. Was it the violence? The idea of a hooded skeleton? Or was it the meta-ness of it all?
In the trailer, the already thin layer of separation that hangs suspended between what happens onscreen in a film like The Dark Knight Rises, and the spectator’s own reality, had dissolved. Which is why it’s completely understandable that we feel the need to link the impetus of the recent Colorado shooting to the content of the film being shown (at least in part), as if the terrorism and random violence onscreen somehow contributed to the insane decision of one individual. It’s a bit of a ridiculous claim, and most educated people know this. But one thing is certain: from the execution of his plan to the booby-trapping of his home afterward, the orchestrations of James E. Holmes were nothing if not cinematic.
Christopher Nolan‘s original concept for his Batman trilogy was, famously, to make it seem less like the comic book that it originated as, both in the depiction of its events and the superhero at its center, as well as its intrinsically blurred notions of good and evil. The result was a film franchise that appealed to viewers on a level above and beyond fantasy, though still of course rooted in it. Another result was that the ever-imperiled Gotham, in a post-9/11 world, seemed a bit too real, too plausible, for comfort—not that comfort was ever the aim.
The first two films did not lead to, but certainly contributed to, preexisting discussions about the increasingly graphic nature of violence in visual media. But such conversations seem to omit quite a few points. One is that, very recently—most likely since and in no small part because of 9/11—extreme, mind-numbing violence has become an aesthetic all its own, and an extremely pleasing one to mass audiences. And secondly, that the censorship of film content in this country has always been and will always be looked down upon, due to the famous constitutional right of freedom of speech, much publicized—still—as one of America’s unique selling points. To abridge or abort scenes of violence in film would be dishonest. To deny that they have had an effect on all of us is just as dishonest.
Since the Colorado shooting calls for a response of some kind, and since it can’t lead to any censorship on the part of studios or filmmakers, it will lead to the censorship of humans beings, in the form of heightened security. But if we’re making this obvious link between film violence and real violence, we have to wonder why censorship of violence is forgone so automatically? Why we would sooner censor the innocent in response to a crisis, than censor the art that seems to trigger these seemingly random, but almost unquestionably media-inspired, fatal events? What’s more, what exactly is it about violence that appeals to us cinematically? Could it still be the case, after all these years, that within acts of violence (especially for men) there is still the possibility of heroism? And with the complexity of new narratives, will the violence that art encourages be reflected in the meta-ness of the crimes themselves?
By now, we’ve all gotten used to the fact of the Colorado shooting, and that it’s probably not the last of its kind. (At least as used as anyone can be to such a sudden reminder that there is inherent danger in public places.) What we’re not used to is the idea that we’re somehow all responsible for it, and can’t yet figure out how. Art obviously can’t pretend violence doesn’t exist, but it can turn it into a monotonous occurrence that loses its weight. The success of Breaking Bad, I think, hinges on its ability to amp violence up to a nauseating extreme. Since there’s a thin line between violence and awe, the violence we see has to go out of its way to be unpleasant, unstylish, and wholly unnecessary, in order not to appeal to us aesthetically. At the end of the first season, violent acts have only begotten violence, and there is no gain—financial or otherwise—in sight.
Just a trail of dead bodies, without any relationship to justice or heroism. That’s what we need more of. Not movies where the moral world is suddenly endangered in such a way that only one person (a man, mortal) can make it right. Only a simple portrait of the world as it is today: morally questionable, with no real salvation in sight. As a generation, we can’t un-see what we’ve seen, and to try to tone the violence of forthcoming films and videogames down would be a ridiculous act of denial. What we can start doing—in fact, resume doing, as the work of the films of the 70s did, films like The Parallax View, Bonnie and Clyde, and A Clockwork Orange—is to use violence in a non-mindless way, to show it in the random light that it occurs, a light that even the most disturbed and isolated of people can hopefully still be disgusted by.