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maryann johanson | takeaway only

question of the day: Why are we debating the violence that fills movies when we should be debating their despair?

The Dark Knight Rises

I wish I didn’t feel the urge to keep talking about the Aurora multiplex shootings, but I suspect I’m going to be worrying at it for quite a while, trying to make sense of it. The situation is not helped when I come across a provocative new angle, as I did in Owen Gleiberman’s piece at PopWatch entitled “The ‘Dark Knight’ massacre raises the haunting question: Why does pop culture inspire people to kill?”

I have some problems with some of Gleiberman’s points, but one thing here rang a bell of discovery:

[M]ost of the movies that these killers have fixated on, from Taxi Driver to Natural Born Killers to The Dark Knight, haven’t been exploitation films. They’ve been powerful works of art. Yet a major part of what makes them powerful is that they tap into the deep dark waters of our hidden nihilistic sides. The neon-garish, midnight-street-steam audacity of Taxi Driver is that it’s a movie that dares to put you in the shoes of an urban sociopath. The line between identifying with Travis Bickle and stepping back to see that he’s gone off the deep end is thin indeed. And part of the allure of Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is that he makes the Joker a freaky-cool psycho outcast, a rock star of mayhem. In a way, to want to fuse with the antic spirit of Ledger’s acting is part of what the movie teases out in us.

Gleiberman goes off to talk about empathy, and the lack of it, among those who copycat such films, but what strikes me about what he says here is that these movies are full of rage and despair, and it’s that that some disaffected people connect to in such an motivating way. It’s not about the level of violence that pervades a film, it’s the emotional and psychological tenor of the film. I mean, Michael Bay’s movies are crammed with the most outrageous violence, but no one was inspired by Transformers: Dark of the Moon to commit any acts of violence. Bay’s movies may inspire despair in some of us movie lovers, but they are not in themselves despairing — they’re rather cheerful, in fact.

As I write this, it suddenly seems like a banal point: Of course only the angry films inspire angry people to take some sort of horrific action. Yet I’m not sure the whole big mess of this pop culture conundrum has been framed this way before: the discussion is always about movie violence without much consideration for its context. Shouldn’t we be worried that the despair of these movies is so recognizable to so many of us… not just to those who do terrible things as a reaction but to the most law-abiding, most gentle of us in the audience? Nolan’s Batman films, Taxi Driver, whatever: these movies only work when some small part of all of us identifies with Travis Bickle or the Joker. Even if we don’t want to admit that that’s the case. Part of what makes them art is that they find this secret thing in us and make it plain.

So: Why are we debating the violence that fills movies when we should be debating their despair? Is it because it’s too painful to admit to ourselves that we feel the same despair? Because we don’t want to acknowledge the “deep dark waters of our hidden nihilistic sides”? Is fixing the societal despair that infects so many of us so much bigger a problem than even other seemingly intractable matters such as gun control or mental health care?

To be perfectly clear, I am not suggesting that we should ban or censor movies full of despair! I’m suggesting that these despairing movies are doing too good a job of reflecting our society, and it’s our society we should be concerned with, not the messengers who deliver this news.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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