The Dangers of Film's Dark Side

6:00 AM PST 07/24/2012 by Todd McCarthy

After the production code collapsed, Hollywood had license to show unfettered violence, a rare trip wire for the sick that THR's chief film critic argues should not be denied.

When I led my review of the new Batman film July 15 by noting that "the real-world threats of terrorism, anarchy and economic instability make deep incursions into the cinematic comic book domain in The Dark Knight Rises," there was no way to imagine that gruesomely real-world violence soon would assault an actual audience. Although moviegoers still turned out in large numbers, clearly some people who intended to see the film on opening weekend stayed home; at least for a while, it will be hard to go to a movie theater and not look around for suspicious characters, check the location of the exits or, during violent scenes, be reminded of the massacre in Colorado.

When director Christopher Nolan expressed shock over the incident and issued his condolences to the families, he described a view that most of us whose lives and livelihoods are centered on film probably hold as well, that "the shared experience of watching a story unfold onscreen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theater is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me."

Virtually every art form presents an opportunity for escapism. Films, because they can be so all-enveloping, transporting us to other worlds, seducing us with beautiful images and music and enticing us with beautiful people, have it all over the other arts in this regard. Movie theaters seem like privileged sanctums, darkened preserves where we can forget real-life pressures and let a semi-dream state take over.

At least partly because one's mind and emotions become so directly engaged by an effective film, there is perhaps no other public gathering space where one can feel both alone and, historically, safe; watching a movie can be a profoundly communal experience when you sense that your own reaction is shared by those around you.

So, quite apart from the horror of the deaths and injuries, Nolan's feeling of violation of this special domain is not trivial at all because this violation could -- however subtly -- erode people's notion of a cinema as a privileged preserve.

Whenever something as hideous and unspeakable as the Aurora massacre happens, professional pontificators get busy pointing fingers at whatever they suspect inspired or set off the crime. At least since the late 1960s, when the production code that enforced strictures against explicit sex and violence in movies collapsed, Hollywood has been on the receiving end of many complaints about a "sick" society and about being the cause or at least the inspiration for all manner of licentious behavior. Along with the elimination of censorship came the abrupt drop in imposed morality standards, so that films suddenly had permission to show that crime could sometimes pay and good guys didn't always win. The debates soon started about the desensitization of the populace in the face of screen violence, followed by bland acceptance of the fact.

In the movie world, critics who voiced the conservative side in this argument were toast; his vehement attacks on the violence in Point Blank and Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 branded longtime lead New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther an old fuddy-duddy and got him put out to pasture (which is where he belonged, not so much for his views on violence as for the fact that his mania entirely blinded him to the artistic brilliance of these films). Since then, it has been the norm for liberal-left or apolitical critics to be nonjudgmental about screen violence, for several reasons: Realistic violence has now been routine in movies for decades, many of the best directors excel at its depiction, and few critics want to come right out and say that films they love might be responsible for murderous behavior.

Well, I'll say it; I'm willing to believe that the "suspect" in the heinous slaughter of film viewers the other night might well have been overtaken by delusions or desires of being the Joker, just as I have no reason not to believe that the jerk who wanted to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan was inspired by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Films can be mightily impactful and persuasive experiences, and so can evil or antisocial characters when played by such brilliant actors as Heath Ledger and Robert De Niro.

But millions of us were fascinated by the Joker, Bickle, Hannibal Lecter and all the other twisted souls of the movies and felt no need to use them as role models. It can be argued that having attractive actors play such parts on the big screen glamorizes them in the minds of the impressionable, and there is admittedly a big difference between the Joker as portrayed in cartoon-like fashion by Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson and in "so serious" mode by Ledger. The second and third Dark Knight films aesthetically bring the menace of comic book cinema and the real world closer together than ever before, with unforeseeable dark consequences.

Of course movies influence and motivate people: They encourage us to look or talk a certain way, to adopt certain habits, to learn how to be cool. When movies take us to the "dark side," as modern cinema has proven particularly apt at doing, they might open up mysterious psychological and emotional corridors that we rarely visit and might be afraid of. Normally the visits are temporary, good for a kick or thrill but no more.

For a few, however, such unlocked doors may lead somewhere, most likely to something that was always there but had never been awakened. Despite their pervasiveness in culture, movies, TV shows, books and songs seem to me far less likely to serve as trip wires than religious or ideological fanaticism, grudges, personal slights or soccer team rivalries. But they can be, and I don't see why this should be denied.

Along with mourning for the victims and the proper punishment of the culprit, I would vigorously support a public (not industry-sponsored) mass movement to reinstate the primacy and pleasure of movie theater attendance as one of the great communal entertainment experiences. Any fear and trepidation people feel must be honored and acknowledged but also overcome. If some people feel like staying home for a while, so be it. But a lone maniac with delusions of homicidal grandeur can't be allowed to hold our most basic desires for creative, social and escapist gratification hostage.

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