2:32 pm Jul. 24, 2012
Welcome to Assessment: an occasional tour through the important battles, unimportant critical squabbles, and obsessions of the Internet culture and ideas machine. Today: Thinking about Aurora.
Somewhat predictably, the immediate aftermath of last week's shootings in Aurora, Colo. was a deluge of writing on the topics of violence in the movies; exploitation of tragedy by the media; questions about whether the massive coverage of the life of alleged gunman James Eagan Holmes had tipped over into valorization; the merits of gun-control laws.
What are we likely to come out of this with?
Plenty of the coverage probably is cynical, an attempt to grab readers on topics like gun policy and psychology and victim's rights, to push agendas into the public consciousness at a moment when they might be more eager to contemplate what are normally pretty dry topics. Because of that, they tend to fade away, as time moves past the events, and those most closely connected to them take over the story for themselves again. That’s the usual way.
But the Aurora shootings presented a double whammy: Because the killings occurred in a Century 16 movie theater during a midnight premiere of the most anticipated summer blockbuster of 2012—as opposed to a college campus, or a high school, or a food court—there is both a movie tie-in and a national tragedy tie-in.
That's one reason movie critics were some of the first to descend on the story after hard news outlets reported the carnage.
New Yorker critic Anthony Lane admitted the run-up to the movie had “something feverish and intemperate about it, something out of proportion to its nature,” which provided the dramatic setting Holmes would have wanted for his terrible mission. “The screen gave him a stage,” Lane wrote.
And Roger Ebert, in a highly-tweeted op-ed published the day after the massacre, wrote: “In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in."
For the most part, critics, unsurprisingly, worked to defend the movies from charges that action blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises promote spree killings like the one in Aurora. This tendency was so pervasive that Dana Stevens, writing in Slate (where else?), was compelled to rebuke them. In what she called a “feel piece” (in contrast to the journalistic jargon term "think piece") she wrote: “Why shouldn’t we assume … that the grim, violent fantasies we gather to consume as a culture have some power to bleed over from the screen into real life?” She went on to note that “the economics of the film industry are driven almost entirely by the fantasies and desires of young men," and that future discussions should address “what effect that kind of over-representation in pop culture might have on … the fantasies and desires of young men.”
Taking a similar if more direct stance, Mark Lipsky, the producer of “Coming to America” among other films, wrote that the Motion Picture Association of America was “perhaps most complicit” in the disaster:
"What occurred yesterday in my opinion was a perfect storm made from two interdependent sides of an equation critical to ones pursuit of success and fulfillment in the film business. The first is the art and skill of filmmaking focused, in the case of films like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, almost exclusively on violence and depravity strictly for violence and depravity’s sake. The other is marketing where, in the case of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, untold resources are hysterically and relentless directed at cultivating and inciting fanboys – and fangirls – into a frenzy of obsession and anticipation."
That studios remain desperately in thrall to the 17- to 20-year-old male demographic, in other words, has repercussions beyond box office numbers and the fact that actors who look bad in a cape have trouble getting roles.
Of course, movie critics and Hollywood producers inevitably gave way to academics, opinion writers, historians and other experts who, once reality set in, supplied a range of sober and statistically informed responses.
Early on, William Saletan at Slate pointed out that Holmes’ ballistic-resistant body armor refutes the N.R.A.’s well-worn argument after events like this that, if a civilian in the theater had been holding, fewer people would have died. (Former Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce and Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas made these claims anyway, maybe out of instinct; surely in part to protect themselves from the early and widely-disseminated argument for gun control Mayor Michael Bloomberg drew from the shootings almost immediately after they were reported.)
Today, Bloomberg took his argument one step further, writing an op-ed in the Daily News defending the staging of a gun-control campaign in the wake of the shootings:
After the massing shooting in Tucson last year, we heard: “Now is not the time.” We heard the same refrain after shooting sprees at Virginia Tech and Columbine. It’s as if as a country, we cannot mourn the dead and protect the living at the same time.
I refuse to accept that ...
If the public is looking for a "why" in all of this, it's hard to imagine the media not trying to fill that need—with significant coverage of Holmes himself. This has not been a universally popular approach.
“I am sick to my stomach opening the papers seeing all the PR & fame that redhead scumbag COWARD rec'd over his actions in Aurora,” the animated sportcaster Dick Vitale wrote in a tweet, expressing the sentiment succinctly.
As if to get a corner that part of the Dark Knight conversation, The Atlantic posted a series of no fewer than five pieces on the media’s potential role in discouraging Aurora copycats. Robert Wright wrote, “It might be in the big print-based players' long-term interest to adopt an anti-deathsploitation norm to distinguish themselves from the exhausting, tawdry interpretation of 'news' that the cable-news networks fall into.”
Or the internet?
The Onion proved, as it did in the wake of 9/11, that its tone is more capable of capturing the national mood than the majority of media outlets, with a piece titled “Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting's Aftermath Will Play Out.” As one "citizen" puts it in the article: "The calls not to politicize the tragedy should be starting in an hour, but by 1:30 p.m. tomorrow the issue will have been politicized. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if the shooter’s high school classmate is interviewed within 45 minutes."
Hanna Rosin, whose book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women comes out this year, zeroed in on the news that three of the male victims died while protecting their girlfriends. Not out of chivalry, she wrote:
Throwing your body in front of your girlfriend when people all around you are getting shot is an instinct that’s basic, and deeper. It’s the same reason these Batman and Spider-Man franchises endure: Because whatever else is fading away, women still seem to want their superhero, and men still seem to want to be him.
At The National Review, Robert VerBruggen listed five ways journalists who don’t know much about gun policy can “avoid sounding stupid” when writing about gun laws after tragic events.
More compellingly, Jill Lepore, who does know a lot about guns and gun policy, as evidenced by her April story in The New Yorker, told the story of how nearly 80 years ago a Brooklyn-born editorial director at Detective Comics managed to disarm Batman (the comic-book version) in keeping with the more moderate, if not exactly gun-shy, climate of the time. Batman, who once killed vampires with a gun loaded with silver bullets, would henceforth be gunless (and without any real superpowers, either).
"Superheroes weren’t soldiers or policemen,” she writes. “They were private citizens. They shouldn’t carry concealed weapons. Villains carried guns.”
And where is all this likely to lead? Back to The Onion:
According to the nation's citizenry, calls for a mature, thoughtful debate about the role of guns in American society started right on time, and should persist throughout the next week or so. However, the populace noted, the debate will soon spiral out of control and ultimately lead to nothing of any substance, a fact Americans everywhere acknowledged they felt "absolutely horrible" to be aware of.
We'll just have to see, won't we?
More by this author:
- John Holmstrom talks about founding and editing 'Punk,' the chronicle of late-'70s New York
- Ups and downs of the Great New York City Chicken Frenzy