It’s Not The Movies’ Fault

Three viewings of The Dark Knight Rises leave me feeling that this film has been over-watched but under-interpreted.  Its release was, of course, briefly overshadowed by the terrible murders in Aurora, CO, but hand-wringing about the movies/violence, or about gun ownership/gun homicide quickly gave way to the rest of the summer movie season.  Dialogue about a character committed to non-lethal restraint in his attempt at loving a city was superseded by repeat visits to Finding Nemo, explorations of financial corruption in Arbitrage, the magnificent humanist drama Beasts of the Southern Wild, the moral force of metaphor for unthinking nationalism Killer Joe, the delicate harshness of childhood in Moonrise Kingdom, the moving journey into memory and love of Robot & Frank, the glorious, extravagant vistas of Samsara, the surprising mercies of Searching for Sugarman, the morose yet tender self-reflection of Sleepwalk with Me, and the amusing but cheap political shots of The Campaign.

Yet the Dark Knight is still rising, the debates about guns and movies and killing are still waiting to be had, families in Colorado are still grieving. So if we’re going to take cinema seriously – which, if you believe in the power of art to interweave with autobiography, is indivisible from taking life seriously – we’re going to have to keep talking about Batman’s bad summer.

In the aftermath of the shootings, the debate about guns remained fixated on the understandable but superficial talking point polarities of “Ban them!” on the one hand and “Guns don’t kill people!” on the other; meanwhile, movies were largely either blamed for everything (in puritanical quarters), or responsibility denied (in liberal ones).  A sign of light emerged when mogul Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of his colleagues – the Scorseses and the Tarantinos and so on – to discuss violence in their movies, and its potential impact on the world outside the theatre.

If such a summit does take place, I hope its organizers will pay attention to some of the wisdom emerging from those who study violence in fiction and the real world alike, for as with anything involving the intricate act of storytelling, mass culture, the struggle of good and evil, and what it means to be human, the better path is far more complex than it seems. The compelling theory is that both sides are wrong: it’s not the movies’ fault and it is the movies’ fault; guns aren’t the problem, but liberal and conservative values need to blend together to solve the gun violence crisis.

A recent Scientific American blog post addresses the relationship between gun ownership and gun homicide, and proposes that the most significant social factors that contribute to gun homicide should unite us in mingling the best of conservative and liberal practices, to promote the common good, and save thousands of lives along the way. It turns out that the most significant factors correlating with gun homicide may be social inequality and the dissolving of community bonds. Addressing both would likely contribute to a significant reduction in gun violence rates. The beautiful irony is that community bonds – which conservatives might see as ‘their’ territory, and social inequality – which liberals might see as ‘theirs’, are two sides of the same spiritual question: how to love your neighbor as you love yourself. So perhaps we should reduce the volume on the debate about gun ownership, and start making serious efforts toward rebuilding community bonds, and challenging social inequality.  It’s going to take conservative-liberal and liberal-conservative solutions to fix problems that we all contributed to causing.

In the meantime, we could benefit from recognizing that the relationship between storytelling and the formation of human identity is crucial – we ‘curate’ our identities based on how we interpret our memories: so we manifest ourselves as victims, or heroes, or whatever depending on how we feel about the past. Our vision of what was done, who did it, why, and what the consequences were becomes the scaffolding with which we are continually rebuilding the house in which we now live.

Movies matter in this regard because they are the dominant form of narrative fiction in our culture – there is probably no leisure activity regularly participated in by a wider social cohort than watching movies; the stories told in cinema contribute to shaping the limits of what the audience considers possible. So it’s the movies’ ‘fault’ when they uncritically repeat the myth that violence against others brings order out of chaos. This, of course, is not how it works in life, but most violent movies suggest that killing isn’t just morally acceptable, but genuinely good; and the impact on victim and perpetrator alike is ignored, or forgotten in an instant.

There are rare exceptions, of course, like The Dark Knight Rises, ironically, which ends an arc that began with Bruce Wayne’s trauma at his parents’ murder, traveled through the merciful failure of his revenge fantasy, and culminates with an act of self-giving love to people whom we may think don’t really deserve this for any reason other than their creation in the image of God; or the profound Austrian film Revanche, which matures the meaning of Michael Mann’s Heat by imaging the psycho-spiritual and moral consequences in the lives of a cop and a robber bound together by killing; and in the amazing surprise of current hit Looper, which advises (SPOILER ALERT) that among the questions to be asked when confronted with aggression are ‘What responsibility might I bear for creating the conditions why this person might want to kill?’, and ‘What’s it going to cost me to resist someone else’s violence without re-enacting it?’

The first words spoken in Looper are the French for “I have.” It may be wishful thinking to guess that writer/director Rian Johnson was thinking of the Jewish-Christian philosopher Simone Weil when he wrote these, but let’s imagine he wanted to invoke her assertion that ‘the only thing we possess is the ability to say “I”‘.  It’s all you have: the responsibility to act. Not to blame guns or liberals, or to project your own rage onto others, or to deny the truth: that life is complex, and complex problems require complex solutions. To act.

Bruce Wayne gives what he can. Telling gun owners (or filmmakers) that they are solely responsible for gun violence (or not responsible at all) is not much different from telling poor people caught in an economic system that depends on ensuring that some people are have-nots that their poverty is their own fault. All we have is the ability to say “I”. That’s the lesson of The Dark Knight Rises; that’s the challenge of a broken society; that’s the opportunity each of us when confronted with the social shadows of violence, inequality, and the disappearance of community bonds: What am I going to do?

Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland. He writes regularly on his own blog, God Is Not Elsewhere, co-hosts the award-winning movie podcast, The Film Talk, and is the Executive Director of The Wild Goose Festival.