Jean-Jacques Beineix, the director of “Diva” and “Betty Blue,” once told me that “when fiction and reality collide, you have a problem.” Beineix was talking about his 1992 film “IP5,” in which beloved French actor Yves Montand dies from a heart attack in the film, and actually died from one just after completing the shoot. The press were quick to lay the blame at Beineix’s feet.
Christopher Nolan now has a problem. After a delusional gunman who reportedly identified himself as “The Joker” killed and wounded scores at an Aurora, Colorado, cinema screening “The Dark Knight Rises,” it has become difficult to separate the film from the tragic event that engulfed it. While it’s facile to “blame” any film for acts of violence committed by the insane — dry tinder is not choosy about its spark — the shooting has clearly woven itself into the narrative.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is of a piece with the other two “Batman” movies directed by Nolan: grim, gritty and laced with some unsettling scenes of violence. Nolan’s work is revered by fanboys for taking their boyhood comic-book action fantasies and making them deadly serious, with profound moral quandaries, angst-ridden characters and so forth.
In the new film, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is retired, and despite the prompting of honest cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the smirking challenges of master-thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, the sole note of fun in this dour film), it takes the threat of super-villain Bane (Tom Hardy), and much hemming and hawing, to make him again don the Batsuit.
Bane is nowhere near as eloquent a proponent of nihilism and chaos as The Joker was, but his intent is rather similar: blow Gotham to kingdom come with a loose nuke, but only after reducing its citizenry to barbarism and mob rule. Bane calls himself “Gotham’s reckoning,” but why exactly does he want to obliterate the city? No reason, actually, except an inexplicable urge to go out with a bang, which ties in all too uncomfortably with the events in Aurora.
After the massacre, we will be duly told that life does not imitate art. But art, on the other hand? Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” had clear contemporary echoes, referencing Patriot Act surveillance, the War on Terror and its slippery moral slope of “enhanced interrogation.” The new film does the same, actually coming dangerously close to Michael Bay territory in its glib adoption of 9/11 imagery and terrorism fears as thrilling entertainment. A football stadium is ripped by a massive explosion, bridges seemingly identical to those in Manhattan are blown, and first-responders are buried alive under tons of concrete. Beyond that, Bane gives speeches that sound like they came from an Occupy Wall Street protest. (And one can well wonder what Nolan’s intention is by having a homicidal maniac adopt the anti-1-percent rhetoric.)
Clearly art is imitating life here, but does it go the other way? It is an unlucky coincidence that Warner had just rolled out the trailer for its upcoming blockbuster “Gangster Squad,” which features, sigh, a bunch of gunmen shooting up a cinema. The currently showing “God Bless America” has a similar scene played for twisted laughs, and then of course there’s the bloody finale to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
Cinema does not affect behavior, we are told, but cigarette smoking and underage sex scenes (to name but two examples) are banned to avoid just that, so Hollywood is looking rather like Two-Face on this issue. A more nuanced assessment would be to view movies as responding to the culture at large, but also validating and shaping it. Beyond direct cause and effect exists a greater cultural meme. Call it something in the air — and it blows both ways.
There is a very real and inescapable sense that America’s appetite for spectacular destruction and mayhem on screen — for huge fireball explosions and collapsing skyscrapers and airplanes going down and lovingly crafted slow-motion shots of bombs filled with ball-bearings taking out rows of cops and innocent bystanders — has called forth the devil it depicts. To the extent we (and not just America) are a society that craves images of mass destruction, we will be given them, both on-screen and off.
I say this not as a moralist — I’m as guilty as anyone, with favorite films such as “The Wild Bunch” or “Natural Born Killers” — but to simply point out the obvious. Imagining something is the first step to making it real, as John Lennon could tell you, or really any artist; try the Marquis de Sade or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, authors whose names became synonymous with their respective kinks.
Watching “Prometheus” the other day for an upcoming review, I recalled how shocking the gore of “Alien” was back in 1979, versus how commonplace it is today — which sounds very much like an old-fogey argument, but it’s not, really. It’s just that if the only way you know how to turn the volume knob is “up,” then you will eventually go deaf. Maybe it’s time to imagine some different fictions for a change, stories with a bit more humanity and a bit less carnage. And maybe the moon will fall out of the sky.