Less than forty-eight hours after the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I found myself eavesdropping on an enthusiastic discussion in a college-town sandwich shop about The Dark Knight Rises, the movie that had provided the occasion for the shootings. “Is it as good as the last one?” asked a young woman who had not yet seen the film. “How was Anne Hathaway?” To which I would have replied, had I been the one asked: no, terrific and what difference does it make?
Let me be clear: neither The Dark Knight Rises nor the previous episodes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy can be blamed for the slaughter in Aurora. To say otherwise would be to diminish the culpability of the killer on the one side, and on the other of his enablers: all the well-organized forces that keep weapons in such ample circulation. To refuse simplistic notions of cause and effect is the necessary, responsible way to look at this catastrophe, but it’s also a daylight answer to a nighttime horror. In Aurora, at the midnight show of an action movie about indiscriminate, irrational violence, a man masked and armored like an action movie character wreaked indiscriminate, irrational violence. Some survivors recalled that when the killer burst through the door, they thought at first he was part of the show.
This is not the sort of thing that people in the industry want to think about, and they sure didn’t. “The mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater on Friday dented ticket sales for ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ but not by much,” Brooks Barnes reported in the New York Times on July 22, adding that the $162 million brought in over the weekend, although “huge,” fell below prerelease expectations. (Mulling over the possible causes of this disappointment for Warner Brothers, Barnes speculated that “some moviegoers were either not in the mood to watch a violent comic book caper or worried about theater safety after the carnage”—an acute analysis, which cannily dismissed other possibilities such as a plague of locusts.) The online publication The Wrap, edited by the former New York Times Hollywood reporter Sharon Waxman, showed even more exquisite sensitivity: “Will Oscar Voters Look Past the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Tragedy?” it asked, six months before the announcement of the Oscar nominations for 2012 and several days before the last of the funerals.
If the art of violent, horrific films involves allaying our worst fears by playing them out, then there was something artless in this rush to normalize the release of The Dark Knight Rises without any lingering over the aspect of Aurora that ought to terrify the industry: the perfect fit between film and massacre. The valiant Roger Ebert was virtually alone among the commentators I read in acknowledging the likelihood that the killer wanted, in some way, to insert himself into the movie world, or at least into its aura of celebrity—but even Ebert did not contemplate what the audience had been expecting to receive from this particular movie, and how this time they really got what they paid for.
A daylight rebuttal of such thoughts might insist, correctly, that the Aurora killings were a terrible anomaly. This response pushes the discussion away from lived experience and into the realm of statistical analysis. It asks us to calculate the odds of being gunned down in a movie theater and perhaps compare them favorably to the risks of driving to the supermarket. Take comfort if you can; or else, if you can bear to, think about Veronica Moser-Sullivan, the 6-year-old who was murdered. It is none of my business why she was at the midnight show. Maybe she’d been hearing about Batman and had begged to go. Maybe her parents could not get a babysitter and so had brought Veronica, figuring she would soon fall asleep. All I know is that if the child stayed awake, the last images she saw before she died were of bound, hooded men being shot through the head and thrown out of an airplane.
Because terror came at that little girl not only from the auditorium but from the screen—indeed, in her last moments, she could hardly have distinguished between the two—I have come to feel that it does matter whether people call The Dark Knight Rises a “good” movie. If we can show no other respect to the victims and their families, let us at least avoid debasing the concept of goodness. I have already earned my own little share of culpability by having praised Batman Begins and The Dark Knight without enough reservations. What I seek to do now—without pretending to elevate myself to the status of a policy-maker, and I hope without descending to the level of journalistic scold—is simply to make a proposal about critical evaluations. I think that all judgments of The Dark Knight Rises made after July 20, 2012, ought to consider the Aurora massacre as intrinsic to the movie.
This is not a difficult standard to meet. Even before Aurora, The Dark Knight Rises was characterized by an opportunistic (I might almost say parasitic) relationship to public events. We now need to add one more to the mix, which notably includes the protests mounted over the past few years against the managers and manipulators of great pools of capital. In the movie’s comic book world, these protests become eruptions of populist chaos.
Occupy Wall Street could not have been a primary model for this aspect of The Dark Knight Rises, given the time it takes to prepare a film—although the production schedule did allow Nolan to direct some scenes of disorder in and around Wall Street in late 2011, in the wake of Occupy. But there were plenty of earlier precedents for him to draw from, such as the protests at the London G-20 summit in 2009, and it’s worth noting that Nolan’s previous Batman film, The Dark Knight, opened on July 14, 2008. Maybe that date—Bastille Day—and the subsequent full onset of the financial crisis stuck in his mind. The Dark Knight Rises not only dwells on the have-nots’ outrage over economic inequality, but it also incorporates several direct references to A Tale of Two Cities and features, as one of its set pieces, a street mob’s successful assault on a prison, freeing more than a thousand violent professional criminals.
The Bastille, by contrast, held only seven helpless wretches, but Nolan is not one to let mere facts get in his way. Throughout the trilogy, he has told us that when a man puts on a superhero outfit, he stops being a person and becomes a symbol instead (though of what, exactly, it’s impossible to say). Just so, in The Dark Knight Rises, the principled and overwhelmingly nonviolent protests of past years stop being themselves and are turned into content-free, mindless outbursts of fury, with the people of the lower depths (who are they, exactly?) improbably rushing to the side of the master terrorist who blew up half their city and, what’s worse, interrupted a football game.
This is the cinema of social hallucination, and there’s nothing new about it. Fritz Lang was already practicing it in the 1920s, when he poured the many anxieties of his day into the all-purpose container of Dr. Mabuse. Nor is there anything new in thinking that a villain who arises where “the structures break down” can be defeated only by an outsider like Batman, a sorrowful vigilante who is willing to bear the guilt. John Ford gave us what may as well have been the last word on that subject fifty years ago, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The modes and themes of The Dark Knight Rises are venerable, but that doesn’t mean the way they’re used is praiseworthy. What the writer-director of Inception has now given us is a picture so crammed with worn-out ideas and big, empty gestures that it might as well be called Recapitulation. Here are predictable plot twists, familiar from a hundred other movies; long recollections of the earlier Batman films, played with brooding self-importance; solemn platitudes inserted where the dialogue ought to go; and far too many passages that are meant to be overpowering but bludgeon instead.
Of the latter, the most telling example might be the battle between the Gotham police and the guerrilla army led by Bane (Tom Hardy), a villain who seems to have been assembled out of hand-me-down World Wrestling Entertainment paraphernalia and the outtakes of a Hannibal Lecter movie. When the cops advance on Bane and his troops, they march down the narrow canyon of a city street, so they are unable to maneuver either left or right but must walk straight into the sights of an enemy with greater firepower and a superior position. Nolan might not know much about tactics, but as a filmmaker he ought to be familiar with at least one version of The Charge of the Light Brigade. He should have cared that his deployment of forces made no sense—but, again, the grand statement is everything, the material details nothing. To the thunderous plodding of yet another damned Hans Zimmer score, the police rush forward in suicidal glory and win the day because, well, that’s what they do.
To this episode we must now add one more senseless scene of bloodshed, perpetrated by a man who almost certainly thought that he, too, was “making a statement.” They always do. We have seen this movie before, as Roger Ebert wrote, and in the case of The Dark Knight Rises, I don’t think we needed to. Despite the presence of Anne Hathaway, who by herself can do no wrong, what we have here is clearly not good.
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Some films make you feel trapped in a world of exhausted possibilities, where nothing is left except meaningless repetition. “There was never just one,” Universal Pictures announces with flagrant redundancy, advertising its fourth Bourne movie. We are also on our fourth Spider-Man this summer (although this latest one pretends to be the first) and a second version of the aptly titled Total Recall, and in The Avengers have the equivalent of six remakes in a single film. If the demographic profile of American voters matched that of the movie audience, I suppose a man named Barack Obama would be elected president this November—only he’d be younger than the current Barack Obama and have a life story that was just slightly different.
But other films remind you that the world is always bigger and more surprising than you can imagine. These are prominent among the films that deserve to be called good, and we have a shining example of them in Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man. This is the story of a Mexican-American day laborer in Detroit who discovers the existence of an alternative reality where he is a legendary rock star and symbol of liberation. It’s a documentary.
The story begins in the early 1970s, when an unheralded record album by a singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez quietly entered South Africa. Banned from the radio and often circulating in bootleg versions, it became a cult item among young white Anglo liberals and a model for Afrikaner rockers who were testing their opposition to the regime. According to testimony given in Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez eventually sold half a million albums in South Africa and was credited with inspiring the generation of whites who broke decisively with apartheid. But because South Africa was so cut off from the rest of the world during this era, Rodriguez’s South African fans never realized that he was virtually unknown beyond Cape Town and Johannesburg, nor did they understand why they could find no information about him. A myth grew up that he had committed suicide onstage.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, Rodriguez was equally cut off from information about his success in South Africa. His albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality had both flopped completely in the United States. A surge of enthusiasm in Australia and New Zealand in the mid-1970s (not mentioned in the film) was apparently unknown to the South African fans and had no lasting impact on Rodriguez, who went on a couple of tours (also unmentioned in the film) and then returned to his impecunious life as a father, laborer and local political activist.
Bendjelloul tells this story from the viewpoint of two South African fans who began, after the end of apartheid, to look for information about their musical idol and in 1997, to their amazement, found him alive in Detroit, where we see him making his way through the snowbound streets, a dashing slim figure (long hair, long coat and dark glasses) walking past huddled old brick buildings. I suppose it’s possible to criticize Searching for Sugar Man for making too much of this discovery; Rodriguez had been hidden in plain sight for all those years—but not to the South Africans. Their incredulous joy at discovering him lights up the movie and is multiplied by a factor of 20,000 in the scene of the triumphant debut concert that Rodriguez played in South Africa in 1998.
I should add that Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most lovingly crafted documentaries I have seen in a long time—all but handmade by Bendjelloul, who wrote, directed and edited the film and drew illustrations for its clever animation sequences. Rodriguez’s music? OK, in small doses.