Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Dark (K)night

There's been a lot of coverage about the shooting rampage at the Batman opening in Denver. This is a terrible tragedy on so many levels. It's life-changing for those who have been injured, scared, or love people who were victimized that night. It's a tragedy for our society that we continue to allow people like the shooter to suffer and deteriorate in lonesome silence. It's a tragedy that our first instinct is to sensationalize or politicize such tragedy in feeble attempts to gain power. Justin McRoberts wrote eloquently about the need for mourning.

I still can't get my head around people excited to see a stadium getting shot up having to endure the real terror of being shot at mercilessly in a dark theater. I understand we have a cognitive disconnect between pretend and real - and I affirm the need for art to depict violence as a way for us to process and deal with violence in healthy ways.

I'm struggling with the ways in which we process such art. Shane Claiborne wrote a great response on the Huffington Post about society's treatment of violence. One of his major themes (and one I've been on board with for a while) is that even those who believe violence is necessary in the world, still need to call it evil.

Violence is devastating, for the perpetrator and the victim. This is true whether its socially acceptable violence - like that on a battlefield, a home invasion, an execution chamber, or a schoolyard fight - or whether it's senseless, universally condemned violence - like rape, torture, or the shootings in Aurora. Violence hurts and mars people.

How does this apply to art, specifically to movies? First of all we have to be careful how violence is portrayed. Are we going to movies to be excited by violence or to be horrified by it? Directors have to take this into account as well. I suspect Christopher Nolan wanted people to resonate with scenes of violent terror at the football stadium in the Dark Knight Rises. He would like for people to think about what it means to be in that situation and to suffer in that way. Does his depiction on the screen make it easier for that to happen, or does it play into our morbid fascination with blowing things up?

Wouldn't action movies immediately become horror movies once we can empathize with the nameless, faceless characters in the crowd. Isn't that what makes a horror movie - we can see ourselves in the place of the characters on the screen? SAW is scary not only because of it's disturbing violence, but because it's personal - the torture victims are regular people.

Likely few of the victims in Aurora, or their families, will ever be able to watch Nolan's film without terrible memories. And while I would never want any movie connected with this kind of real violence, I think it would be more appropriate for us to connect with characters who are suffering rather than highlight the explosions and make the victims faceless, nameless.

To properly convey the message, a sex scene should not be arousing, it should be uncomfortable; the viewer is intruding on a private moment between two people. We shouldn't want to watch (there's a perfect example of this in Enemy at the Gates). In the same way, a violent sequence shouldn't excite us, it should scare us, or at least make us uncomfortable - we're witnesses the death and injury of real people in senseless ways, we should be able to identify more with the characters and less with ourselves.

This isn't a condemnation of explosions - they've been used effectively in movies almost to cliche - warehouses and tanker trucks, etc (the recent - and crude - 21 Jump Street made fun of these cliches in very humorous ways). There's something to be said for the bad guys getting blown up in the end (someone once said, "those who live by the sword, die by the sword").

I'm speaking specifically about how senseless violence is portrayed on the screen. Every piece of art is an attempt to manipulate the viewer's emotions for the sake of communicating a message. We have to be careful about what art we view and be conscious of how it affects us. Artists also have a responsibility to maintain focus on the message. In this day and age, it's easy to slip in gratuitousness because it breeds publicity and popularity.

I hope some of the good that God brings from tragedy, in this case, is a real re-examination of film as art and its connection to violence.

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