Our media culture learned nothing from Aurora

In the small hours of the morning that the Jonah Lehrer scandal broke, I had devoted a little time in crafting a letter to the editor of The New Yorker magazine re the Aurora, Colorado multiplex massacre. My letter went unpublished. Possibly, it went unread altogether, given the excitement inherent to the Lehrer saga. Once again, a major publication had hired a haircut in drag as a man. Naturally, the bold and unflinching cannot hope to compete with that.

Over the past two weeks, however, the story of the Aurora shootings has receded from public purview awfully fast. The story goes on—and will go on—for the injured. The industry apologists, the herd mentality do-nothings, the mewling press screening junkies, who kept sweeping away any possible interpretation of media culpability for the killings, appear to have won another round for their status quo.

So, then, here’s what I had to say to Messrs. Remnick, Denby, and company:

Letter to the Editor, The New Yorker

Regarding David Denby’s essay, “The Massacre in Aurora: Can You Blame the Movies?” the answer to his rhetorical question is overwhelmingly yes. One can, one may; one should.

The author writes: “But when I talked to some very smart young friends about it, the … perverse cruelty was exactly what they thought was cool. For them, the dissociation from emotion freed an aesthetic response to extreme acts, to beauty.” One wishes to suggest to Mr. Denby that these “very smart young friends” are not nearly as savvy as he allows himself to imagine. The very reliance on disassociated thrill-seeking as an acceptable reaction to gratuitous violence on-screen (indeed, as the only response conceivable to these callous young people), of viewing simulated violent acts solely in terms of aesthetics, pretty much betrays intellectual failure and a total lack of emotional intelligence. In other words, their hipster viewpoint is a cop-out.

Four summers ago when I panned The Dark Knight, one of the chief shortcomings of the movie, it seemed perfectly plain, was that the violence on incessant display connected to nothing. Christopher Nolan’s endless acts of death and terrorism were presented blandly—without a sense of horror or outrage, let alone grief. The bombs detonate, the buildings combust, the triggers pull, and what are we, gathered there in the dark, expected to think or feel? Are we afraid? No. Angry? No. Empathy? Definitely not. Or how about a sense of triumph? No, not that either. And with the possible exception of The Joker “making a pencil disappear” in an early scene, none of The Dark Knight’s assembly line sadism seemed to be geared for snickering guffaws.

So Nolan denies us laughter, horror, fear, sadness, pity—more or less the entire spectrum of what even lovers of trash might want to have evoked for them. What then is the desired response?

The Dark Knight amounted to a peculiarly bad kind of porno film, a porno film that won’t or can’t admit that it’s meant to be arousing. What the mass audience, including Mr. Denby’s very smart young friends, responds to is the fact that it can’t respond to anything. And so, certain audience members hide behind the crutch of disassociation; others become fanboys.

Knowing that movie violence isn’t real and yet squirming at the sight of on-screen savagery are two different issues. At a movie, we’re supposed to be caught up in a suspension of disbelief, if the filmmakers have done their jobs with any art at all, aren’t we? Yet if we’re presented with outré acts of violence as being straightforward, normal, and even boring in a corporate efficiency kind of way—Nolan did exactly this in The Dark Knight, as did Tim Burton in Sweeney Todd—then the logical extension of that mindset will be James Holmes’s “I am the Joker” midnight spree.

The so-called “sophisticated” response to movie violence has always been a dodge, an evasion made by viewers who’ve been conditioned to fear emotion, to mistrust the representation of emotions on-screen. (How? By critics?) Violence on film should never be fun or entertaining or “ironic.” Artists will still be artists, even—or especially—with the power of suggestion, which was successfully used for decades as a means to convey brutality. A legislated return to good, old-fashioned, liberating censorship might very well go a long way toward civilizing mass culture or at least to re-sensitizing it. The knee-jerk dismissals that invariably greet much-needed blame directed at the media (go on, blame it!) are just as toothless and mealy as the postures of “very smart young people” pretending to themselves that the intentional deadness of Nolan’s violence doesn’t matter. What’s left, when every last dreg of emotional content has been airbrushed away from “jolly sadism,” is what Pauline Kael, in a New Yorker essay titled “Jokers,” referred to as “a training film for pests, and worse.”

As for the victims of the Aurora shootings, except for the 6-year-old girl who was there as a result of bad parenting, these were persons who accepted lock, stock, and loaded barrel the fatally misguided notion that exploitative violence somehow constitutes “entertainment.” They were there, in the midnight hour, to watch performers going through the motions of being killed. They paid money to rejoice in the mass suffering of others, and that this, in their minds, equaled the essence of fun, pleasure, a kick, what-have-you, a wholesome night out at the movies for the entire family. What does it say about the overall level of dopey decadence that these yahoos momentarily believed the shootings were a publicity stunt engineered by thoughtful marketing executives at Warner Bros, a stunt to “enhance” the dubious virtue of watching comic-book ciphers being picked off one-by-one? I’m not saying that the moviegoers in Aurora got what they deserved at the hands of James Holmes; their fate, nonetheless, suggests that these now celebrity-status deaths are a form of self-actualization—famous forever, thanks to unquestioning gauche allegiance to our prefab United States of Corporate Trash. — NPT

July 30, 2012