Not long after 9/11, a friend of mine asked me how I could still be remotely enthusiastic about the then-upcoming Spider-Man movie, or superhero stories in general. He was certain the entire genre was doomed — or at least its current cycle of popularity was — because they cut too close to the bone in their frequent depictions of apocalyptic events so similar to the ones we’d just witnessed in real life. Surely, he thought, audiences would no longer have the stomach for fantasies of this sort when it had just been so forcibly demonstrated to everyone that there really aren’t any mutants or god-like aliens or obsessive rich guys in tights who will save us when the towers start to fall.
I countered that people might want those escapist fantasies now more than ever… that superhero stories give us a way to imagine a different outcome to real-life horrors that are nearly impossible to wrap our minds around. To believe, if only for a couple of hours, that we aren’t alone in our moments of greatest danger, that help might still be coming when all the normal institutions and authorities seem powerless to do anything… that maybe we ourselves could make a difference under the right circumstances. I argued that going to a superhero movie in the wake of a catastrophe was a healthy kind of wish fulfillment, a momentary respite from the crushing knowledge that, in the real world, bad things happen and people die, and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it.
So what a brutal irony that the latest mass shooting by a whacko lone gunman should take place at a premiere screening of the latest superhero movie. But not just any superhero movie… the latest Batman movie. Batman — a superhero whose back story begins with a very personal incident of urban gun violence, and who, more than any other major character in this idiom, concerns himself with protecting innocent citizens from lunatics who revel in anarchy and chaos for their own sake. While other superheroes are saving the world or even the universe from vast armies or immense cosmic forces, Batman is in the streets, fighting it out on the micro level of individual human lives. Talk about striking close to the bone.
I wasn’t planning to write about last week’s events in Aurora, Colorado, because I figured everyone else would say all there is to say before I got around to it, and pretty much the same things get said every time one of these incidents occurs anyway. (And isn’t it incredibly sad that these things happen often enough that we can anticipate what will be said in the aftermath?) But I find I keep replaying the words of Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight Rises, in a statement he made following the shootings: “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”
I can’t say what percentage of my life has been spent in movie theaters (although it might be interesting to know, if there were some way of calculating it). I can tell you, however, that many of my most vivid and pleasurable memories revolve around them. I remember exactly where I saw most of my personal landmark films that came out during my childhood and teen years. My first two jobs were in theaters, first at a neighborhood single-screen movie house where I ran antiquated changeover-style projectors with carbon-arc light sources, then at a modern multiplex where I started tearing tickets and worked my way back into the booth. I went to a movie on my very first car date. (I took a girl named Sheryl to see A View to a Kill… real romantic, eh? She liked the Duran Duran theme song, at least.) My first date with Anne was the night we saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while she was home from her summer job at the Grand Canyon. Granted, we didn’t go out again for three years afterward, but technically speaking, it was our first date. And when the two of us travel now, it’s not unusual for us to seek out old or interesting theaters in our destination cities and take in a movie while we’re on our vacation, as when we visited the Castro Theatre during our last trip to San Francisco in ’08.
The point is, movie theaters have been a central part of my life for a very long time. To me, the Aurora shootings are as repugnant and, yes, blasphemous as if someone had opened fire in a church on Easter Sunday. (The fact that it happened in a Cinemark theater makes it all the more personal and violating for me, since that’s the chain I used to work for in my multiplex days. I can all too easily imagine what it would have been like, as a naive young usher whose definition of “crisis” was usually no more serious than finding a mop when someone dropped a 44-ounce Coke, to try and deal with a houseful of wounded and panicky patrons.)
And now of course the question is what will happen in response to this heinous attack. Gun-control advocates are calling for tighter restrictions on “assault” weapons (as if there’s any type of gun that doesn’t assault someone when you shoot it at them), while gun lovers are asking why there wasn’t somebody in that theater with a concealed-carry permit and an equalizer under their shirt. The same discussion we have after every mass shooting, in other words, and the results will be the same: the two sides will bicker for a while, repeating the same old arguments over and over again, spinning in tighter and smaller circles until we finally get distracted by something else, and then it’ll all spin out and go away until the next time.
For the record, I’m fairly indifferent to guns. Several of my conservative friends seem to have it in their heads that all liberals want to cross out the Second Amendment and do away with all guns, but this one doesn’t. I much prefer the First and Fourth Amendments, personally, and I cannot imagine myself ever owning any sort of firearm. But I really don’t give a shit if other people own them. The issue just isn’t anything that’s important to me in any meaningful way.
That said, however, I don’t get why anyone thinks they need a military-style rifle like the AR-15 (which, I understand, is a civilian version of the good old M-16 my uncle carried in Vietnam, only without the gizmo that allows for full-on automatic fire), or why it’s so unreasonable to place restrictions on the types of gun and ammunition private citizens can get their hands on, or the quantities. We restrict all sorts of chemical materials and pharmaceuticals because they pose a danger to society when they’re misused, right? So what’s the difference?
Also, I find some of the comments being made about concealed-carry in the Aurora situation downright laughable. When people say “somebody could have made a difference” in Aurora, what they’re really thinking is “I could’ve made a difference.” It’s a superhero fantasy of a different sort — they imagine themselves as John McClane, saving the day and winning the girl. But they forget one salient detail about Bruce Willis’ signature character: he wasn’t just some guy, he was a cop. And in fact, the only real-life instance I know when somebody with a concealed gun succeeded in stopping one of these whacko shooters was that incident here in Salt Lake’s Trolley Square mall a few years ago, and that concealed-carrier was — surprise! — an off-duty cop. Honestly, I just don’t trust some regular old yahoo with a handgun in his shorts not to shoot me while they’re trying to peg the bad guy. I mean, think about it: a dark movie theater filled with screaming, panicky people trying to escape, with your vision further obscured by the smoke or gas or whatever it was, and the movie still running in the background… do you really think Joe Schmoe, who’s probably taken at most a couple hours of gun safety at the community college, really has the skills to get the job done without causing more collateral damage? Sorry, I’ll buy Norse gods in New Mexico and men of steel from another planet over that one.
But none of that matters, because we know from past experience the gun laws aren’t really going to change as a result of Aurora. My worry, going forward, is that the movie-going experience is going to be forever tainted because of this asshole. Not because I personally am going to be nervous or looking over my shoulder all during the movie, although I’m sure some people will be. No, my concern is that the exhibition industry is going to go bananas and turn theaters into security checkpoints, with metal detectors and armed guards, just like airports and high schools. You want to talk about liberty slipping away, how about the liberty to go to a freaking movie without having to wait in a security line to prove you’re harmless? The truth is, these mass shootings can happen anywhere people gather in numbers greater than two. Today a movie theater, tomorrow a restaurant, or even — why not? — a church. So do we put metal detectors at the entrance to every public space that ever witnesses a violent crime? And even if we don’t go that far, what about smaller, seemingly minor steps that nevertheless lessen the whole experience of going out? Already some theaters are banning the wearing of costumes to premieres, a time-honored, harmless, and fun activity, as if ballistic body armor really looks anything like a Batman suit… or even a Star Wars stormtrooper outfit. And I’m willing to bet that policy will never get revisited, even if 20 years pass without any further problems in a theater. Just like the TSA is never going to be reined in, even though anyone with a lick of sense knows that taking off your shoes at the airport does nothing to make you safer. And we’ll put up with it, we “free and brave” Americans, because we’re scared and we’ll put up with anything if we’re told it’s for our safety.
I hate the 21st century.
Photo credit: AP Photo/The Denver Post, Aaron Ontiveroz, appropriated by me from here.