“Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity; more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.” -Charlie Chaplin
Like everyone else, I have my own feelings about the recent tragedy in Colorado and what it means to us as a movie-going nation. First and foremost, I want to state unequivocally that I do not believe in that common diatribe from both the left and the right wings that violence in media can possibly be the ‘cause’ of such abhorrent acts. Marilyn Manson did not cause Columbine; Batman did not cause the Aurora shooting. If you want to read a far more eloquent appraisal of that argument, go read Anthony Lane’s brief and heartfelt editorial on the New Yorker website . He says it far better than anyone else can.
What I would like to talk about, though, is the role of darkness in film. By darkness I don’t just mean violence, although that is a large component. But all violence in cinema is not created equal. Die Hard, for instance, is a violent film, but I would not consider particularly ‘dark.’ It’s the ‘shoot ‘em up’ genre, with bright explosions and sneering villains, but it’s meant to be taken lightly as a piece of entertainment without deep political or social implications. Inglourious Basterds is triumphal in its use of violence. Despite my issues with certain aspects of Tarantino’s work, there’s something deeply cathartic in his use of extreme violence, particulary in films like Basterds. Can we really argue with the vengeful, satisfying experience of watching Jewish soldiers annihilate Nazis?
Die Hard (or Inglourious Basterds, or Snatch or 300) glories in its violence. But it is unequivocally make-believe. The stylized camera work, the explosions, the soundtrack – everything turns violence into something eloquent and attractive and, ultimately, unreal. Few people look at these films and call them realistic in their depiction of violent societies. While I have a number of friends who take any violence in cinema very seriously, I do think there’s a difference between the violence in films like Die Hard and the violence in films like The Dark Knight.
Nolan’s Batman expresses and reinforces a darkness existent in our culture. The films border on nihilistic in their approach to notions like individual autonomy, freedom and heroism. This may be a product of the post 9/11 age, but I think there’s more to it than just that marker of a shift in the cultural zeitgeist. We have become obsessed with the unstoppable nature of evil, fanaticism, violence, murder. Films about insane villains, heroes incapable of being heroes, torture, rampant destruction. Darkness permeates our cinema to an extent that has become, at least to me, very troubling. I can handle the violence. What I cannot handle is the nihilism.
Violence and death seem to surround the Batman franchise. First Heath Ledger’s tragic death just prior to The Dark Knight; now this wave of violence during the first release of The Dark Knight Rises, not to mention the death threats levied at critics that shut down Rotten Tomatoes for a period. Again, I don’t buy the idea that the films in a direct way caused these things. But Batman as a character, and these films specifically, have struck a nerve. There is a sense of despair, not to mention self-pity, that surrounds the Batman franchise and it’s an extension of our own self-pity and despair. We need a vigilante hero to save us from ourselves, regardless of the number of lives he takes in the process. He’s misunderstood; a hero mistaken as a villain. And while I can see the point, I’m not certain if dwelling on these issues does more harm than good.
Does a world consumed by violence really need a dark figure in a black cape, meting out his version of vigilante justice? Do we surround ourselves with darkness because we’re trying to justify our fears and insecurities, to put our faith in a vaguely fascistic dark knight to protect us from ourselves? Are we really a mob in need of iron-fisted rule? Or are we individuals, human beings, capable of violence, yes, but also capable of love, honesty, and basic decency? Do we need a hero who seems incapable of all those things? A hero as bad as the villains he fights? Aren’t there any other types of heroes?
A few days ago I sat down and watched The Great Dictator, a film made in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust following a worldwide depression; a time of even greater uncertainty, I believe, than today. At the end, Chaplin makes one of the most moving speeches ever committed to celluloid; a plea for basic human decency. At a time of great darkness, he provides a ray of light. We’re not machine men with machine minds. Heroes are not built from murder and death; they do not have to be villains. They need not fight fire with fire. Heroes are often not muscular men in black capes; they’re little tramps, working their way through the world as best they can. In the aftermath of the Colorado shooting, there was a great outpouring not of anger and vengeance, but of love, sympathy, support. Human decency. I think perhaps it’s time we turned away from the supermen and back towards humanity. I’m glad that we could enjoy the Batman franchise, for its elegance, its storytelling, the power of its sentiments. I’m also glad that it’s over. We’ve had our time in the darkness. It’s time to step into the light.