I live in Arvada, Colorado and my birthday is July 20th. For months I’d been planning to see The Dark Knight Rises at midnight, the first minute of my birthday. My family and friends knew this, or at least those out of town guessed it, and my phone set to buzzing early Friday morning with people mistaking Arvada for Aurora. If I didn’t have an interview at 8:30am this last Friday, I would have been at a Batman midnight screening. Not the midnight screening, though, not the one that has turned a weekend of cinematic triumph into a weekend of horror and shock.
When I was younger, when GoldenEye was the king of video games and I was another loyal subject, I remember an incident that made video games seem dangerous. One Easter, a youth pastor I admired joined our family’s holiday gathering, which included several other families as well. We youth, of course, played video games. It was only one of our communal outlets, but it was a favorite one nonetheless. This pastor – a middle-aged man that we counted as hip and cutting-edge – vomited after playing five minutes of the classic James Bond title. It shocked me. “He threw up? Over what?” I wasn’t there in person when he reacted, and as I try to recall the details it’s possible my family wasn’t even there at all, though that was the tradition for many years. But I feel like I was there because I still haven’t forgotten it. I still cock my eyebrow and wonder, “Wait, what exactly made him that sick?”
As a video gamer, I was, at times, one of those kids who would disable the last bomb in Golden Eye’s first level and then run backward, enjoying the target practice of hundreds of soldiers trying to kill me. My favorite drama on television right now is Breaking Bad, a show which displays creativity most effectively through brutal violence. While I’m not here simply to talk about desensitizing aspects of media, that’s where I’m starting. Because when I watch Breaking Bad I am sometimes shocked, but more often than not, I’m compelled. I’m engaged by the creativity and the character building revealed through the methodical violence of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. It’s telling that one of the show’s most memorable scenes is (warning: graphic content) this, which has simply become known as the “Run” scene.
Before Breaking Bad was the crime darling of both critics and the internet, The Wire quietly dominated claims to the best show of all time. More than Breaking Bad, even, its realism is unrelenting to the point of unintentionally (or often quite intentionally) laying guilt at the feet of its primary demographic. “West Baltimore is being destroyed,” its hero shouts at passive authorities, passive in the way a viewer might be passive, sitting and watching. Without belaboring the point, video games are likewise steeped in a history of graphic violence married to critical acclaim and artistic merit. Getting head shots, even, is the most basic identifying characteristic of any expert in all of the major shooter games, Halo, Call of Duty etc.
Here is the point I’m driving at: the consumption of graphic content that is of a potentially disturbing or desensitizing nature is the price of admission, or has been the price of admission, for consumers who desire the highest filmic and video game experience. This isn’t a hard and fast rule of art-making and art-consuming, but it is certainly an overwhelming trend. Even I “overcame” a specifically conservative moral upbringing to enjoy Call of Duty: Black Ops and watch Game of Thrones whenever possible. And I’ll be honest, I try to avoid the pornography of Game of Thrones however I can, even muting my devices/TV because I just don’t have any room for that in my life or marriage. But I still watch the show. I still watched the Kill Bill movies even though I found the violence beyond egregious, and as I shook my head in shock I acknowledged and, yes, appreciated the aesthetic value of Tarantino’s multi-homage killing style.
Which, of course, leads us back to The Dark Knight Rises. To a senseless shooting that gave my state the largest case of secondhand PTSD it’s had since Columbine. We’ve had other shootings, and those victims and circumstances should not be forgotten as easily as they are. But like Columbine, this one captures the imagination for all the wrong reasons. The shooter supposedly called himself the Joker and painted his hair red. This sort of detail is going to cause debate about the extent to which Nolan’s Batman franchise can be blamed for the shooter’s crime. It may be a subtle assignation of blame, and it may not be. What may also emerge as a theme is the way in which the Batman movies and comics have addressed this claim. Indeed, have pondered exactly how much Batman, as a character in our world and a hero in fiction, can be blamed for something this horrendous because of his own dark, theatrical trappings. Even the animated series had this episode, in which Batman is literally put on trial for the charge of inspiring his own enemies.
Perhaps they shouldn’t, but people will talk about how much the movies helped create this mess. In the midst of such a debate, I think it’s relevant to remember that these movies, and comics and animated series, are thoughtful enough to aid that very conversation. The writers for Batman, whether comics or otherwise, almost always conclude that Batman may have inspired the style, but not the madness and actions of his enemies. We shouldn’t make a hard connection between this logic and the shooting of July 20th; that would be too presumptive and too easy. But I think it’s useful to remember that media often creates a space and the tools for discussing trauma, if only for those of us blessed to have a secondhand perspective.
I wish I could talk more about the victims, those killed and those critically injured. A sister of an old college acquaintance was hurt, while my wife had a similar connection to a girl at the theatre who somehow left uninjured. But thankfully, I don’t have any specific ties to that calamity. All I have is my own imagination and a renewed sense of horror at some scenes of violence. At scenes in the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, even, where shooters enter a familiar-looking space (a hospital, for example) and kill with casual brutality.
I liked The Dark Knight Rises. I was compelled by its intentionality and, if nothing else, its visual power, but I’ve become desensitized. The creative violence of Breaking Bad is all about ingenuity for me, and not violence. Doesn’t that miss half the point? The consumer and producer of high-minded media seem to need the darker places of human living splayed across the screen. And this is understandable, in many ways. We want some sense of urgency, some sense of darkness to relate with and contemplate and use for self-examination. It invests us, and yet, in light of the Colorado shooting, I can’t help but wonder whether such material really shouldn’t repel and disgust us in equal measure. And if doesn’t, whether we’re not, at best, missing the totality of the art-consuming experience.
I believe some graphic content in art is simply waste (most of the nude scenes in the Game of Thrones), but much of it is essentially tied to the stakes of the story and its characters (the nudity, arguably, of American Beauty). The Colorado shooting shouldn’t be some gateway to a higher artistic experience – that’s possibly a bit sick and at best minimizes the tragedy for what it is. Rather, the shooting in Aurora recalls the actual stress and trauma of violence. Such a perspective may be emotional or visceral in nature, and therefore perhaps inherently ephemeral for those of us unscarred personally. But I felt the weight of violence the last few days in a way I didn’t before, a way I may not in a few months, and that changes my consumption, at least for the moment. It changes what movies and video games can mean, should mean, and makes me wonder about how I’ve gotten to a place where their graphic content somehow means less than it should.