There’s Nothing Wrong With This Picture (Part 1)

At the risk of enduring howls of “Too soon!” or “How could you?”, I’m not sure Patrick Goldstein’s July 22nd 2012 LA Times piece “The Big Picture: A message too ‘Dark’ for all?” can afford to pass without comment. Riding on the back of the Aurora, Colorado cinema massacre and the subsequent (temporary) pulling of the trailer for Gangster Squad, Goldstein’s piece appears to be the product of a journalist firmly of the belief that reopening the age-old debate on violent cinema’s alleged contribution to societal violence is only the first step in a demonising direction that has long been the preserve of the British red tops. For some reason he has opted to play a hand all too familiar after countless violent tragedies on British shores: that of making spurious and frankly nonsensical attacks on an over-liberalised entertainment industry. The trouble is, whereas Michael Robert Ryan’s 1987 killing spree in Hungerford could be (and was) blamed on such films as the Rambo series, Aurora suspect James Holmes patently hadn’t seen the film that may or may not have influenced him as he was too busy actually perpetrating his crime as it played.

Goldstein’s solution? Blame the poster instead.

Following is a critical annotation of Goldstein’s article. It is here reproduced solely for the purposes of scholarly analysis, and no copyright infringement is intended. Annotations are presented in [bracketed boldface].


Just hours before 12 people died and dozens were wounded in the Dark Knight Rises movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., I was at a screening of Gangster Squad, an upcoming Warner Bros. film about a war between 1949-era L.A. cops and the gangster Mickey Cohen. One of the bloodiest scenes in the film featured a scrum of gangsters nonchalantly shooting up a movie theater, causing a panic as they killed scores of innocent filmgoers. [Had Goldstein followed the story elements revealed in the trailer, he would know that these “gangsters” were actually a team of police detectives operating temporarily outside the law under special order. In other words, they are a squad designed to deal with gangsters such as Mickey Cohen (played in the film by Sean Penn) and not a squad of gangsters themselves. This misinterpretation of the patently obvious is, regrettably, a trend Goldstein develops throughout his article.]

The studio has already cut the scene from the film’s trailer [Doubtless out of a sense of ‘good taste’ and ‘respect for the victims of this tragedy’, as the phrases usually go, and not from any fear that the act as depicted might be in any way imitative. The trailer continues to run uninterrupted on Australian cinema screens and does not especially prompt thoughts of what transpired in Aurora, though largely because it depicts a squad of dapper 1940s gents in pinstripe suits and fedoras strafing a cinema with bullets ejected from tommy guns. And also because they initially fire through the cinema screen, traipsing through shredded silver fabric before getting anywhere near the spectators they are firing upon. (From the clips it’s not even clear at whom these heroes of the film are actually shooting. Perhaps they have a single criminal target in mind and attack him with pinpoint precision.) In short, what this has in common with the events in Aurora are the venue (a cinema auditorium) and the use of firearms on those present] and may edit it out of the movie, due in September. But when I first heard the news about the Aurora killings, it was like waking up from a bad dream where life had imitated art — or was it the other way around? [Because Holmes had doubtless also attended a press screening of Gangster Squad, which Goldstein himself admits has yet to be released to the general public. No, “the other way around” is the safer bet, particularly as Gangster Squad is inspired by true events.]

It’s just one of the many puzzling questions behind the Aurora tragedy [In a single vague clause, Goldstein here imbues the issue with qualities of confusion that patently do not exist, muddying any sensible debate that might arise from the circumstances of the crime], which are [sic] being called the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. [By whom? Are these (uncited) sources working from hard statistics? Is there a point to this titbit of unverified information, or is Goldstein merely serving to attach a bloated sense of awe to the proceedings?] Even though the killing suspect, James Holmes, had not seen Dark Knight Rises, he was clearly somehow attracted to its hypnotic spell. [This kind of spurious, unverifiable, quasi-supernatural hyperbole had, it seemed to this observer, died as tabloid reportage of such crimes as the James Bulger murder finally settled down. It reeks of a person scrambling to draw links between an event and the details of its geographic location, of a hack journalist (or scare-mongering politician, or crusading ‘family values’ right wing zealot, take your pick) autonomically lurching towards a piece of cinema as the target of his blame but suddenly realising there’s an enormous logical hole in doing so, before opting for the film’s “hypnotic spell” (??) as a last resort. Drawing conclusions on autopilot benefits nobody.] Police say he wore a gas mask during his shooting spree that obscured his face, not unlike the ventilator mask worn by the villain in the film. [If Goldstein’s only source on this point is a verbal police report, how can he know it is “not unlike” Bane’s mask? For all we know it could be very unlike that piece of costume – particularly as even Goldstein happily describes them as two different types of mask, and even more particularly as Bane’s facial adornment only barely resembles any sort of gas mask known to history.] He told police that he was the Joker, the character played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. [A useful claim to keep up one’s sleeve for when it comes to sentencing: even this Batman series has explored the possible ramifications of ‘copping an insanity plea’, the implication being that Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker was one such criminal.] He also allegedly [Amazingly, in a culture of journalism so circumspect in the face of potential libel litigation, this is the only time Goldstein uses the word “alleged” or its variants in his entire piece; unfortunately, it makes a mishmash of his meaning, implying that of all the facts everyone is so sure of the only one that remains uncertain is the whereabouts of the victims during the commission of the crime] picked as his victims fans so eager to see Dark Knight Rises that they’d stayed up past midnight for the first local screening. [Understandable, given that he committed his crime at the local midnight premiere of the film. One must wonder, though, if Goldstein is so eager to draw connections between Holmes’ actions and the Dark Knight trilogy that he is aware he is here including the victims of the crime in the plot. After all, how does their enthusiasm for the series in any way reaffirm the films’ influence on his actions?]

The killings represent a huge blow to the entertainment industry, which, like it or not, finds itself linked to a tragedy. [Albeit less tenuously the more that news media outlets and lobbyists of various stripes keep pushing the link.] As news of the massacre spread, it felt [To whom?] as if just as many people were loudly decrying violence in movies as were pushing for limitations on people’s easy access to guns. [An easy assertion to make, particularly as its existence as nothing more than an impression on Goldstein’s part conveniently denies it the need to be supported by any sort of statistical evidence. It is speculative, emotive and ultimately distorting in its inclusion.]

The Dark Knight Rises debate hit close to home. In the last week, there’s been a lively debate in my own family [Ah, so it hit close to Goldstein’s home. From the general we go, to the absurdly specific] over the hundreds of billboards around town that depict Batman staring down his masked villain, Bane. [What, one is forced to wonder, initiated such a discussion? The event was the mass murder, the topics of discussion have hitherto been film violence and gun control, so from whence has arisen the matter of promotional billboards?] My wife found the image profoundly disturbing [It has been difficult for this non-American to pin down the image in question, presumably repeated on all of these “hundreds of billboards around town”, but the likeliest match is reproduced at the top of this page. Assuming this is the correct depiction of Goldstein’s grammatically suspect “Batman staring down his masked villain, Bane”, one wonders what is so “profoundly disturbing” about the imagery that hasn’t been seen in countless war films or in news reports of real-life violent uprisings. There may be guns galore – and consequent violent intent on the part of the characters – but no violent action or graphic carnage are visible], saying it was all too reminiscent of the creepy hockey-masked killer in the Friday the 13th horror series. [A publicity still of character Jason Vorhees in said attire is reproduced below, alongside an image of Bane from the DC comics he originally appeared in. Though a superficial resemblance exists between Vorhees and the DC Bane (both are full-face masks featuring splashes of red and white), the mask Tom Hardy wears in The Dark Knight Rises in no way resembles that worn by the Friday the 13th villain. Of course, even if it did, so what? Did images of the masked Vorhees in (to date) ten of the Friday the 13th films incite cinema massacres? Should ice hockey (from where the mask originates) be banned in case it scares journalists’ wives? Goldstein appears to be clutching not so much at straws as at the histrionics of his nearest and dearest, and in an effort to indict nothing less than a promotional still for a fiction film.] Her complaints fell on deaf ears. [Evidently not, if they’ve made the LA Times.] “Come on, Mom, it just looks like a gas mask,” my son said. [Indicating he no more knows what a gas mask looks like than his mother does a hockey mask.] “Don’t be such a wuss.” [This is a telling remark, if one that is about to be twisted beyond recognition for Goldstein’s purposes. If a child finds the image of Bane’s mask inoffensive, no problem exists. If that child’s mother finds it “profoundly disturbing” – though one cannot but question the veracity of the adverb – this is regrettable but hardly relevant to a discussion of the psychological motives behind a mass murder. (Particularly one committed by a perpetrator who was at the time costumed as a completely different character.) Or does Goldstein truly expect his readers to infer that if children were less desensitised to such images and more “profoundly disturbed” by them they might question the gun-toting maniac in the cinema? Let us then ban all costume play, all toy guns… Or, better still, real guns, which are the actual offensive weapons in question. Because toning down a bunch of movie billboards isn’t going to stop people from dressing up as fictional characters at premieres, it isn’t going to automatically make bystanders alert to their possible (if unlikely) psychopathic intent, and it most definitely will not keep said psychopaths from going on killing sprees. Eliminate the costumes and they will find another way. Eliminate the billboards and you’re not even addressing the trappings of the crime, let alone the crime itself.]

Continued next week.

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