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September 9, 2012 / tietze

There’s Nothing Wrong With This Picture (Part 2)

The concluding part of a critical annotation of Patrick Goldstein’s July 22nd 2012 LA Times piece “The Big Picture: A message too ‘Dark’ for all?”

Our own domestic debate mirrored a larger one in the culture. [Check as one might, one is unlikely to find vigourous and extensive national or even international debate on the violent influence of billboards – at least not beyond Goldstein’s article.] It’s one thing to see images of violence and brutality in our movies [Where they are properly contextualised within the framework of a narrative, and shielded from younger viewers by rigourous film classification codes]; it’s another thing to be subjected to them through a massive onslaught of ubiquitous movie advertising. [Agreed; however, no images of actual violence or brutality are depicted in the billboard to which Goldstein refers, nor in any other graphic artwork for the film. The Dark Knight Rises is part of a mainstream comic book franchise and its makers are therefore targeting it at an adolescent audience. Any advertising material produced would adhere rigidly to the codes of practice relevant to advertising to such an audience, lest Warner Bros and DC Comics succumb to the ire of various authorities for breaching those codes of practice – and possibly a few laws. Legally, there is nothing irresponsible about the material that has been created, and it is difficult to find anything modern American society would find reprehensible about a photograph of a superhero and some police officers facing down an unruly mob of criminals led by a masked thug – provided the good guys inevitably win, which they always do in such films. Even less problematical, given the United States Constitution’s second amendment, should be the depiction of several (unconcealed) automatic firearms in the hands of any of those characters.] That’s what troubles me the most about the Aurora killings: the possibility that the accused killer’s violent fantasies had somehow been inflamed not by the movie but by the unsettling advertising images surrounding it. [Given the abject lack of anything even approaching circumstantial evidence to support such a frankly preposterous view – that a picture of a superhero and supervillain leading opposing forces into gunplay on the streets of what already appears to be a war zone might influence a lone gunman into shooting up a cinema full of patrons – it is a pity Goldstein has not elected to keep what is troubling him to himself.]

After all, if the gunman was looking for a mass of people, he could just as easily have gone to a crowded baseball game or a pop concert. [Dressed as a character from a Batman film and carrying unconcealed automatic weapons?] Instead, he was drawn to a screening of Dark Knight Rises. [Anticipated as the most popular cinema release of the year, part of a genre that encourages midnight screenings and costume play. Additionally, cinema auditoriums are not especially known for being crowded with security officers, whereas (American) sport and concert venues are. They are also darkened spaces, and it would have been reasonable to expect this one to be made little lighter by the projection of the sequel to a pair of darkly photographed films. Why not a pop concert or a baseball game? Because Holmes would have been caught within minutes of entering the place, assuming he’d been allowed to enter at all.] Like John Wilkes Booth before him, who shot Abraham Lincoln during a performance of a popular play of the day, the theater offered him a stage. [Under the circumstances, this is something of a tasteless pun, and it continues to deviate from Goldstein’s indictment of advertising billboards.] He was also drawn to a film that portrays the world threatened by lawless marauders. [In which those marauders are overcome on every occasion by the complex but victorious forces of law and order. Not that Holmes would have known, since – as Goldstein himself has already observed at the outset – he could not have seen the film prior to the commission of his crime.]

Right now, nothing burns as bright as Dark Knight. [Particularly when journalists endeavour to squeeze every last column inch out of its association with a horrible crime.] But it is two things at once: a giant fireball of mass marketing as well as a disturbing, dystopian vision of our culture. That makes it a powerful magnet, both for passionate fans and sometimes, for crazed nutcases. [The former aspect certainly does, for reasons that should have been obvious even to Goldstein: Holmes chose a target he knew would be full of people. The film’s anticipated popularity ensured this much at least. However, to suggest its dark view of “our culture” (an odd description, given the film clearly functions in a parallel version of America) is responsible for such an act to be committed at its premiere ignores the fact that no popular “dystopian” film has attracted such an event prior to this one. And there have been a few, not least the first two instalments in the Dark Knight trilogy.] As Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote: “I’m not suggesting that the young men of America are being brainwashed by Christopher Nolan into going on Bane-style killing sprees… But James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two.” [Happy Feet 2 wouldn’t have drawn the same kind of audience. Holmes, an adult in a military-style disguise, would have been unbelievably conspicuous at a Happy Feet 2 screening. Most importantly, Happy Feet 2 premiered in November 2011; the massacre occurred in July 2012. A piece of advice to Dana Stevens: if you wish to make a glib remark, at least make one that can’t be demolished by three seconds of online research. And one for Patrick Goldstein: don’t quote hollow claims if you wish to be taken seriously – particularly those that are making a point discrete from your own.]

It was telling that within 24 hours of the tragedy, everyone was viewing the events through the prism of their own beliefs. [In what way is this unique to these particular events? Everyone views everything “through the prism of their own beliefs” – it is impossible to completely avoid such contamination. It is perhaps more pertinent to Goldstein’s point, assuming he here has one, to ask what this was “telling” of. Perhaps the professional requirement of a journalist to explore a story from all sides; if nothing else, this paragraph functions as (barely adequate) tokenism towards such an end.] From the left, filmmaker Michael Moore was saying that the killings would cause historians to “conclude that we were a violent nation,” while on the right, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert was wondering: “With all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy?” [Moore’s opinion is all too aware of the prism through which history is viewed, that it is dependent upon a surviving documentary record, and he appropriately assumes the blanket coverage of this and similar events will lead to the plausible conclusion he gives. Gohmert’s remark is ludicrous even by Fox News Channel standards and probably functions to create a point of comparison by which Goldstein’s attack on poster art begins to look rational.]

This, of course, has happened before. [What has? A cinema massacre? Coverage of a large-scale crime leading spectators to interpret it through their pre-existing world views? A journalist blaming a violent crime on movie posters? The question is asked in all sincerity as Goldstein never elaborates.] In 1981, Taxi Driver became embroiled in controversy when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan after becoming obsessed with the film, whose character Travis Bickle attempts to kill a presidential candidate. [Actually, he became obsessed with Jodie Foster after seeing her in it, and committed the crime to attract her attention. Which Goldstein might have concluded for himself had he read the sub-heading “Obsession with Jodie Foster” immediately above the sentence he has cribbed from Wikipedia and paraphrased. Or, for that matter, any of the text following that opening sentence, in which it is reaffirmed that Hinckley’s obsession was with Foster herself, and that his initial thoughts were of aircraft hijacking and attempted suicide before he latched on to the idea of an assassination attempt. Also significant to the argument that life imitates art is the knowledge that Bickle was partly inspired by Arthur Bremer, who committed a similar crime in real life.] In Hinckley’s case, he was affected by the movie. [In ways far more complex than Goldstein is prepared to concede. He was also affected by the media’s depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he saw as a role model, so should reportage of factual events also be blamed for the commission of crimes?] With the Colorado gunman, the inspiration may well have come from the powerful gravitational pull of a mammoth Hollywood Big Event. [More likely it came from the knowledge that such an event would draw a sizeable audience in a suitable setting.]

In almost any big city today, it’s nearly impossible to avoid being exposed to the wall-to-wall advertising for a global behemoth such as Dark Knight. [When a film costs in the region of $250 million to produce, it is little wonder that its producers will wish to market it to the fullest.] The result is almost Orwellian — nearly everywhere you look, your gaze meets the stern glare of Batman and his nemesis, their eyes full of menace. [The poster art Goldstein so comprehensively fixates on must be truly all-pervasive where he lives. A Google search of images following the search string “dark knight rises billboard” brings up close to 1.5 million hits, but comparatively few of the top several hundred are of Goldstein’s pick. What they do demonstrate is the broad variety of poster designs created to promote the film; could it genuinely be that these others have all been relegated to the status of also-ran in favour of the street stand-off billboard? Then again, perhaps the billboard in question is one that has escaped the pervasive gaze of the internet, since Goldstein’s description, “their eyes full of menace”, can hardly be applied to a long shot of a Batman whose eyes are obscured by his mask and a Bane whose one visible eye appears to be full of pride for the army he has amassed.] On TV, the film’s ads are chock full of thunderous collisions and mass brawls. [Yes, but is there any imitable gunplay in them? The TV coverage of 9/11 was “full of thunderous collisions”, but the only person it successfully inspired to take up arms was President Bush. And the film’s TV spots are not its billboards; Goldstein should choose a scapegoat and stick to it.]

Talk about life imitating art. [Goldstein has, repeatedly, but rarely with any impunity.] Days before the film’s release, the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes had to suspend user comments on reviews of Dark Knight after readers made derogatory and threatening remarks about the critics who wrote them. [This is called trolling. Happens all the time in online forums, especially (but not exclusively) where genre movie fans congregate. It is so old and unremarkable a phenomenon that it has been parodied in cinema at least as early as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).] Incensed fans heaped abuse on one critic, Marshal Fine, saying he should “die in a fire”. [Which might be even remotely relevant had Holmes immolated his victims. That he shot them suggests that life is here definitely not imitating art, nor is it imitating the incendiary opinions of internet users.] Rotten Tomatoes’ editor said it was the first time the site had suspended user comments, explaining that “it just got to be too much hate”. [Must be the movie, then. Couldn’t be, maybe, coincidence? Or the fact of The Dark Knight Rises representing a highly anticipated cinema event likely to inspire the views of countless energised movie and comic book fans alike?]

It isn’t Nolan’s fault that he made a film that inspires such a fire-breathing response. [True. It is the fault of (often immature) people who feel secure behind a veil of online anonymity and press “send” before calming down and thinking things through.] Powerful art often provokes an equally potent reaction. [Really? Then will Goldstein please be so good as to direct us to any aggressive trolling or flame wars forming part of online discussions of, for instance, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?] But while Nolan has full control over the images in the story he tells, it is less clear, in an era of carpet bombing-style marketing, whether anyone has any real control over how those images are digested by unhinged people out in the world. [If this is the case, what actual controls does Goldstein recommend? Any at all? Or is this entire story nothing more than a couple of thousand words of empty rhetoric?]

I’ve always believed that artists should have the right to explore whatever territory they want, no matter how dark or discordant. But the public has rights too. [One of them, in the United States at any rate, is to a free press. Which makes the promotional art about which Goldstein complains as comprehensively protected as the ill-researched excuse for journalism that his article sadly is.] We’ve always heard that if you don’t like what you see on your TV, you can turn it off. But today’s gargantuan Hollywood marketing campaigns are so all-pervasive that we can’t close our eyes and blink away the images.

It’s time studio marketers exercised self-restraint, especially with a film that packs as visceral a punch as Dark Knight. [They do. Again, there are certain specific codes of practice to which they must – and do – adhere.] It may be easier than ever to reach every eyeball in the country, but advertising images, like the powers of a superhero, can end up being used for good or evil. [Or for advertising.] Maybe in the wake of the Aurora tragedy, when it comes to promoting a movie, it’s time to think long and hard about what kind of message is being sent. [I suspect Goldstein will be a lone wolf crying in an empty night on this matter.]

*****

Goldstein’s article is not alone in carrying a torch for the airing of opinions in the guise of a sane rallying cry for appropriate action, but in his focus on conventional billboard art that is a world away from anything remotely incendiary it is certainly one of the clearest cut in its tasteless and insensitive inappropriateness. Oh, for rational, informed debate that sets aside coincidence, tangential links and gut reactions in favour of research, research, research.

But then that requires effort.

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