A Tragedy Made in the USA

This past Friday was one of those strange and sad days in the life of a country when a number of things don’t so much converge as share the commonality of the moment and thereby exist within the shadows of each other. The massacre that greeted the release of the year’s most-awaited movie just a few midnights ago in a tiny Colorado town took place at cross-coordinates social, cultural, and political by virtue of timing and the parameters of the occasion, if nothing else; though the more terrible the toll in such circumstances, the more natural it is to draw conclusions, learn lessons or arrive at resolutions, the only thing straightforward about any of it is the horror. The most immediate responses, having to do with gun laws and the movie itself, were predictable, understandable in varying degrees and not altogether to the point. If those of us who believe in sensible restrictions on the constitutional right to bear arms are being honest, we have to acknowledge that the sort of psychological background check on gun buyers so routinely advocated probably would not have stopped the alleged assailant in this instance, and that if we were to cease altogether the sale of the AR-15 assault rifle used, the evidence—beginning with the residence of the assailant (let’s not do him the honor of naming him) that was wired to explode on entry—is that a bomb might well have been employed instead. This was a man who was intent on doing terrible damage to as many people as possible by whatever means it took.

A political culture that fashions itself hardnosed always has had a certain skepticism of popular culture and thereby treats it as trivial until someone with a gun makes it important in a way that no one imagined or can any longer deny. This is exactly why the political culture gets so many things so wrong so often—because it thinks in terms of demographic and ideological abstractions rather than the things that real people care about. In 1956, a 21-year-old Tennessee truck driver grabbed a microphone and sang with such libidinal fury that 50 million girls screamed and it meant more to the world and the half century that followed than anything the president of the United States did that year. It would be as glib to deny as it is to argue that what happened Friday had to do in part with a violent popular culture, and for those of us who would reflexively answer in defense of this particular movie, therein lies a trap. To insist, as Frank Zappa did about music to Tipper Gore in the late 1980s, that the culture can never corrupt anyone is to insist that the culture doesn’t matter, is to contend that the culture is inconsequential, which emasculates that culture before the censors ever get their chance. Unless you measure such things by spectacle and body count, The Dark Knight Rises is no more violent, and may be less, than any randomly chosen episode of Breaking Bad—the film even includes a scene in which, with no irony at all, a vigilante in a bat costume admonishes his slinky cat-burglar adversary/ally about the use of guns—yet last Friday’s catastrophic carnage wasn’t wrought at a two-in-the-afternoon screening of Ice Age 4. No one can possibly believe the killer’s choice of hour and film were random, and fairly or not this movie now is stained with a asterisk that pulses like a vein, which has no bearing on its aesthetic or morality but leaves it tainted nonetheless. 

Thus now The Dark Knight Rises endures in another dreadful context besides that of its own political subtext, and while it would be exploitative to make specious connections purely for the sake of this piece, the subtext bears mentioning since part of it does concern the unrestrained free-agent mayhem of vigilantism—not to mention the social dismay that seeps into everything, including the lives of med-school dropouts. Even if Friday’s tragedy hadn’t happened, The Dark Knight Rises is the most unsettling comic-book summer blockbuster ever, and while disputing none of the excellent points made earlier by my colleague and friend Tom Carson, I find the movie more politically ambiguous. As Tom states, of course radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s conspiratorial correlation of the film’s villain named Bane with the company once owned and managed by prospective Republican nominee Mitt Romney (to whatever extent he still admits it) is ridiculous—more cynical than idiotic (I would find it enormously reassuring if I thought Limbaugh was actually stupid). The character has existed for two decades and while it’s entirely possible that comic-book writers are prescient about some things, Romney’s presidential ambition probably isn’t one of them.

That aside, while it would seem to indicate a certain right-wing fervor (Tom, I hasten to add, never called Dark Knight writer-director Christopher Nolan a right-winger but, to the contrary, offered an emphatic caveat otherwise), Batman’s vigilantism has been a source of dramatic contention from the outset of Nolan’s saga. Driving the three Batman movies he’s directed is more than the suggestion that, for all his snarling declarations about justice, Batman is only an eye-twitch or two away from himself being one of the psychotic terrorists he engages; while his vigilantism is romanticized, it’s also rooted in a quest for personal revenge that the narrative never forgets nor truly vindicates until a final sacrifice (if indeed that’s what it is) at the story’s conclusion. Even more complicated is likely to be the audience’s response to Bane’s uprising: During a scene in which the stock exchange is taken hostage, viewers may have feelings as mixed as the cops in the film, who are less than eager to intervene (“That’s everybody’s money,” one broker protests, to which a cop stonily answers, “Mine’s under a mattress”). What ensues—complete with Police Commissioner Gordon reading the last lines of A Tale of Two Cities—evokes the French Revolution’s terrors and cruel charades, and I found unmistakable Nolan’s insinuation that a lot of Manhattan Marie Antoinettes brought the reckoning on themselves and the rest of us. As the wealthy are being dragged out from under the furniture by their feet, we half expect one of those well turned ankles to belong to Ann Romney, indignantly fuming, “We’ve given you people all you need.” 

It’s now clear that the conflict of this coming election is between Discontent (with the incumbent) and Distrust (of the challenger). The Discontent takes several forms: The president is too radical; he’s not radical enough; radical or not, he’s ineffectual; ineffectual or not, he can’t raise enough money to be competitive against the opposition; he was doomed to be ineffectual by the opposition’s monolithic nature so maybe letting the opposition run everything is the only way the situation can change (I’ve actually heard this latter argument from Democrats, which should chill the Obama campaign). The Distrust is more coherent if comprised of more details than everyone can grasp: The challenger is an economic turn-around artist who got where he did by flipping companies, firing people, sending their jobs overseas and sticking the profits in far-flung bank accounts most people can’t find on a map, and who now advocates more systemic breaks for people like himself. You would think the tax business is a ticking bomb for Romney—RELEASE THE RETURNS cry the bumper stickers of October—but maybe the Romney campaign is right and discontent will trump distrust. At the moment, discontent and distrust are stalemated, both seething throughout The Dark Knight Rises inside the theater and out, silently when not fired from an automatic. If the political culture views such ambivalence in popular culture as wishy washy, having the cake and eating it too, popular culture never saw the point of a cake it couldn’t eat. 

What happened last Friday was an act of Americanism. Ours is a country of masks, loners, secret identities and the violence that would purge what it has defiled, and last Friday was Americanism at its most savage, but quintessentially American in a way that must be conceded by those of us who consider ourselves patriots. What happened in Aurora is the sort of thing that either happens only in America or, when it does happen elsewhere, makes people say, “I thought this only happened in America.” It’s the sort of thing that makes The Dark Knight Rises a movie that could only be made in America and a movie that could only be about America. The right considers it a slander to say this violence is congenitally American, but when the right makes the case for American innocence, then logic follows that the same thing that happened in Aurora would happen in Canada if Canada had the sort of gun laws we do instead of the sort of gun laws they do, thereby rendering absurd the right’s argument against gun control. On the other hand, when the left is sanctimonious about American violence (“America is a very violent society,” intoned Michael Moore), it offers an argument only a rhetorical tweak short of the right’s fortune-cookie wisdom that guns don’t kill people, people do, because an innate American violence suggests that all the guns could disappear tomorrow and Americans would still find a way to kill each other. We’re left with the American paradox in all its heroism and havoc. The first 15 words of the Constitution speak of forming a “more perfect” union rather than a perfect one, implicitly allowing that perfection isn’t possible. Like Fitzgerald’s first-class intellect that can entertain two contradictory truths at once, the soul of the only country that, since its inception, has stood for something bigger than its borders comprises both the ideal and its bloody failure, pursuing the perfection that’s as doomed to defeat as human nature itself. 

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