Trying to make sense of the senseless

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Who’s your favourite director? Spielberg? Scorcese? Maybe the Coens or David Fincher? For me, one man who stands above all of his contemporaries and has made some of the best films of the last decade is Christopher Nolan. Despite the fact that a number of my favourite directors have already delivered outstanding works this year, including Steve McQueen and Wes Anderson, my anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t be higher. Nolan’s last three films are all comfortably 10/10 films in my eyes and while Inception and The Dark Knight are fantastic, The Prestige was my favourite film of the last decade. I saw the outstanding prologue at the IMAX in London last year, and tomorrow I’ll be heading down to London to see the remainder of the film. While I get a thrill from seeing just about anything at the cinema, I knew from the first day of January that this would be one of the highlights of my cinema year.

Then I got up this morning and put on the news.

In a week when the internet has been abuzz with the first reviews of the new film, then with attention seekers posting fake reviews or inflammatory comments, and in some circles even holding a certain opinion cannot be done without judgement, the death of twelve people at a cinema in Aurora in Colorado, only twenty miles from Columbine, puts all of that into desperately sharp relief. In the early hours of the morning, a man walked into a cinema and opened fire with a catalogue of weapons, managing to shoot around one in four people in attendance, twelve of them so far fatally. Words simply cannot express the senselessness of this tragedy, a loss of human life on a tragic scale, all the more so given that these people were simply there looking to enjoy themselves and do what I hope to do tomorrow, to escape the rigours of life for an hour or three and immerse themselves in another world.

But from the moment the first reports came in, this has been described by the the majority of news organisations in some form or another as the Batman shooting. It would be easy to think that this was a random act, a young man simply following in the footsteps of too many others who have sprung to notoriety by their actions, but the media would rather it wasn’t. By immediately reinforcing the association with Batman, the implication is immediately made, and will be harder to shake given that the perpetrator is reported to have worn a face-covering gas mask and is now being reported as claiming that he is “The Joker”, that this is in some way driven by the content of the genre of the very film that the crowd had gathered to watch (and ignoring the fact that The Joker first appeared in published media seventy-two years ago).

I’ve already made such an association myself, in mentioning Columbine in an earlier paragraph. But at that level it matters little, the crimes separated by almost as many years as they are miles and sharing little other than the futility and tragedy of their actions. What matters now are that the actions of one man have transformed the lives of so many others for ever, and left another association in the minds of many between violence in the entertainment media and in the real world which some struggle to distinguish between.

The reason for mentioning Columbine is to wonder how much has changed. I personally don’t believe that violent movies or video games are responsible for creating real life monsters such as these, but at the time it opened the debate once again both in America and around the world about not only the freedom of expression, but also the deeply rooted Constitutional right to bear arms. Both are long standing principles, and neither has changed in any real sense with over a decade of distance from the disaster in Columbine. We find ourselves here again, and while I cannot believe that this will motivate change any more than other previous tragedies have done in the culture of America of the wider world – whether it should or not is a point for debate that’s not really appropriate to today – but I can’t help but wonder how many people will be looking over their shoulders somewhere in the world when, and if, they settle down to watch a film this weekend.

It’s not the first time that something I love deeply in my life has become tainted with tragedy. On a Saturday afternoon in April over twenty years ago, I picked up a small radio and disappeared off into the bathroom, the only quiet haven in my family’s busy house, to listen to commentary on an important football match between Nottingham Forest and my beloved Liverpool. The commentary had lasted barely six minutes before it was interrupted; it seemed to be another unfortunate example of the violence which had occasionally gripped football during most of my childhood, not least when thirty-nine people were killed in fighting at the European Cup final in Brussels four years earlier between Juventus and Liverpool.

It quickly became clear that this was something entirely different, and the disaster at the Hillsborough stadium that afternoon not only claimed ninety-six innocent lives, but also fundamentally changed the face of football in this country. Somehow, the players fought through the emotional pain of that day and picked up the trophy they were competing for, the best tribute they could possibly muster. The following summer, I went to London twice to visit Wembley Stadium to watch Liverpool in action in pre-season matches, watching the match through the metal grill of the high fence erected to keep the hooligans off the field, but manoeuvring myself whenever possible so I could clearly see the action through the small gap in the fence where a gate had been opened, so that if something untoward happened, at least this time fans could escape and not be crushed to death.

There are some parallels, albeit small ones, between the events that occurred that day in Hillsborough and through what followed it, and what happened in Aurora earlier today. On both occasions, fans and families had gathered together to share the experience of enjoying something they loved dearly, only for tragedy to intrude forever in their lives. I pray that those who have suffered a deep loss in today’s events may eventually find some peace, knowing that so many of the families of Hillsborough have never had their closure. But while football has been able to find ways to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy, I’m not sure anything less than turning cinema foyers in half the world into the same kind of security process that you see in the strictest airports could remove the possibility of this happening again, even though one would hope against hope that this is purely an isolated incident.

There was also an unpleasantness in the media in the wake of Hillsborough, where some publications instantly leapt on the Liverpool fans and attempted to castigate them for a role in the immediate aftermath of the disaster which turned out to be entirely fictitious. Emboldened by the fact that a small minority of hooligans had dragged Liverpool’s reputation into the mud after Heysel, they saw fit to publish stories that fans had urinated on victims, picked the pockets of the dead and attacked those trying to help others. It was easy to try to brand these victims with the stigma of previous tragedies, but it wasn’t actually in any way true and only deepened the pain not only of those immediately affected, but by a whole city. Whenever such a disaster with media connections occurs, it’s only a matter of time before someone questions the role of the likes of Christopher Nolan in making such “entertainments” and making acts of violence acceptable in the minds of those who know no better, but Nolan and his contemporaries, and indeed the fictional characters they create, are no more responsible for the creation of such despicable acts of reality than you or I. Maybe we all just need someone to blame when something so wretched happens, whether that’s right or not.

I’m not sure any of this makes sense, and by that I don’t just mean the devastating loss of life in Aurora, but also my attempt to reconcile in my own mind a tragedy from over twenty years ago with much more recent ones, but I hope you’ll forgive my own need to try to pour out my feelings in a hope of making some understanding of them, at least for my own benefit. My overriding feeling of Hillsborough was one of helplessness – so many people with a similar obsession were suffering, and there was nothing I could do except sit, hundreds of miles away, and attempt to come to terms with it with my friends. I can only hope that people are not deterred from watching The Dark Knight Rises, or indeed any other film, this weekend wherever in the world they are watching it, and that they can do so not only in comfort but in safety, but there’s little that I can do to make it otherwise. I don’t know if this Christopher Nolan film will be a fourth 10/10 in a row – earlier this week I had conclude that it didn’t really matter, and I’m more certain of that now than ever. Given that the entire ethos of my blog is to encourage people to the cinema to watch movies, I feel even more compelled to do this today, and hope that rather than being wrapped in fear, cinema can remain the escape that it should be. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy whatever you do this weekend.

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