Movie theaters will join the shopping malls and universities and high schools and post offices, the other sites of mass mourning, but something feels different this time. Maybe it is more personal because the attack took place at a movie theater and, being a film critic, it struck too near to home for me. Pulling out of that tight close-up, though, to the wider cultural view, this shooter touched a nerve because he hit us where we go to escape, that sanctuary away from the wars and the economy, the political races and the NCAA penalties to Penn State. This is where we go for a few hours for a retreat from the summer heat, to regroup, to reconnect with those around us who love the dark embrace of the movies.
And that invasion is what shakes me so. Not enough make some sort of proclamation, to rally to take back the theater from the tyranny of fear and terror; no, nothing so bold or politicized, because life, if you really think about it, doesn’t make such demands. It doesn’t stop to remember either the good or the bad. No special effort is necessary because each moment of life already contains both, memorializes these notions — that this is where the present takes root and the future, any true hope for the future, emerges.
Taking things a step further, backward for me actually, I return, as I often do, to Professor Cornel West and a key part of his definition of what it means to be human.
Beyond his Chekhovian Christian conception of humanity, I deeply agree and subscribe to the belief that we “suffer, shudder and struggle courageously in the face of inevitable death.” We need courage in order to do so. It is courage that allows us to assess our own mortality and keep fighting the good fight.
And, for me, one of the purest examples of that courage comes from motion pictures because just as the words of Professor West challenge me to place words and ideas in a more personal framework, so too can the work of filmmakers. Recently during a discussion about film favorites, someone mentioned The Mission, a 1986 Roland Joffé film starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons that I caught as a wide-eyed high school student back in the day, but which contains an image of men, martyrs tied to crosses released into a river and eventually rushing over a waterfall. Those final frames of the crosses, I recall them as if they were memories, events I witnessed in person and not from the comfortable remove of a theater seat.
I have experienced the shocking spillover of violence that can shatter the sanctity of the theater. During my Philadelphia years, I found myself in crowded theaters as gunshots popped off and people stampeded for the exits in fear. These situations – Menace II Society (1993) and Set It Off (1996) — were assumed to be part of a larger “urban” threat and, while they pre-date my freelance days, I remember discussions about the dangers of these gangster fantasies both onscreen and in Hip Hop culture.
To look back now, the ills of thug life seem quaint in comparison. From the thrilling rush of watching the award-winning tightrope walking documentary Man on Wire to the surreal replay of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers to the brief emergence of torture porn (with its blink and you missed it fall), the theater experience has managed to sustain itself against attack, but the wounds are showing (and telling).
Thankfully, I haven’t seen smartphone footage from Aurora, the herky-jerky frames of the gunman or images of the victims. That means that we are clinging to some last strand of our human dignity. Part of what makes truly powerful images from film so transformative is that we know they aren’t real; they are still just the dreams of men and women.
Undoubtedly, we will have to face more of the nightmarish realities in the future, but let’s make sure that through our suffering, shuddering and struggling, we maintain sacred places to escape the evils of the world.
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