Posted by Danielle Berrin
Too often these days we hear the tireless phrase “They just don’t make ’em like they used to” when it comes to the movies.
Film historian David Spaner blames the blacklist.
In his new book, “Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film,” Spaner makes the case that the corporate values underpinning Hollywood’s political perfidy in the 1950s are to blame for a sustained assault on creative freedom — and perhaps, freedom in general — in the movie business.
Spaner argues that the studios’ willingness to enforce a creative exodus among the industry’s lefty best and brightest indeed left it irrevocably impoverished.
“The blacklist had a huge effect on the quality of Hollywood filmmaking for decades, and Hollywood filmmaking has never entirely recovered,” he said recently over lunch at Nate ’n Al of Beverly Hills.
On any old weekend, a visit to the multiplex makes a convincing case that Spaner might be right. Almost everything the studios generate is commercialized and homogenized for a global audience. Movies are mostly either a remake (“Total Recall”), a franchise (“Batman,” “Twilight” “Harry Potter”) or a formulaic genre film that is so hackneyed and unoriginal it is as unwatchable as “The Watch.”
Films with a distinct sense of the local culture are becoming increasingly rare — think Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” — and, because art is ever beholden to box office, filmmakers who actually innovate like Allen and the Texas-born Wes Anderson now prefer to work in Europe.
Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer has acknowledged corporate Hollywood’s shame: “We make a lot of shitty movies,” he confessed to a Savannah Film Festival audience last November. “Every one of them breaks my heart.”
Meyer is frank about Hollywood’s fidelity to fortune. “It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of,” he told the Guardian. “But your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.”
The nonagenarian Norma Barzman would puke. The New York-born author and screenwriter is a self-described Commie who was blacklisted along with her husband, Ben Barzman, during the Red Scare. What was supposed to be a two-week vacation in Paris turned into a 30-year exile for the couple after they received a call from a friend warning, “Don’t come back. Don’t come back under any circumstances,” Barzman recalled.
Barzman was proud of her politics, which she had inherited from her father, a well-to-do textile importer who supported progressive causes.
“It permeated every part of my life,” she said. “What I wrote, the way I lived, my marriage, the way I brought up my children. Everything I did was political. I wanted to make a better world and I really believed one could.”
But in those days, that universal (and especially Jewish) value had Hollywood Jews deeply divided over the means to achieve it.
“A lot of people know that the Hollywood studio system was largely invented by Jews but not so many people know that the resistance to the Hollywood studio system was also largely invented by Jews,” Spaner said of the radical Hollywood left. “To me the Hollywood blacklist of the ’40s and ’50s was Jew-on-Jew violence.”
Spaner writes: “[The House Un-American Activities Committee’s] witch-hunters were bothered that so much studio talent was so New York, so intellectual, so smart-alecky, so left-wing ... so Jewish — un-American” —and who HUAC spokesman John Rankin plainly called “enemies of Christianity” — “the frightened, essentially conservative studio heads, who were almost entirely Jewish, were at pains to distance themselves from their left-wing Jewish employees, and to prove they were first and foremost American, [so] they enforced the blacklist.”
After all, it was those leftist Jewish artists from New York who helped establish the guilds and labor unions that went toe-to-toe with the studios in order to enact fair industry practices. “The moguls stayed quiet during the organizing,” Barzman recalled. “The blacklist was Hollywood’s revenge.”
But if the moguls’ aim was to weaken the unions, they failed; and if sacrificing creativity was the means, how stupidly self-negating. What the blacklist era did accomplish, however, was institutionalizing self-interest at the expense of creative risk-taking and banishing radical politics that might tie Hollywood pictures to distinct social ideals.
Today Hollywood “liberalism” is mostly idle politics, Spaner said. “Before the blacklist, the activism of the ’30s and ’40s was an activism that had an actual critique of the capitalist system. That was driven out. So the activism that exists now is not an overall critique, it’s more around specific issues and specific candidates and a lot of it tends to involve fundraising by big-name, fairly liberal Hollywood stars.”
But Barzman has no regrets. During the seven years the U.S. government rescinded her passport, she took her seven kids to the south of France where they lived next door to Picasso, who became a friend. Her husband, whose U.S. citizenship was denaturalized, made a slew of movies all over Europe, and anonymously penned the script for “El Cid.”
After living the good life, I asked her why they returned to Los Angeles in the late ’70s. “My husband had the idea in his head he wanted to make it big in Hollywood,” she said wistfully.
Even after the business had broken his heart, he responded with love.
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August 3, 2012 | 1:38 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I’m at work on a story about Jews and erotica, and in the course of my research came across this very cheeky video blog in which famed Jewish sex-therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer discusses Fifty Shades of Grey.
“I do believe every woman should read it,” Dr. Ruth instructs her viewers. “Women need to be aroused, and here we can prove that literature or reading will help women to get aroused.” But, she adds, the steamy story isn’t only a value for women: “I would like men to read that book too.”
Dr. Ruth compared the impact of the international bestseller Fifty Shades with a category of world famous erotica that includes D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Be warned, though, the latter examples are far more deft at seducing with sexy sentences than Fifty Shades which depends entirely on story.
Though it has sold upwards of 20 million copies, even Dr. Ruth is hesitant to canonize the trilogy: “I don’t know how long it’s going to be so famous,” she says. “But it’s certainly a good read.” Still, she advises couples to skip to the good parts and fast-track their own salacious scene. “You don’t have to read the three volumes; you read a little bit of each and then you put the book away and have some very good sex.”
Of course, you might want to find a worthy partner first. Say, a gorgeous young billionaire like Christian Grey.
“If this guy described here, if he were available and I would be much, much younger and not married,” Dr. Ruth confesses, “I would also go for a night with him.”
“Not because of the sadistic elements—that’s not for me. But because he has a plane; he has a helicopter; he knows how to deal with women and he knows how to make love.”
In other words, Grey is a man. He is, as Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield describes in his book “Manliness,” someone who “seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk.”
All these primal forces have their day in the dark of the bedroom. Where else is the measure of a man so plain to see?
Watch the full video here:
July 31, 2012 | 2:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When Joan Juliet Buck was asked to profile Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad for Vogue’s March 2011 Power Issue, her initial response was: “Absolutely not,” she explains in her explanatory mea culpa on The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.”
That reason proved to be a feeble deterrent. Instead Buck buckled under the glitzy gavel of Vogue and took the assignment. Then, she displayed a staggering amount of moral blindness and naiveté by glamorizing the Assads’ monstrous regime, which led to a humiliating retraction by Vogue and the severing of her nearly four-decade tie to the magazine. Now, in a plain-spoken postscript she is trying to explain her piddling judgment.
To her credit, “There was no way of knowing that Assad, the meek ophthalmologist and computer-loving nerd, would kill more of his own people than his father had,” she writes retrospectively, “and torture tens of thousands more, many of them children.”
But she did know about his father, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who crushed a 1982 Sunni Muslim uprising known as the Hama Massacre, by reportedly slaying 20,000 men, women and children. She did not consider any of the cliches about fathers and sons, or their real expressions in history, by even attempting to report beyond the bubble the Assads presented to her. (And Buck was not as clueless as she’d have us believe: when she was told by an Assad aide not to speak to the French ambassador about “what was really going on in Syria”, her withering retort was “You can’t talk to me that way.” Afterwards, she never followed up.)
Buck, a former editor in chief of French Vogue was right to initially suggest that the magazine send a political reporter for this assignment. Someone who might pay more attention to their surroundings than Asma al-Assad’s choice of slacks. But instead, Buck bucked another prescient cliche: Curiosity killed the cat.
“It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer,” she explains. “Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.”
Her candor is appreciated but comes a little late. Buck claims Vogue asked her not to talk about the debacle, which she honored until she was dishonored by getting fired.
Her mea culpa is a vexing read since it attempts to exonerate her but really makes her seem shallow. And not quite curious enough. Pondering the 17-month and counting Syrian revolt, she admits wondering if her Rose In The Desert has struggled with her husband’s command for carnage: “I wondered if [first lady Asma] was drugged, compliant, indifferent, complicit.”
She didn’t wonder about their relationship when they were right in front of her, whimsically whipping up fondue for the kids?
The most curious aspect of Buck’s postscript is that she inadvertently reveals the best inquisitors of her reporting trip: the disadvantaged children she visited at Massar, one of Asma’s pet-cause youth centers.
“They wanted to know everything about New York,” she writes. “And movies.”
July 30, 2012 | 3:34 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Perhaps the greatest thing about Hollywood is its ability to inspire. Though its name connotes a city and an industry, to me, it’s also always represented an ideal. Beyond the biz and the box office, Hollywood is about a world where dreams and glamour and creativity are paramount; it is a conceptual canvas for our deepest desires, a benign narcotic for the imagination.
A young Anne Frank certainly saw it that way. In a beautiful little piece for The New Yorker, Richard Brody writes of his visit to the Anne Frank house, where he discovered a little known fact: Anne Frank idolized Hollywood.
“the most extraordinary and agonizing elements of historical testimony that the house contains are literally documentary: the wallpaper in the room shared by Otto, Edith, and Margot Frank retains the father’s dated horizontal pencil marks tracing his daughters’ growth. And the room that Anne shared with Pfeffer is decorated with carefully-cut newspaper clippings—ones she had cut out before going into hiding—that she pasted to the wallpaper. Most of them had to do with movies—and primarily with Hollywood movies…”
You can view a wonderful photograph of the wall here.
Among what remains of the clippings on the wall, Brody observed myriad pictures of movie actors: “Greta Garbo as Ninotchka…Simone Simon, wearing Chanel…Ginger Rogers.”
This little detail, though seemingly trivial, is enough to imagine what role these images played. They were aspirational. Any teenage girl who plasters her wall with pop culture paraphernalia is making a declaration about her identity: This is what I find interesting, beautiful, special… This is what I’d like to do, who I hope to love, what I’d like to look like.
The significance Hollywood held for Anne, a bright, exceptionally literate Dutch girl, had much to do, I suspect, with its mythology. Since it was a condition of Anne’s father, Otto Frank, to leave the house exactly as the Germans had left it—ransacked, emptied, abandoned—in order for it to be opened to the public, what survived are real vestiges of the Franks’ wartime sustenance. It is easy to imagine Anne during those many dark nights in hiding, staring up at her self-selected Hollywood icons. It was an easy escape, the only one allowed or even possible.
“[Hollywood] was a pop culture that wasn’t trivialized as “folk” but that was world-historically worthy to stand alongside the classics with which Anne Frank’s education was so richly imbued. It was an artistic realm that took the dreams of teen-aged girls very seriously, and the Cinderella story—the plot of “First Love” and, in effect, of Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka”—has much in common with Anne Frank’s dreams: those of romantic awakening, of the flourishing and transformation of a common girl with uncommon merits, of her entrance onto the grand world stage where, in her heart, she feels herself able to compete. And it was a culture created largely by American Jews (in Neal Gabler’s enduring phrase, an empire of their own), which largely reflected their liberal ideals. The very internationalism of Frank’s Hollywood heroes (Garbo was Swedish, Henie Norwegian, Milland English) suggests her sense of the relative paradise of tolerance that Hollywood represented and perhaps even helped to foster.”
But of all the things Hollywood represents, it centralizes a mythology about the power of stories to move and transform us, and change our lives. In that way, Frank not only idealized Hollywood but succeeded in it.
July 30, 2012 | 12:32 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
New Yorker editor David Remnick was rather precise when he said, “This is a terrifically sad situation.”
He was referring to the resignation of one of his newly minted staff writers, L.A. native Jonah Lehrer, a preternaturally gifted thinker and writer and best selling author, who admitted fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for his latest book, “Imagine.”
Lehrer had recently come under intense scrutiny after it was discovered that he recycled chunks of his own work on his Frontal Cortex blog for the New Yorker. He was loudly accused of “self-plagiarizing” for reproducing work he had previously published for other outlets without proper disclosure. The strange allegation sparked a debate about the pressure on contemporary writers to produce ever more content. Some (myself included) found the charge a little ridiculous since creative people often draw on formative or recurrent ideas, though, perhaps taking the time to dress them in new clothes.
Though I initially found the media pounding harsh, where there was smoke, there followed fire.
Tablet magazine’s Michael Moynihan, who describes himself as a “Dylan obsessive” read with keen interest Lehrer’s “Imagine” chapter on Bob Dylan. But, something felt amiss. “[W]hen I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty,” Moynihan writes, adding, “and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.”
When he confronted Lehrer about the discrepancy via email, Lehrer tried to cover his tracks. As Moynihan put it, “Lehrer stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me.”
The full story of what transpired between the two journalists is available here, but the unhappy ending is that Lehrer admitted his deception and resigned his vaunted position at The New Yorker.
Lehrer issued the following statement to The New York Times:
“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine[.]’ The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”
Dishonesty and fear has ensnared one of journalism’s brightest young stars. And as a result, Lehrer has lost the most invaluable assest of any journalist: trust.
Coming upon the high holidays, the Jewish question is this: Will he repair what he’s broken and restore his integrity? Can he? It may seem impossible now, but he’s a creative guy; he’ll figure it out.
July 29, 2012 | 4:20 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Bruce Springsteen is candid about the fact that it wasn’t religion, but therapy, that propelled his spiritual maturation. At least that’s how his wife, Patti Scialfa, put it to New Yorker editor David Remnick in a recent profile: “He was able to look at himself and battle it out,” she said.
How he achieved the seemingly impossible—that is, a fairly normal life for a rock-and-roll superstar; he is long-married with three kids—reads a lot like a religious journey. He begins in the bondage of his youth, journeys through the wilds of his ascending star and lands, at 62, in a contented place that balances his need for idolatry with his need for intimacy. You might say, Springsteen had to transcend himself in order to live with himself. Though he is not Jewish, his journey echoes Jewish texts and teachings.
In his telling, no amount of fame or fortune could erase the demons of his childhood, in which a tortured, wavering relationship with his bipolar father was paramount—though not unrivaled by growing up poor or the potential dangers stalking behind the frissons of his ambition.
“My parents’ struggles, it’s the subject of my life,” Springsteen told The New Yorker. “It’s the thing that eats at me and always will. My life took a very different course, but my life is an anomaly. Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.”
From those wounds, he made music. He set out to prove himself to that hovering figure of a father who had tried to constrain him. He learned to perform away his pain. And in healing himself, through music, through performance, and the pursuit of self-knowledge, he discovered a means for healing others. “We’re repairmen—repairmen with a toolbox,” he said. “If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.”
It was not pre-ordained that Springsteen would understand or overcome his own suffering, or that it might awaken him to the pain of others. As with so many other extraordinary talents, it would have been almost too easy for him to fall prey to the promises of his own legend. His wife, Scialfa, explained: “When you are that serious and that creative, and non-trusting on an intimate level, and your art has given you so much, your ability to create something becomes your medicine,” she said. “It’s the only thing that’s given you that stability, that joy, that self-esteem. And so you are, like, ‘This part of me no one is going to touch.’ When you’re young, that works, because it gets you from A to B. When you get older, when you are trying to have a family and children, it doesn’t work. I think that some artists can be prone to protecting the well that they fetched their inspiration from so well that they are actually protecting malignant parts of themselves, too. You begin to see that something is broken. It’s not just a matter of being the mythological lone wolf; something is broken.”
It is the curse of the gifted that the high that comes with creation can also hinder their own self-development. Stardom should not be confused with sophistication. Springsteen has admitted that at the core of his drive lie the darker parts of himself. “I searched out something that I needed to do,” he said. “It’s a job that’s filled with ego and vanity and narcissism, and you need all those things to do it well. But you can’t let those things completely swamp you, either. You need all those things but in relative check.”
Ego, vanity and narcissism can be enabling (even ennobling) gifts, he discovered, so long as they don’t rule. The idea fits nicely with a Talmudic teaching that instructs every person to carry in their pocket two contradictory messages—“For me the world was created” and “I am but dust and ashes”—as a reminder of the infinity of individual potential and the reality of mortal finitude.
Blessings exist in harmony with curses. Springsteen accepts the vanities of his artistic madness as tools for transcendance— “You need those things, because you are driven by your needs out there—the raw hunger and the raw need of exciting people and exciting yourself into some higher state.”
Call it the erotics of Springsteen’s spirituality. It is a skill he cultivates: “I want an extreme experience,” he told Remnick. He wants his audience to leave a concert, “with [their] hands hurting, [their] feet hurting, [their] back hurting, [their] voice sore, and [their] sexual organs stimulated!”
The Jewish mystics described this state of being as the ability to experience eternity in a single moment. “The spiritual work of life is to be able to experience the full infinity of every moment,” writes Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.
Infinity is precisely what Springsteen tries to bring both to his personal performance and to his audience. Like the function of physical intimacy, he wants his audience to forget themselves for awhile. He even describes his role as akin to a religious leader. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he said.
But, unlike many religious leaders, he does not pretend that he is holier than his believers.
“[Y]ou are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”
Ironically, whatever tensions he has resolved, whatever balance in self-perception he has achieved, it has not neutralized the impulse of devotees to deify him.
As neophyte bandmate Jake Clemons beamed, “Maybe he comes from the line of David, a shepherd boy who could play beautiful music, so that the crazy become less crazy and Saul the king finally chills out. Religion is a system of rules and order and expectations, and it unites people in a purpose. There really is a component of Bruce that is supernatural. Bruce is Moses! He led the people out of the land of disco!”
Read the full profile at The New Yorker
July 25, 2012 | 3:45 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
No one foresaw that a more sinister evil than the fictional Bane would appear at a screening of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But, in fact, the violent entertainment became a violent event when, on July 20, a masked marauder entered a movie theater and sprayed bullets into an Aurora, Colo., crowd, leaving 12 dead and 58 wounded. In the aftermath of the midnight movie massacre, many have wondered about Hollywood’s culpability: Does violent entertainment inspire violent behavior? Or was it mere coincidence that what police say was a very methodical crime took place during a showing of the dark “Dark Knight Rises”?
The alleged killer, 24-year-old James Holmes, once a promising neuroscience student, primped for the slaughter by dying his hair red and, upon arrest, reportedly told authorities he was “The Joker.” Next came reports that when police searched his booby-trapped apartment, they found a Batman poster. There was also the reminder that Frank Miller’s 1986 “The Dark Knight Returns” shows a lone gunman rise from his seat during a Batman-inspired porn film and open fire on the crowd.
So is Batman partly to blame for Holmes’ bat-crazy behavior?
Although always hotly debated, the link between media violence and aggressive behavior is nothing new. And after any public shooting, debates about gun control, mental illness and proper parenting are reified. Still, the parallels seem peculiarly strong between Holmes’ deadly shooting spree and director Christopher Nolan’s nihilistic knight trilogy, in which good and evil duke it out, and neither is conclusively victorious.
In his 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, cited by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, University of Michigan psychology professor L. Rowell Huesmann determined that adolescent exposure to media violence significantly increases the risk of both short-term and long-term aggressive behavior. But beyond his controlled experimental group, Huesmann acknowledged: “One valid remaining question is whether the size of this effect is large enough that one should consider it to be a public health threat: The answer seems to be ‘yes.’ ”
Huesmann added, “The only effect slightly larger than the effect of media violence on aggression is that of cigarette smoking on lung cancer.”
In 2004, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “From the acts of racial violence spawned by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to the mere audio-induced panic linked to Orson Welles’s radio broadcast ‘War of the Worlds’ to John Hinckley’s re-enactment of ‘Taxi Driver’ with President Ronald Reagan as his victim, cause-and-effect links to the movies exist.”
But to what extent? Not all minds are equally impressionable. Just because Holmes’ alleged acts may have been triggered by Heath Ledger’s “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” —as the late actor described his own turn as The Joker —it does not mean others who view “The Dark Knight” will respond in kind. In fact, Huesmann’s study makes clear that there can be moderating factors, such as the circumstances in which one views violence, or personal predispositions, that impact the extent to which a person is moved by movie mayhem.
Film critics and scholars have been careful to guard the sanctity of artistic freedom. They were quick to dispel blame and stave off talk of censorship by suggesting Holmes was seeking publicity and the Batman finale “event” provided him the stage he sought. Film pundits were quick to absolve the movies as any kind of accomplice, aligning themselves instead with W.H. Auden, who famously wrote: “Poetry makes nothing happen.’’
Movie-watching, it is generally said, is a passive experience. Certainly by Hollywood standards, it is meant to entertain, perhaps to enlighten or stimulate the senses, not to motivate misfortune. It offers, at best, a vicarious experience that can bring relief from the constant, grating pressure wrought by the real world to respond. For many of us, a dark movie theater is the only place to escape and feel safe in surrender.
But events like last week’s shooting, which violated an ordinary setting and turned it into “a death trap,” demand rethinking what we can no longer take for granted: that movie-watching and movie-going should beget psychological pleasure and not horrific physical pain. Sometimes, as author Jonathan Lethem once wrote, “[A] popular myth or symbol as resilient and yet as opaque as Batman has a tendency to collect and recapitulate meaning beyond a creator’s intentions.”
To suggest that movies are merely passive is to sell them short and to deprive popular culture of one of its most prized vehicles for beauty and inspiration. If an art form — any art form — is understood as only for consumption, without the potential to provoke action or incite change, then art itself is rendered rather meaningless. And worse, it becomes emphatically un-Jewish.
What we adore about movies is that they excite and inspire us. The good ones can teach us about love, how to move in for that kiss, what to wear when we’re leaving Casablanca and, when we’re speechless, just what to say. Movies are the dream dust that empowers us to be more than we are.
So, can we deny their intense power, as well, to influence those who are inclined to do harm?
July 22, 2012 | 12:43 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Whenever acts of terror and violence occur in ordinary settings, Israel floods to mind. It is a country that knows well the terrible confluence of routine behavior and devastation. Like the innocent setting of a cafe, nightclub or high school, where the Colombine Massacre occurred in the U.S. in 1999, the latest shooting inside the familiar setting of a movie theater serves to elevate an act of violence into a feat of terrorism.
Drawing a parallel between the Colombine library and Aurora Colorado’s Century 16 movie theater, where 24-year-old James Holmes sprayed a packed movie house with bullets, killing 12 people and wounding 58, the New York Times observed, “Both were ordinary settings that became death traps.”
As a nation, we have become used to airplanes feeling unsafe, but not yet the local mall, or bar, or movieplex.
What is so bothersome about the combination of ordinariness and terror is that its occurring cannot be anticipated. It is antithetical that horrors should happen where one is used to hospitality. Death is for battlefields and dark alleys and hideouts; it does not belong in shopping malls or movie theaters or any other public place of recreation. But things do not always happen as they should.
Amidst the rush of news reports and messages of condolence for the victims and their families, Hollywood scrambled over how to react. A trailer for the upcoming “Gangster Squad” which contained images of a shoot-out in a movie theater was removed from screenings of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Red-carpet premieres with the film’s stars—Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway and Morgan Freeman—scheduled in Paris, Mexico and Japan were cancelled. There were reports Warner Bros. might also cancel ‘Dark Knight’ screenings altogether, but they did not. The studio did release a statement that it would not report box office numbers for one of the most anticipated opening weekends in movie history, though Deadline.com and The Wrap.com can always be counted upon. Director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian both released statements of sympathy and elsewhere in the industry, Showtime and USA pulled violent programs from their weekend lineup, though TNT still aired “The Dark Knight,” according to Deadline.com.
On the campaign trail, both President Obama and Mitt Romney paused from their mudslinging to acknowledge the tragedy and send their condolences to victims and their families. And both candidates pulled their political ads from the air in Colorado. The move was commended, but inevitably, politicizing followed.
“We do need a pause for reflection, and to wait for more information,” New York Times op-ed editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote. “But at some point very soon, we’ll need to do more than reflect—we’ll need to have a conversation about gun violence.”
Judaism teaches that mourning is essential before the normal rhythms of life can resume. It is also teaches that mourning has limits, and that the ensuing response to tragedy or a challenge of any kind is what ultimately imbues a painful experience with meaning.
Which is why a renewed debate about gun control in America has reached fever pitch in the past 24 hours, with countless voices chiming in with their two cents.
On his weekly radio program, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said most starkly, “Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it.”
New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik complained that while the candidates’ consoling messages were nice, they “managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place.” “Of course,” he added, “we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly ‘made [the killer]’ do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.”
Even with Holmes in police custody, comfort is elusive. Blame continues to bleed. Something of this scale and significance demands large-scale moral response. Who or what else is responsible? There has much speculation: Movie violence, the Second Amendment, bad parenting, mental instability, even boredom. All of which give rise to questions with uneasy answers: Is gun violence an affliction of a nation or an individual? Has a decade of obsessing over terrorism infiltrated the psyche of America’s youth? Will movie theaters become the next airports? Are we safe anywhere if we can’t be safe everywhere?
In trying to understand what motivated the perpetrator of the massacre, an apparently bright former Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado in Denver, and an honors graduate in neuroscience from UC Riverside, two movie critics speculated about Holmes’ relationship to the movie itself.
In a New York Times op-ed, Roger Ebert was careful not to blame movie violence for real violence. Holmes, he wrote, “could not have seen the movie.” “Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd,” adding that Holmes “was seeking a publicity tie-in.”
“I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence,” Ebert continued. “I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. Those like James Holmes, who feel the need to arm themselves, may also feel a deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation… I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.”
Similarly, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane defended against the violent influences of Hollywood films and instead inferred that Holmes may have sought attention by staging his crime at a movie “event”. Though he didn’t acknowledge that fame-seeking is still another Hollywood value. Lane writes: “The film… presented him with an opportunity; it did not urge him on, or trigger him into homicide, but it was, nonetheless, the occasion that he sought. He would have known that people had been talking of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ for months; that the excitement was mounting; that they would flock, in a good communal mood, to the first available showing. They wanted to be among the first to give their verdicts, before breakfast, and to talk about their triumph at work today. That is one of the social thrills that cinema, unlike TV, can still deliver, and long may it endure. It is the most hideous of ironies that an unstable individual saw that coming-together as his chance… The screen gave him a stage.”
But what drives a person to such an act for attention? Is it fame Holmes was after? An immortal legacy? Or was it, perhaps, parental approval? Strangest of all was the report that when an ABC News reporter called Holmes’ mother to ask if her son was the one responsible for the Hollywood horror, she readily replied, “You have the right person.”
And yet, as Gopnik pointed out, a person needs a weapon. Gun advocates have even argued that another weapon in the theater might have challenged or stopped the shooter. It’s a little bit ironic that gun proponents are arguing in favor of the same kind of vigilante justice propounded by “The Dark Knight Rises” and other stories with their provenance in comic books, which tell of ordinary citizens with superhuman powers who become the ultimate enforcers of societal justice. If only someone like Batman, who uses violence for good, had been there, the deranged and evil Joker would have been stopped.
If that sounds like a crazy idea, it’s because any kind of violence wreaks some madness. Gopnik explains: “Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it… In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers. The argument has gotten dully repetitive: How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free?”
The massacre last week has made us all less free. But it has been a binding event, a tragedy that has united all Americans because it could have happened to any American, in any city, in any movie theater. Will we let this moment pass, or will we exercise the Jewish value called heshbon ha’nefesh—an accounting of the soul—and account for the soul of our communities and our country? Will we dare to model our beloved superheroes and adequately protect the innocent among us?