This is a tragedy that has no single cause. Wherever the finger of blame is pointed, the fact remains that 12 innocent people died a shocking death, 50 more were injured, and countless family members and friends will suffer pain and loss. Unfortunately, there was probably no easy way of preventing these murders. Senseless acts of violence are by their very nature unpredictable, without rhyme or reason. We’ve yet to know what caused suspect James Holmes to plan and carry out his attack or if he had a specific target in mind. All we know is that he decided to kill, and with his choice of venue and time, decided to do it in a theatrical, ostentatious way that would link him forever to all the glamour and hype surrounding the release of 2012′s summer box office behemoth, The Dark Knight Rises.
Somehow, Holmes wanted his act of violence to blur and mesh with the violent entertainment on screen, hence his choice of a Bane-esque costume and weapons, and the fight scene within the movie that triggered the launch of his first gas canister. He destroyed the fourth wall, the barrier that’s meant to separate spectator from spectacle, to divide fiction from action. This is a truly disturbing act by an individual. It’s also disturbing on a societal level. It has legal, cultural and moral ramifications that will induce much hand-wringing in the press, social media, and water cooler discourse over the next few weeks. It raises a lot of serious questions that no one will be able to answer about how, as a civilization, violence is our first resort, for thrills, for problem-solving, for driving political agendas.
Occurrence and Signification
The first stage of the moral panic is already well under way. The Dark Knight Rises was already a huge news story, the most-anticipated movie release of 2012. It had been generating the usual hype-related headlines, about budgets, stars, special effects, midnight screenings selling out with lines around the block in some of the worst summer weather North American has ever experienced, effectively a re-run of The Avengers and Hunger Games copy from earlier this year. However, over last weekend, a new kind of story emerged. Things got ugly in the comments section of negative reviews of TDKR. Abuse was hurled at critics who expressed their personal opinion that there were flaws in the movie. Rotten Tomatoes editor, Matt Atchity, took the unusual step of disabling comments to prevent any more rabid fanboy mouth-frothing but the #hate tag had already been attached to the TDKR meta-narrative. The violence of the comments suggested there was an element of hooliganism within the passionate fans who would show up for the midnight screenings – a tiny minority of the tens of thousands who bought tickets, but a significant element nonetheless.
Enter Holmes, who probably hadn’t seen the whole movie before masterminding his attack and cannot be accused of ‘copy-cat violence’ of the type that, for instance, followed in the wake of Natural Born Killers. He does, however, appear to have absorbed crucial information from the movie trailer (deconstructed admirably by Elliott Prasse-Freeman and Sayres Rudy here) about a single gas-masked man threatening a large-scale entertainment event as an expression of class war. The Dark Knight trilogy as a whole has celebrated a lone, caped crusader, whose main superpower is his ability to confront the criminals he pursues in a lawless space, outside the usual moral constraints. Holmes’ violent actions dovetailed all too neatly with TDKR’s aesthetic. It remains to be seen how much he believes he chimed with the movie characters’ (Bruce Wayne or Bane) personal morality.
Wider social implications (fanning the flames)
By choosing a movie theatre in Aurora, CO, Holmes was inserting himself in not just a current news narrative (TDKR) but a long-running one. Aurora is just under 16 miles away from Columbine, the site of another tragic, senseless shooting in April 1999. The wounds caused by Klebold and Harris’s rampage have never healed. While the two events are materially unconnected, their proximity has meant frequent links between the two in this morning’s news reporting. And there are many column inches yet to be filled. Did we learn nothing from Columbine? How could it happen again, so close by? Do Colorado’s lax gun laws make it a hot-spot for mass shootings? Is the economic health of this region a factor? Are local mental health provisions a failure?
We’ve long been encouraged to consider public and semi-public spaces (schools, airports, railway stations, government offices) as potential war zones in which carrying a firearm is an act of terrorism. Although we grumble about increased surveillance and security measures, we accept them as a necessary part of doing daily business in 2012. However, the erosion of freedom and anonymity is a one-way street. George Carlin was as prescient as ever in his 1999 stand-up movie, You Are All Diseased:
..if we made airplanes completely safe, the terrorists would simply start bombing other places that are crowded. Porn shops, crack houses, titty bars, and gangbangs. You know, entertainment venues.
Inevitably, last night’s events will make it likely cinema multiplexes will be added to the long list of places where passing through a metal detector is a condition of entry. ‘Additional security’ is already being provided at theaters screening TDKR. “We’re concerned that someone, perhaps seeking notoriety, will attempt to do something similar,” said NYPD head Ray Kelly.
However, the wider discussion about gun control, how an individual like Holm could get hold of such deadly weaponry and ammunition, continues to be a political hot potato, with those calling for more restrictions shouted down by gun enthusiasts citing their Second Amendment right to bear arms. In an election year, neither presidential candidate wants to alienate voters by threatening their constitutional freedoms. They avoid addressing the question that one individual’s legally enshrined right to purchase an automatic weapon threatens the freedom of hundreds of others to enjoy a movie in peace and safety. A society where people live in constant fear of attack by a lone, insane gunman is hardly a democracy.
The other social control that will be discussed, but not implemented, is mental health care. Like so many lone gunmen before him, Holmes has already been identified as a quiet drop-out whose last regular links with society (i.e. university attendance) were recently severed. His actions yesterday evening, dressing and arming himself, leaving a booby-trapped apartment, and driving to the multiplex with murder on his mind, speak to a severe mental illness. Although he clearly made plans, they didn’t include eluding capture. He must have been so disconnected from the people around him that no one noticed his state of mind, and he felt there was no one he could approach for help, or to warn them that he was feeling the urge to act on some dangerous impulses. Modern city living isn’t geared to awareness of those around us. Even if you are aware that something is “off” with a neighbor, there’s nowhere to go for help. Many, many people fall through the cracks on a daily basis, and no one notices or cares unless their mental breakdown manifests in tragedy. PhD student Holmes certainly engineered his breakdown so that it would have maximum media impact, reminding us all that in the great chain of society we are collectively only as strong and as safe as our weakest links.
Deming says the movie was promoted “as very similar to the Fast and Furious, or similar, series of movies” but actually “bore very little similarity to a chase or race action film, having very little driving in the motion picture”. She also claims that
“Drive was a motion picture that substantially contained extreme gratuitous defamatory dehumanizing racism directed against members of the Jewish faith, and thereby promoted criminal violence against members of the Jewish faith”
and hopes that anyone who feels the same way will join her in a class-action suit. She’s seeking the price of her ticket and further damages.
There have been many rumblings about the way Drive was marketed prior to this lawsuit. The movie itself doesn’t have any identity problems. It’s an extremely violent, Euro arthouse flick from beginning to end. However, it was shot within the Hollywood system and contains many Hollywood stars – who all love to play against type given the opportunity – and has to earn its nut at the box office. This always creates a headache for the marketing department who have to ask “How do we reach the biggest possible audience for this movie?” rather than “Who is the best audience for this movie?”.
Thomas Rogers, movie critic and editor at Salon.com, was
“…fascinated by the target demographic of the movie — like, who’s supposed to see it in the first place? There are people who are going to see it because of Ryan Gosling, but I feel like the normal Ryan Gosling audience isn’t all that fond of seeing someone stomp people to death. The movie has these gay movie references — mostly to Kenneth Anger’s underground film “Scorpio Rising” — but there’s really nothing overtly gay about it. The title sequence has this campy 1980s lettering, which is duplicated in the film’s ad campaign — and a hilarious, awesome fake-’80s synth score — which makes it seem like it might have a romance or comedy element to it. But the film’s only sex scene involves two people touching a stick shift, and there’s probably only one joke in it. I think, basically, this movie manages to frustrate everybody’s expectations of it — to its great credit.
By attempting to broaden the target audience (including Ryan Gosling fans, Fast and Furious Fans, crime caper fans, even Mad Men fans thanks to the presence of Christina Hendricks) the studio ended up disappointing a lot of people and generating some horrible word of mouth. That’s the kiss of death in today’s Twitter-driven marketplace. And now it’s generated a lawsuit.
Whether Deming’s case ultimately gets dismissed as frivolous, or settled out of court just so it will go away, remains to be seen. However, it does raise some interesting issues about what audiences feel they are being duped into by the Hollywood machine.
For decades, movie trailers have attempted to make bad acting and story-telling look palatable, cherry-picking the six good moments from an absolute bomb in order to lure an audience into going to see it. Is this artistic licence, or classic bait-and-switch? Do movie-goers have a duty to inform themselves about the actual content of a film (Sarah Deming could have saved herself a lot of time and trouble by reading some of the advance reviews of Drive online) or do they have a right to expect that the general marketing honestly represents what they are about to see?
Are US audiences so infantilised by the constant stream of superheroes and aliens and fighting robots that they are unable to deal with human-on-human violence as part of a fictional story? The Italian poster for Drive (see right) makes no bones about the tone of the movie. Like the US version (top), it features Ryan Gosling, but shows him striding purposefully along a dark road, (bloodstained?) hammer in hand, murder in his eyes, NOT looking dreamy behind a wheel. Was this so unacceptable to Gosling fans entranced by his recent performance in Crazy, Stupid, Love? Was it fair to lure them into watching Drive anyway?
The furore also raises questions about why the kind of easy, casual violence and prejudice that runs rampant in summer blockbusters is acceptable to mainstream US audiences, whereas the one-on-one gritty and realistic violence depicted in Drive is not. The body count of Transformers: Dark of the Moon was way higher than Drive‘s, but Michael Bay glosses over deaths as collateral damage, the inevitable consequence of a thrilling action scene, nothing anyone in the audience has to deal with emotionally or viscerally. The potentially negative impact of the racism represented by Mudflaps and Skids in Transformers 2 far surpasses any of the anti-semitic snarls of the hoods in Drive (clue: one movie is aimed at children still forming their view of the world, one is not).
No one’s bringing a class action suit against Michael Bay and his corporate paymasters, Hasbro and Paramount. Perhaps Deming and her attorneys should be litigating against more culpable targets?
Watch the Drive trailer for yourself:
The Drive Backlash: Too violent, too arty or both? – Salon
Detroit Woman Sues “Drive” Film-makers- Click On Detroit
My “Drive” review – Planet Fury
After 18 years in jail, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have been released. While they were forced to submit guilty pleas, and accept a sentence of time already served, they are no longer moldering in prison (with Echols on Death Row) for a crime it has become clear (thanks to DNA evidence) they did not commit. They owe their freedom in no small part to documentary makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose trio of Paradise Lost films argued long and hard for the boys’ innocence, and attracted moral and financial support for their cause from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines.
The film-makers’ persistent questions (their first film came out in 1996) about the validity of the trial, the lack of physical evidence, and the insistence that the murders were part of ‘satanic cult’ activity kept Echols clear of a lethal injection, and also kept media interest in the case alive. Alongside social media efforts (such as Free The West Memphis Three and Facebook pages supporting the trio), the exposure provided by the documentaries meant that this case didn’t go away.
The Paradise Lost films are worth examining, not just for the light they shed on one particular miscarriage of justice, but for how they show young men being demonized for their choices in music, clothing, hairstyles and reading matter, and made into scapegoats for society’s ills.
‘Fear of youth’ is well documented (in institutional rules and government edicts), and is known as ephebiphobia. It has been part of our cultures for centuries. Young people (especially young men), thanks to their strength, energy and willingness to try new ideas, are seen as a destabilising force by those who are invested in the old order. As the oldsters are the ones with all the power, they often take brutal pre-emptive and/or retributive action against perceived threats from youth (see: the Lost Boys of the FLDS). Most moral panics revolve around an aspect of youth or street culture, as authorities are persuaded by public outcry to crack down on aberrant behavior primarily from young males.
The discovery of the bodies of three eight year old boys in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, in May 1993, led to a moral panic that was to set the ephebiphobic aesthetic of the decade. The horrific murders were immediately attributed to a ‘satanic cult’ believed to be operating in the area, and the name of a local teenager, Damien Echols, was mentioned as a possible perpetrator.
Damien attracted suspicion, not because he had a track record of violent criminal behavior (although local police had been trying to pin all manner of crimes on him) but because he was different. In this staunchly Baptist community he had sought spiritual answers elsewhere, through Buddhism, Catholicism and Wicca. He grew his hair long, listened to Metallica, read Stephen King novels. He had also been treated for depression, and habitually wore black, including a long black coat. The local community believed that these circumstances made the unhappy and isolated young man ‘sinister’, and so the witch hunt began.
Instead of reviewing evidence dispassionately (which might have led them to one of the stepfathers of the murdered boys), the local police decided that Damien was to blame, and set about gathering gossip and hearsay that, in their eyes, could prove their case in a court of law. When solid proof of Damien’s guilt was not forthcoming, they hauled in “witnesses” who, tempted by the $30,000 reward money on offer, were happy to make up any amount of lies about what they had seen and heard. They also corralled Jessie Misskelley, an acquaintance of Damien’s. Jessie was mentally disabled, with an IQ of 72, and eventually, after much prodding from police, came up with a confession that implicated himself, Damien, and another boy, Jason Baldwin, in the murders.
Despite the gaping holes in Jessie’s confession (which he later recanted), and the lack of any substantial evidence, the local media, police and community were insistent that the boys were guilty, that they were Satanists, and that the victims had been sacrificed as part of some crazed blood ritual. Christianity is a force to be reckoned with in West Memphis, and the locals found it easier to believe that Satan was working among them (via Damien) than to confront uncomfortable questions about child abuse within the victims’ families. The crime was firmly pinned on the ‘Others’, the young, disenfranchised outsiders. The kid who had dared to be different was sentenced to death.
Throwing three innocent kids in jail didn’t solve the wider issues. The alienation felt by young American males was still there, and became an increasing part of the cultural zeitgeist, their inarticulate anger explored in movies like The Basketball Diaries, and songs like Pearl Jam’s Jeremy.
Did the songs, movies and video games of the era create monsters, or just call them out of the dark?
Luke Woodham, Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, Jamie Rouse, Barry Loukaitis, Colt Todd, Andrew Wurst and Evan Ramsey were all aged between 14-16 when they opened fire on parents, teachers and classmates in small towns across America during a period of just over two years (February 1996-May 1998). However, before any of these boys brought a gun to school, or wrote a note, or built a bomb, or posted on an internet bulletin board, society was already afraid of them, thanks to the specters of the West Memphis Three. The school shooters simply bought into the idea that because they were different, they were doomed. Give a dog a bad name, and he might shoot himself.
The media jumped on their perceived common traits, depicting them as a homogenous group of depressive, bedroom-dwelling, video game obsessed, grunge or metalhead, friendless losers – younger brothers to Damien Echols – and, with a national Satanic panic out of the question desperately tried to link these disaffected killers to specific media texts, rather than say, the medication many of them were taking. These boys wore black, especially in the form of long coats, as a way of expressing their otherness amongst the colorful plaid and sweats of their peers. They came to signify a national malaise, an army of Others who could pop up, guns blazing, in any high school corridor near you.
By the end of the decade, thanks to the Internet, and to the murderous actions of Klebold and Harris in Columbine, this tribe of misfits acquired a label: the Trenchcoat Mafia. The stereotyping begun with Damien Echols was set in stone, and outsider equalled killer, to be isolated and ignored, despite the fact that many of the teens who adopted the attitude and uniform of the subculture had never even handled a gun.
It’s 2011. Now Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are free men, perhaps we should look again at the prejudices that falsely convicted them? Is it possible for us to learn from the mistakes of the past? Now, instead of demons in dusters, we have hoodie horrors; the outer layer has changed but the inner bogeyman remains the same. Adolescent males are still being ostracized and criminalized by adult society. They are forced to the fringes, denied status, affection, hope for the future, paraded as straw dogs in movies like Eden Lake, Harry Brown, even The InBetweeners. Should we be surprised when they bite back, as in London and Philadelphia recently? Will we continue to substitute stereotyping for genuine understanding?
As London battens down the hatches for another night of lawlessness, the media bristles with pointed fingers. Who is to blame?!? The liberal bleating of the broadsheets (police brutality! cutbacks!) is counterbalanced by the fizzing outrage of the Daily Mail, which, in a single news event, has all its scapegoats (kids, chavs, immigrants, hoodies, poor people, benefit cheats etc) in a row. It’s the same old same old, the class war dialectic rehashed from the 1980s.
However, this is 2011, the era of citizen journalism. In addition to the shock and scaremongering gushing from the mouths of traditional media outlets, individuals get to say their pieces too. Those caught in the thick of it are blogging, tweeting, posting images, videos, getting their personal view of events out there. The unifying characteristic of these unmediated posts is anger. Lots of it, directed against many different targets. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ explanation for the violence. We’ll never get one. What is emerging is a picture of a country in crisis, with deep gulfs scored between the haves and have-nots, the empowered and the disenfranchised, those inside the gates, and those waving flaming torches outside the walls.
Much has been made of the apolitical, seemingly purposeless background to these riots: the crowd weren’t demanding access to food, shelter, medication, clean water, a vote in an upcoming election. The rioters were those who had the first three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs nailed (Food, Shelter, Family), unlike many of their counterparts across the globe. So why were they rioting?
The top two levels of Maslow’s triangle are self-esteem, and self-actualisation, qualities in short supply in many of the UK’s inner city communities. Unfortunately, when the usual routes to self-respect (education, job, community service) are blocked or devalued, the easiest way to get to the top of the triangle is to smash and grab. Low self-esteem? Join your rampaging mates and prove you can loot and burn with the best of them – infamy leads to glory. Unable to realise your potential through lack of opportunity? Simply steal the consumer goods you would have bought with your wages.
This much is clear: frustrated citizens of a First World country have taken to the streets, bypassing the democratic process, eschewing law and order, and ignoring the social codes that usually prevent neighbour from turning on neighbour in the pursuit of individual wants.
So, whose fault is it?
Every individual who made the decision to join a mob, throw a brick, light a match, break a window or steal a trophy is culpable and criminal. These are bad decisions. The people making them are thinking only in terms of short term gratification and emotional release and not about the consequences of their actions on the community in which they live. This Hackney grandmother sums it up:
Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail expresses the same disgust. Could he be going soft in his old age?
This wasn’t a spontaneous uprising of dissent from the downtrodden masses, it was shopping with violence…This wasn’t a political protest, or a demonstration against oppression, it was a grotesque manifestation of our shallow, instant gratification, I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now consumerist society, coupled with an extreme explosion of the kind of casual violence which scars our town and city centres across Britain every weekend.
Despite Littlejohn’s anti-consumerist sentiments, the online editors of the Mail apparently have no sense of irony. As usual, their sidebar is filled with images of bikini babes, tittle tattle about Kate Middleton and J.Lo, and glorification of reality TV stars. The Daily Mail is all about celebrating consumerism and celebrity culture, propagating images of impossible body shapes and lifestyles, devaluing ordinary achievement and encouraging constant, unhealthy, upward comparison. No wonder frustrated DM readers seized their only opportunity to “get some London”.
Littlejohn gets back on track later in his article. He blames those he designates as ‘youths’, with the implication that most of them are black. When in doubt, turn to the usual easy stereotypes:
There’s resentment among the ‘youths’ against those who are perceived to have got on in life. Look no further than the Tweet from one of the looters which read: ‘F*** the electronics, them Turkish jewellers needed to get robbed.’
Unemployment is a problem, largely because so many of the poor, misunderstood ‘youths’ prefer to live on benefits and the proceeds of gang crime rather than seek gainful employment.
While they are posing for ‘gangsta’ photos on Facebook, most of the low-paid, but essential, jobs are filled by hard-working recent arrivals.
Littlejohn doesn’t seem to take into account that, with jobs scarce or non-existent, and the £30/week Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped from September, inner-city teens are all out of ‘gainful employment’ options. Still, at least he’s started referring to immigrants as “hard-working recent arrivals”(!!!).
It’s left to a 24 year old blogger to provide the most honest and clear-sighted assessment of the situation, describing it as “viral civil unrest”. I encourage you to read Laurie’s post in its entirety:
Panic On The Streets of London – Penny Red
Many commentators, especially those who experience inner city blight on a daily basis, have noted that these riots were horrifying, but not shocking. West Indian writer and Croydon resident Darcus Howe was interviewed by the BBC, and asked for his thoughts on the inevitability of events. It’s unlikely, as the poster says, that the BBC will re-broadcast the clip, as the 68 year old broadcaster and columnist had to take the presenter to task on the racist assumptions behind her questions.
The riots, and their representation, expose a near pre-Revolutionary gap between the Establishment and the masses. While ordinary people suffer from the effects of cutbacks in everything from policing to health services, the Prime Minister holidays in Tuscany. As the price of higher education spirals more and more out of the reach of ordinary families, Russell Group universities cherry-pick the best students from private schools, and those without GCSEs or training are condemned to the proverbial scrapheap – and castigated for fighting back. Individuals are jailed for drug addiction, while multinational corporations and banks flaunt regulations for decades and escape with a slap on the wrist (and a hefty bailout).
Those who’ve gained a modicum of self-esteem by carrying home a stolen trophy TV this weekend may find the laugh’s on them. They’ll be stuck watching repeats of Made In Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a series of constant reminders that hard work doesn’t pay, the only way up is celebrity (not education), and that happiness resides in having the right handbag. No matter how much you try, you can’t loot an entire lifestyle.
If all that upward comparison does your head in, there’s always Jeremy Kyle, reinforcing a stream of negative stereotypes about ‘the underclass’ (or Littlejohn’s ‘youths’). The media is a mirror, and these riots have proved what an ugly, funhouse image it projects. Broken Britain: business as usual.
The Violence in the Media debate has focused primarily on mass media, conceived and created by institutions and targeted at a mass audience. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, and the ease with which a video shot on one can be uploaded to the internet, has changed all that. The technology means that we can now see raw, unregulated violence online, whether it’s the exploits of a happy slapping gang in South London, or troops opening fire on protestors in Libya.
What effect does this have on our collective and individual psyche? Xeni Jardin writes in her thoughtful post in today’s Guardian:
…human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the [un]mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?
There’s also a concern that, even with a cell phone, footage can be faked, re-cut or re-mediated in order to manipulate both events and the viewer. What purports to be the raw, bloody truth, an eye-witness account from a non-partisan bystander, may actually be deliberate, heavily political propaganda. For decades we have viewed news-gatherers as relatively “trusted sources”, believed that they report what is happening from a third person perspective – although those reports might be subject to political bias. However, citizen journalism shifts our news into a first person framework, showing the Who, Where and some of the What, but never addressing the How and the Why. Without that vital explanation and mediation, news footage can indeed leave the viewer feeling traumatized, numb and confused.
As mainstream news outlets cut overseas budgets and turn ever-inwards towards freely and cheaply available celebrity gossip and entertainment stories, concerned citizens need to seek their news independently, often turning to ‘primary’ sources such as cellphone videos and Twitter commentary. However, we need to educate ourselves to regulate and analyse this information, putting ourselves in the position of editor, double checking facts, assessing the choices made in framing and representation. We need to become our own gatekeepers, ensuring that we’re not numb, or traumatized, and that we can give the death of a stranger the importance and respect it deserves no matter how many times it plays out in a tiny online window.
Atrocity Exhibition – The Guardian