A Heavy Sigh: Or, a Film Professor’s Reaction to the Colorado Movie Theater Shootings

I was going to go to a movie today.

I was going to see Brave. I figured everyone would be seeing The Dark Knight Rises, so the theater would be pretty empty for the ‘kids film.’

I didn’t go to the movies today.

I awoke to a friend calling me. I had been sound asleep but figured I’d answer the phone. She was upset and needed to talk to someone. “Have you not heard the news?” “What news?” I mightily groggily said. “Some guy shot a bunch of people in a movie theater in Colorado during the Batman movie.”

That pretty much says it all– some guy shot a bunch of people in Colorado, in a movie theater, during a Batman movie.

I was so sleepy. I kept yawning as she went on. She told me that they pulled the movie from the theaters and my eyes opened wide. Now I was awake, now I was paying attention. What? Warner Bros. pulled the movie? “This is huge,” I thought. “This is huge.” How odd that it was that erroneously reported piece of information that caught my attention. Not the initial news, but the thought that Warner Bros. was going to pull the film poised to break every record in film history. Have I (have we) become so desensitized to violence, to mass shootings, that it felt like just another Friday morning when I first heard about the shooting? Dear God, help us.

I was glued to my television all day. I couldn’t turn it off. Even when I tried, I was ultimately unsuccessful. Albeit for an hour of Flying Wild Alaska, I was listening and watching to reports all day. At some point I was laying on my couch, listening to “Breaking News” and thought to myself, “This is the kind of stuff that makes me think I’ll die in a school shooting.” It’s not hyperbole or hysteria, it’s a weird feeling I’ve had ever since I found out that campus security ‘hid’ in the hallways outside my office one afternoon after a student said he’d “take care of this,” storming out of a tutor’s office when he read his latest speech grade. The tutor was so alarmed she called security. I’ve seen that guy a couple of times this summer… working at the local movie theater.

The shock and awe of the news begins to wane and the cynicism starts to edge its way into the national conversation about this day. The Onion is writing that Americans “know exactly how the events following the horrific shooting of 12 people will unfold. While admitting they “absolutely hate” the fact they have this knowledge, the nation’s 300 million citizens told reporters they can pinpoint down to the hour when the first candlelight vigil will be held, roughly how many people will attend, how many times the county sheriff will address the media in the coming weeks, and when the town-wide memorial service will be held.” The Onion has become a legitimate news source.

And there’s the photograph of cartoonish bright neon lights of the movie theater that keep appearing on all the news channels.

The facebook graphics start coming in. Brilliant. At this time, what we really need, to help us comprehend this insanity, are gross illustrations that try to capture this ‘tragedy.’ I hate to tell you this, but Batman holding roses has nothing to do with the mixture of blood and gun metal and tear gas and popcorn.

The cynicism has fully kicked in. Gun enthusiasts are starting the whole, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” bullshit. It’s been reported that the gunman had a knife on him. Would he have killed 12 people and injured dozens more with one knife? In hand-to-hand combat? No. You know it and I know it. There’s no need for a civilian to purchase an automatic weapon. Even a semi-automatic with the proper magazine can fire 50-60 rounds a minute. Supposedly the gunman bought 6,000 rounds of ammo on the internet. Who needs 6,000 rounds of ammo in everyday life? Hell’s bells people, the zombies aren’t here yet. Fine, if you can’t give up your stupid guns, then let’s talk about the tear gas. I’m with Chris Hayes in wondering why any average Jane or James needs tear gas. They don’t. You know it and so do I.

My nephew “called it,” as he described his early prediction that it/the gunman was a Joker-wannabe. We got into a deep conversation about what the Joker would or would not have done, what Bruce Wayne would or would not have done. Our conversation was creepy, but not as creepy as the gunman’s cowardice.

Throughout it all I keep wondering why it all matters. Why is this attack in a movie theater particularly numbing to me? I realize that in large measure it’s because I teach film courses at my small liberal arts college. I teach film and I love it. I absolutely love pouring over a catalog of 50- 100 films, like I did this past semester, trying to figure out the perfect combination of 15 films to show in a semester. I don’t know if I ever settle on a perfect combination, but I feel like I get pretty close. There is nothing like the satisfaction of screening a film none of the students have ever seen and then hearing that they loved it. Having students send me e-mails about a film we watched in class makes me smile. I get that nerdy, warm fuzzy feeling when a student mentions that The Apple, a 1998 Iranian film, is still one of her favorites.

Watching films isn’t just about what’s on-screen, it is just as much about the communal nature of the experience. You enter the darkened space and select your ‘spot.’ There is a huge tapestry in front of you that will soon hold the story you’re about to interact with. Even though you are in this space with strangers, once the lights come down, you become a solitary person suspending disbelief as 24 frames per second speed by you. Your eyes help create the magic that is persistence of vision and you are able to see Gene Kelly sing in the rain, hear Dorothy dream of a place “behind the moon, beyond the rain,” or watch superheroes defeat the bad guy. You are transported to another world, all from the comfort of a popcorn-scented room. You and the strangers around you travel together, all the while moving alone, to this new location. The ebb and flow of this solitary, yet communal group of movie witnesses eventually ends when the first words of the credits begin to roll. But for a brief period, you all were one.

Movies are everywhere–on our phones, on our computers, on demand on our televisions. I’ve been to the movies on three continents and it still the ‘same’ no matter the locale– the hush of everyone in crowd as we wait to see what happens next; the burst of laughter as we all react to the silly antics; the beauty of crying because of some universal truth. It may be in the dark, but in those movie theater moments, we see one another and we understand the human condition.

This is, in part, why today was/is so horrible. We may not like one another on the street, but in that theater we come together and share our lives with one another in ways that we don’t feel so comfortable with, away from those sticky floors. Movies are our ‘story time,’ and we all know how special story time is. I’m not being silly here, but merely trying to find the right metaphor to explain the power of a movie theater.

Or at least the power it held, past tense. Will it still feel that way the next time we go to a movie? I don’t know. I hope it will. I want the superheroes to show up again onscreen, even if they couldn’t show up in person 24 hours ago. I hope the movie theater, again, can become our refuge.

I keep thinking about the African American woman at the Ft. Myers rally for President Obama this morning. You could see her behind the President’s right shoulder. As he was saying, “I’m sure that many of you who are parents here had the same reaction that I did when I heard this news” she stared straight ahead. The President continued, “My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater…” Her head goes down to the turquoise covered smart phone in her lap and smiles. She fucking smiles as the President continues, “…as so many of our kids do every day?” Oblivious to the gravity of the moment, the seriousness of that moment for the father, not the President in Barack Obama, she was smiling. I’ll bet she was smiling at a text message from her friend saying, “OMG, I see you on TV!” And she was smiling at the thought of “OMG. I’m totally on TV, behind the President!” She finally sat, seriously, behind the President once more. And then there was the mother and son, to the President’s left, that were acting like school children. All I wanted to do was to tell them to straighten up, through my television screen. But I couldn’t. They wouldn’t hear me. If the President of the United States can’t make them listen at a moment like this, no one can.

And on MSNBC, Jeremy Jojola is reporting that at midnight last night, neighbors reported hearing really loud techno music in the gunman’s apartment. Police were called for the noise, but then suddenly the music cut off at 1 a.m. The hypothesis is that the music was so loud that it was a trap to lure someone into the labrynth of liquid and wires he left behind in his apartment.

The sinister just keeps on coming and the dark keeps rising.

About Amy L. Darnell

Teacher, scholar, student, wonderer, wanderer, fan, foe, friend, acquaintance, all of these and more, but ultimately just an Ohio daughter.
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