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'Dark Knight' take: Pop culture no antidote to pain

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 11:57 PM EDT, Fri July 20, 2012
People waiting to see
People waiting to see "The Dark Knight Rises" in New York City on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A gunman went on a killing spree at a movie theater showing "The Dark Knight Rises"
  • Gene Seymour: The movie absorbs attention while we feel pain for the real-life victims
  • We can't really prosecute popular culture for capital crimes, he says
  • Seymour: Ultimately, movies cannot free or save us from the ills in society

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- There were no long lines waiting to see "The Dark Knight Rises" at the urban multiplex closest to where I live in Washington, D.C. A mild surprise, since this wasn't, after all, just any movie's opening Friday. This was, as we kept being told, a Major Summer Event, the biggest, darkest and most eagerly anticipated of the many Hollywood blockbusters being wheeled out to the movie-going public. It was also a workday. And I was willing to believe that there were too many people who didn't or couldn't play hooky, no matter how much frothing hype had been aroused on Batman's -- sorry, The Batman's -- behalf.

But this was no ordinary opening Friday -- or any other Friday. Less than six hours before I arrived at the box office, a lone gunman opened fire in a darkened theater in Aurora, Colorado, whose seats were jammed with men, women and children gathered for a special midnight showing of "Dark Knight Rises." He killed and injured numerous people. For those who survive, I would guess that going into a dark room to watch a movie will never be the same again.

The only outward sign at my screening yesterday was another ticket-taker at the entrance asking to look into my book bag. Others were likewise asked to show the contents of their carry-on items. It wasn't a full house, but this was one of those theaters where the movie was being screened in several theaters at once. As the lights dimmed, I heard the crackle of police radios by the exits. Then darkness -- and the show.

Of the movie itself, it's enough to say, for now, that it succeeded in absorbing my attention, using every one of its estimated $250 million to fill its 164 minutes. It was too long by half, just like every other summer blockbuster that preceded it. But it was conceived with surging ambition, executed with imaginative cunning, performed with admirable conviction and succeeded at doing what it was build to do: Make me forget the outside world's travails -- even the fact that people died hours ago watching this film.

And what did they see? I don't know how far they got before the true horrors began, but here's some of what I remember.

(I'm going to spoil some things for you here because I'm trying to make a point. So skip the next few sentences if you want).

Several bridges blow up during the course of the film. You don't see close-ups of people trapped in cars plunging into the river. Nor do you see what actually happens to the people on a football field ravaged by an underground explosion, though a field microphone is snatched quickly off the corpse of a dead official. Otherwise, little blood, not much gore, just a lot of stuff blowing up and limbs being cracked ... Real people died, hours ago, watching this stuff. The thought lurked in the back of my head for most of the movie. It pushed itself to the forefront as I walked onto the sidewalk.

This is not to place the blame for anything that happened in Aurora on this movie, though I knew, minutes after I'd heard the news, that there were pundits, legislators, radio hosts and concerned parents who were going to do so. (In fact it would seem as if somebody already has). We are at this writing some distance away from assessing what the suspect's motives were.

And yet, there was darkness shrouding "Dark Knight Rises" even before the shooting. Marshall Fine, my old friend and colleague from the New York Film Critics Circle, was besieged over the past week by death threats for his less-than-glowing review of the movie. There are other film reviewer friends who have likewise been verbally harassed, in varying degrees of ugliness, over critiques of Batman movies that weren't nearly as, well, critical as Fine's.

I'm not anxious to find direct psychological connections between fandom run amok and cold-blooded murder. Nor do I feel an urgent need to prosecute popular culture for capital crimes, though I'm also not naïve enough to believe that people's feelings can't be adversely affected by what they see and hear. There's a lot I simply don't know for sure, about the shootings, about the suspect, about the victims for that matter.

I do know this: That culture, popular or otherwise, can do many things to make us feel connected. It can at its most euphoric or engaged detach us from misery, loneliness and pain. But ultimately it cannot free or save us from these ills. The movie I saw today permitted me to forget for almost three hours what happened to people who saw it two time zones away. It couldn't -- and didn't -- keep me from caring about them. And from worrying about the rest of us.

Editor's Note: "The Dark Knight Rises" is released by Warner Brothers which, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

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