Roger Ebert: Movies, violence and the Colorado massacre

  • Article by: ROGER EBERT , New York Times News Service
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 7:29 AM

I'm not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity.

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Signs and flowers near the Century 16 movie theater, where a shooting erupted during midnight showings, in Aurora, Colo., July 20, 2012.

Photo: Matthew Staver, Associated Press/NYT

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James Holmes, who opened fire before the midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises," 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. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in. He was like one of those goofballs waving in the background when a TV reporter does a stand-up at a big story.
 
James Holmes must also have been insane, and his inner terror expressed itself, as it often does these days, in a link between pop culture and firearms. There was nothing bigger happening in his world right now than the new Batman movie, and in preparation for this day, or another like it, he was purchasing firearms and booby-trapping his apartment. When he was arrested after the shootings, he made no attempt at resistance. His mission was accomplished.
 
I'm not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. 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. Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action. The cinematic prototype is Travis Bickle of "Taxi Driver." I don't know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.
 
Should this young man — whose nature was apparently so obvious to his mother that, when a ABC News reporter called, she said "You have the right person" — have been able to buy guns, ammunition and explosives? The gun lobby will say yes. And the endless gun control debate will begin again, and the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association will go to work, and the op-ed thinkers will have their usual thoughts, and the right wing will issue alarms, and nothing will change. And there will be another mass murder.
 
That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection. The United States is one of few developed nations that accepts the notion of firearms in public hands. In theory, the citizenry needs to defend itself. Not a single person at the Aurora, Colo., theater shot back, but the theory will still be defended.
 
I was sitting in a Chicago bar one night with my friend McHugh when a guy from down the street came in and let us see that he was packing heat.
 
"Why do you need to carry a gun?" McHugh asked him.
 
"I live in a dangerous neighborhood."
 
"It would be safer if you moved."
 
This would be an excellent time for our political parties to join together in calling for restrictions on the sale and possession of deadly weapons. That is unlikely, because the issue has become so closely linked to paranoid fantasies about a federal takeover of personal liberties that many politicians feel they cannot afford to advocate gun control.
 
Immediately after a shooting last month in the food court of the Eaton Centre mall in Toronto, a young woman named Jessica Ghawi posted a blog entry. Three minutes before a gunman opened fire, she had been seated at the exact place he fired from.
 
"I was shown how fragile life was," she wrote. "I saw the terror on bystanders' faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don't know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath."
 
This same woman was one of the fatalities at the midnight screening in Aurora. The circle of madness is closing.
 
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Roger Ebert is the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of "Life Itself: A Memoir."

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