Monday, July 23, 2012

Windmill Men

About six hours into the media frenzy that engulfed this weekend, The Beast decided to avoid all press coverage of the (new & improved!) Colorado shootings—or at least as much as we could—right around the time when the following clichés began appearing on TV and the Web: (a) the lament over U.S. gun laws; (b) the breathless cobbling-together of social media (tweets, 911 calls, cellphone videos) to establish a “as-it-happened” timeline; (c) the backlash against the movie itself; followed by (d) the backlash against the backlash; (e) sidebar lists of notable American mass shootings and the resulting balance sheet (“Where does this one sit on the wounded/dead tally?”); (f) the ever-mutating subcategories of concern (“Should parents be allowed to bring an infant to a midnight screening of such a dark and violent blah-blah-blah?”); and, my personal favorite, the Hollywood title ascribed to a real human pickle (“The Multiplex Massacre: The Aftermath: Hour 16: Minute 4”). To its credit, only Salon seemed to take the right tone: yes, it had coverage en total of the Aurora 16 shootings; but scattered subtly around the website rather than taking over every inch: The cover stories this weekend were about Hair Metal and Mitt Romney, a wonderful way of saying: “This in’t the only thing going on the world and at best, it’s not worthy of hijacking every moment.”

One thing the younger do not know—which of course makes them young—is how life repeats itself to such a degree that you can actually predict with respectable accuracy how it’s all going to play out. This is why old people always seem bored or cranky. At a certain age (I’d say 44), you’ve seen every genre of movie and the rest of life is just rescreenings. Of course, in the case of The Dark Knight Rises, movies are the topic du jour: Too violent? Too dark? Too realistic? Not realistic enough? A self-important popcorn movie franchise becomes plumbed for blame or just cool-sounding coincidences: Did you know that the shooter was wearing a gas mask like the villain in the film? or our personal fave, a holdover from 9/11, Many witnesses commented on how once the shooting started, they thought it seemed like it was out of a movie…

But in comparison, the actions of the mysterious (read: scant digital footprint) James Eagan Holmes or any other of the roaming, lone minstrels of sudden mass death we’ve seen lately seem less like modern manifestations/reflections of our movie nightmares and more like the fascination with delusional figures that has been with us since humans began telling stories for profit. I say this because over the weekend, The Beast watched one of the films on our DVR queue, Lost in La Mancha, the 2002 documentary about the aborted efforts of director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) to make his version of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th century Spanish novel El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”).

A parody of the classic “warrior code” of knighthood, Cervantes' novel contains one of the most famous and indelible images in world literature: the decrepit old Spaniard named Alonso Quijano who reads too many tales of knights and romantic chivalry (arguably literature's first "fantasy geek") and rechristens himself "Don Quijote," setting out to joust with windmills (which he believes are rampaging giants) accompanied by his pudgy, uneducated sidekick Sancho Panza. Despite all the weight of its literary import, Cervantes novel is like a 900-page episode of Bumfights, with Quijote constantly getting his ass kicked/mocked/disrespected by everyone he comes across, including Panza, the literary precursor to Batman’s Robin. In Lost in La Mancha, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe somewhat tenuously connect Don Quixote’s misadventures with that of Gilliam’s struggle to make a film which seemed cursed even in its pre-production stage. But, as the Beast watched the film’s summary of Cervantes novel, we couldn’t help but make the cosmic, mythic 400-year connection between the pop cultures of 1605 A.D. and 2012 A.D. (start watching at 4:25):

What struck us was how the description of the delusional Quijote’s “gearing up” applied to heroes and villains alike: cobbling together a suit of armour out of bits and pieces from around his house – including the metal shaving basin he famously uses as a helmet – before setting off “to look for daring deeds to do.” By the scant accounts that have appeared so far, the Dark Knight Rises shooter was referred as a “book smart-type guy” who kept various bits of Batman paraphernalia around his bomb-rigged apartment. Like the Columbine shooters or the Virginia Tech killer who admired them, Holmes performed the ritualistic “suiting up” for his “romantic deed”: Quijote’s jerry-rigged suit of armour now transformed into gas mask, Kevlar vest, ballistic neck guards, cartridge utility belt and even a groin protector. At the end of the multi-part novel, the old “knight” is defeated after a climactic battle with the Knight of the White Moon and is forced to submit to the terms of his conqueror—very much like Bruce Wayne being beaten and imprisoned by the fearsome Bane in the new film. (By most accounts, this is the most boring part of The Dark Knight Rises.) Quijote also lays down his arms for a spell and agrees to “cease his acts of chivalry” for a period of one year, just like Batman is forced into exile at the end of the last film and beginning of the new. There’s also the theme of old age, or the burden of it: Quijote, after all, is elderly; Bruce Wayne faces advanced deterioration from the punishment his body has endured: He is a premature old man.

Gilliam's Batman: Jean Rochfort

In Lost in La Mancha, a screenwriter reflects: “Quijote’s delusions are a major part of his appeal for us; we want to see the world through Quijote’s eyes because the way he sees the world connects with the way we saw the world as children, a world where objects did have a magical significance.” As readers, supposedly, we have grown fond and protective of our hapless pseudo-knight—basically, we’re with him when he’s nuts and lose interest when he’s sane. We might link this sentiment to our lone-wolf shooters: We are more comfortable with them when they are “insane” than if they exhibit any kind of what we the untutored recognize as “sanity.” (Like Heath Ledger’s Joker said, “It’s all part of the plan.”) On the tapes they made the night before their gory rampage, one of the Columbine killers trash talks and mugs tough for the camera—he is acting “crazy” and the mind’s eye settles comfortably on him as verification of an inner sickness—but it is the quieter teen, the purported mastermind of the assault, we initially overlook: apparently, he was the more dangerous of the two, but he knew enough to act under the radar as he planned to gear up and massacre his friends and teachers—he even shuts up his louder companion with one icy stare. The Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik laid out his batshit plans and philosophy with such calm and confidence that it no one quite knew what to make of him, which show you that even if they adopt a Tony Robbins-like veneer of unshakable confidence, a meticulous eye towards planning and execution (no pun intended) and self-boosterism, a serial killer could actually turn into a….self-improvement guru? A life coach? A totalitarian leader of a war-ruined country?

Echoing a persistent note in our modern times, Salon’s David Sirota maintained “Call it Terrorism” when referring to the Aurora shootings, and as someone else observed after the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has a 100% failure rate. The same could be said of vigilantism. The persistent trope of Batman is the constant comparing of Batman to the villains he fights, the sort of “We’re a lot alike, you and I” thing that finds special resonance in tales involving The Joker. When Heath Ledger tells Batman “You complete me,” both are linked as two halves of a whole that make the ultimate composite of anarchist and protector, avenger and defender, tormentor and tormented. Alan Moore’s Watchmen even gave a plausible explanation for how cowled superheroes could develop in “the real word”: As a joke, cops begin dressing in costumes as a way to mock the criminals who wore cat-burglar masks. It was a dialogue between criminal and cop that basically said, “Isn’t this silly? Why don’t we cut this shit out and just be real?”

To be sure, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series upped the realism of a fantasy to an unprecedented level for comic-book films. In a sidebar article before the DK Rises premiere, an aerodynamic expert told a reporter than anyone wearing a Kevlar utility suit with a 50-foot wing span would not soar like a giant bat but plunge straight to the pavement and go ‘splat!’. The article seemed to be saying: See? Kinda stupid, huh?—as if forewarning the sort of lame-os who dressed like Batman and got their asses handed to them Quijote-style in the second film. No matter: John E. Holmes dyed his hair red, not green, and told the police who arrested him that he was "the Joker" (although anal-retentive comic geeks will surely have a field day with that faux pas), but he was hardly the first to don himself in the “ultrarealistic” vein of Nolan’s trilogy: in March 2009, eight months after the second Dark Knight premiered, Army Specialist Christopher Lanum dressed himself in full Ledger-Joker garb and stabbed and stun-gunned a fellow soldier before being shot down by police in Front Royal, Virginia.

Both “Joker” incidents reminded the Beast of a scene from Grant Morrison’s 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, where a psychiatrist confronts Batman about The Joker’s fractured take on modern life:

DR. ADAMS: The Joker’s a special case. Some of us feel he may be beyond treatment. In fact, we’re not even sure he can be properly defined as insane…We’re beginning to think it may be a neurological disorder, similar to Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s quite possible we may be looking at some kind of super-sanity here, a brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century.

BATMAN: Tell that to his victims.

DR. ADAMS: Unlike you and I, The Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why one day he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day.

Of course, this could apply this to Batman as well as the Joker, a villain who sees himself as a hero, and vice versa—and both are gearing themselves up for a delusional battle that is as meaningless (in that like public massacres are both planned and improvised) as it is, well, “romantic.” To this we go back to Cervantes: At the end of Don Quijote’s epic, silly quests, after he has been conquered by the Knight of the White Moon and agrees to cease his annoying impostures, he takes to his bed, seemingly in the grips of a life-threatening depression. One day, he awakes fully sane and clear-headed. He is old Alonso Quijano again. In his will, he renounces his Dark Knightood and apologizes for all the chaos he caused.

In this vein, I like to think of the entire career of Batman as the millisecond flash-dream of a delusional Don Quijote figure as he first steps off the side of a skyscraper and falls to his death, all of his exploits a dream. I wonder if it was a similar kind of movie that unfolded in the mind of the Aurora shooter as he walked into Theater 9 in his armor, the “real” movie playing behind him.

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