Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Parsing the Dark Knight shootings.

Following the ghastly events in Denver on Friday morning, we have, thank goodness, heard little from the prescriptive mob that so often seeks to blame popular culture for the decline of western society. A few articles have asked whether Christopher …

Sun, Jul 22, 2012, 23:02


Following the ghastly events in Denver on Friday morning, we have, thank goodness, heard little from the prescriptive mob that so often seeks to blame popular culture for the decline of western society. A few articles have asked whether Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was in some way responsible, but most have come to the conclusion that it was not. Despite the fact that Mark Chapman was in possession of a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he shot John Lennon, J D Sallinger was not responsible for the former Beatle’s death. Neither Jodie Foster nor Martin Scorsese need have blamed themselves when John Hinckley — obsessed with Foster’s character in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver — took a few shots at Ronald Reagan. Such psychopaths will always find some vehicle for their madness.

It is, however, worth noting that disturbed individuals relatively rarely attach themselves to the cheap exploitation that so concerns moral watchdogs. In the early 1980s, Mrs Mary Whitehouse and her mob told us that such “video nasties” as I Spit on Your Grave and S S Experiment Camp were likely to send modern youths into paroxysms of violence. They did not. It is interesting — and not a little troubling — to observe that, when seeking artistic accompaniments for their atrocities, violent delinquents are more likely to appropriate work by genuine masters then the gaudy secretions of pulp hacks. The power does not lie in the explicitness of the material; it lies in the brilliance of the execution.

We, inevitably, think of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Taking his cue  from Anthony Burgess’s source novel, the director cast Alex, his chief droog — played with charming malevolence by Malcolm McDowell — as an enthusiast for the works of Beethoven. Alex (and Stanley) greatly enjoyed choreographing ultra-violence to the beats of old Ludwig Van’s immortal tunes. The film-makers were, it hardly needs to be said, not suggesting that the great romantic composers were inherently evil. But they were allowing us to observe that powerful art can very easily be abused and exploited by malign forces.

YouTube Preview Image

This argument proved to be scarily prescient. Shortly after the film’s release, (greatly exaggerated) stories began emerging that gangs had been emulating the droogs’ violent activities and hammering little old ladies throughout the land. Burgess later complained that every time a nun got beaten up in some hitherto rural idyll the press called him up for a statement. Following death threats, Kubrick eventually withdrew the film, thus ensuring its notoriety.

What’s the point? Well, if the moral guardians do decide to emerge from the rose-covered suburban cottages and demand that violent art be banned, they should, perhaps, only concern themselves with the stuff made by gifted professionals. Seek out certified geniuses such as Kubrick, Scorsese and Sallinger — and, indeed, budding masters such as Christopher Nolan — and leave the blood-stained hacks alone. Keep your eye on Titus Andronicus, The Duchess of Malfi, Our Mutual Friend and Ninteen Eighty-Four. Pay no heed to I Married a Swamp Monster or The Blood Beast of Bonmouth Heath. The only people we really need to suppress are those who have some sort of talent.

Never mind. As I say, almost nobody seems to be travelling down this road. Most of the conversation has focussed on the vexed topic of gun control (or lack of it) in the United States. Were you ever pigeon-holed by some American in the 1980s and told how wonderful the IRA were? Yes? Well, then you will understand how annoying it is when some foreigner begins lecturing you on the minutiae of your own country’s internal affairs. That noted (and ignored) we can hardly avoid observing the way differing attitudes to the gun so separate the United States from western Europe. Now, it is true that, hanging out largely with downtown arts types, I can’t remember ever meeting an American who believed in the free availability of assault rifles. But the fact remains that the two presidential candidates seem uninterested in making any serious efforts to restricts the sale of firearms. Bill Maher put it nicely: “It’s never the right time to talk gun control in America. We go right from ‘too soon’ to ‘it’s forgotten’.” When Mayor Bloomberg of New York City (risking political capital) suggested that President Obama and Governor Romney might like ponder the issue, he found right-wing blowhards accusing him of using the tragedy for political advantage. Pardon? If a ship sinks and I make the case for greater safety in maritime affairs I am not taking any sort of political stance. The same standards should apply to the debate on guns. To say that maniacs should not be sold machine guns is to skew neither to the left nor to the right.

Oh well. Such is the strange divide between our nations. One might as well try to make sense of the inner workings of Brobdingnag or Glubbdubdrib. We drink their soft drinks. We watch their movies. We wear their jeans. But, in some regards, the United States still remains a very, very foreign place.