Ever since seeing "Scream 2," I've had a secret fear of movie theaters specifically, that someone crazy would go on a murdering spree inside of one, mimicking the psycho up on the silver screen. This fear wasn't strong enough to make me stop going, of course, but it was enough to make me just a tiny bit nervous every time I sat down to watch a violent movie in a pitch-black theater. Matters weren't helped when my dad snuck up behind me while I watched the vampire thriller "30 Days of Night" in a nearly empty Regal Cinema. Even so, I convinced myself that it was one of those phobias that had no basis in reality like a fear of clowns.
Apparently, though, I was wrong. On July 20, James E. Holmes brought my fear to life when he shot 12 people to death during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."
In retrospect, is it shocking that a madman with a taste for gore would choose the showing of a violent vigilante movie as the scene for his crime? I'm not pro-censorship, but the similarities between real life and entertainment are rather eerie of late. The killer, a young white man with bright orange hair, called himself "the Joker" (the villain from Christopher Nolan's previous "Batman" installment) when he was arrested by police shortly after the shooting. However loosely or irrationally, Holmes modeled his actions, or at least his killer persona, on a movie.
Which brings "Scream 2" to mind once again. Almost 20 years old, the Scream Trilogy is still the king of meta-horror, not to mention a little clairvoyant: the movies feature serial killers who base their killings on movies, and the movies within the movies are based on the lives of the characters … and so on. Sorry if I lost you there, but real life has become just as confusing.
For instance, there's the Trayvon Martin case, and the strange way in which it affected a seemingly unrelated film, "The Watch." Here's the thing: "The Watch" was originally titled "Neighborhood Watch" are you seeing the connection yet? Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a man who claimed to be acting on behalf of his neighborhood watch, not long after trailers for the film began showing. Though the movie is a silly comedy that bears no resemblance to the Martin case, the promoters were forced to completely revamp its publicity and change the title of the film. "The Watch" is actually a movie about aliens, a plot twist that was meant to be kept secret, but which was brought front and center in the new trailers, all in an attempt to distance the plot from the real life tragedy it so readily brought to mind. A victim of poor timing and a changing cultural climate, "The Watch" seems doomed to tank despite its best efforts. Few among us will want to be reminded of tragic reality of Trayvon Martin, while watching a purported spoof.
While I would never blame movies for a killer's actions (I imagine poor mental health and lack of gun control have more to do with the Aurora shooting than any superhero movie), the influence that the Trayvon Martin case has had on a piece of entertainment proves that the two are more intertwined than we might like to believe. There's also the way a witness at the Aurora shooting described the scene: "It was like a movie." Maybe that's the problem, and the paradox.
For me, 1992 was a watershed year. Twenty years ago, incumbent George H.W. Bush was struggling to hold onto the White House against the charming ex-governor of Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton. Bush's Veep and running mate was Dan Quayle, a former Indiana Congressman and Senator. VPs often serve as attack dogs, allowing their presidential running mates to hover above the mud, posturing themselves as, well, presidential.
Working hard to fulfill his role, Quayle made a speech attacking a fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen. Opined Mr. Quayle in the wake of the L.A. riots occasioned by the acquittal of the cops who beat up a black man named Rodney King, "It doesn't help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'"
The King beating had entered the media spotlight because a witness videotaped the event from his apartment window, presaging the ubiquitous video devices of America circa 2012. When the out-of-control cops were acquitted in state criminal court, LA's African-American community rampaged. What either the beating or the riots had to do with Murphy Brown giving birth out of wedlock, only Dan Quayle knew for certain.
If Quayle and his handlers thought the ostensible analogy made a good sound bite, they didn't count on Murphy's own handlers retaliating. In a subsequent episode of the sitcom, Quayle's speech was artfully intertwined with the story line, so that many viewers came away with the impression that Dan had actually appeared on the show.
Meanwhile, Candidate Clinton played his saxophone on NBC's Arsenio Hall Show. The video of this June '92 performance still makes the rounds on YouTube, where you can find versions in which Clinton now wears "shades" and in which various other tunes are substituted for the one he actually played: former U.S. president as music mashup.
In 1968, the late artist Andy Warhol predicted, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Two decades after Quayle and Clinton became crossover candidates, blurring the distinction between news and entertainment, Reality TV has made Warhol a prophet. Leap the multiple auditioning hurdles and you, too, can be a "Survivor," a "Desperate Housewife," or a "Cheater." Meanwhile, a new show called "The Newsroom," depicts Jeff Daniels as the Dan-Ratheresque anchor, covering everything from BP's Gulf oil spill to the Arab Spring; here real news clips are woven seamlessly into the story lines, as Daniels "interviews" not only other actors, but also the actual newsmakers.
Two sides of the same coin, Reality TV and "The Newsroom" blend fact and fiction, entertainment and hard news, into a mashup that many Americans, already famously misinformed about both history and current affairs, might find hopelessly confusing.
Toss a delusional young man with a severe mental illness into this mix and is it any surprise that the result may be mass murder?