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The Dark Knight Rises, Aurora, and Cinema as Therapy

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | July 23, 2012 | Comments ()


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The Dark Knight Rises scored $162 million over the weekend, good for the third biggest opening weekend of all time. A lot of outlets, and even Warner Brothers, have waited to announce those numbers out of respect for the tragedy that took place in Theater 9 early Thursday morning in Aurora, Colorado. I understand and respect that decision, and appreciate that a lot of folks are uncomfortable with how to approach discussions surrounding Christopher Nolan's film, a movie that capped a trilogy that soared to unheard heights for a comic-book franchise or, really, for any action movie franchise, period. Unfortunately for Nolan, and for everyone involved with the film, no matter how much money The Dark Knight Rises ultimately makes at the box office, the film will always be inextricably linked with tragedy, and any conversation about the film will likely include the name James Holmes.

However, that connection strikes upon a different but related issue, one that is being obscured by the decision not to discuss the film out of deference to the community of Aurora, and that is cinema as therapy. Like a lot of people, whenever things become difficult, or whenever I need to work out a particular issue or simply escape from the whirrs and grinds of modern life, I have always sought solace in a movie theater. In fact, that's exactly what I did on Friday morning, six hours into heavy news coverage of the Aurora tragedy, and after poring over every piece of information I could find on the shooting. I left my house, drove ten minutes away, and escaped into the very movie at the center of a massacre 3,000 miles away. I was not alone, and though movie theater wasn't as full as it might have otherwise been, there were a lot of people like me who took our heavy hearts into theaters around the country.

It was a quiet screening. There weren't the costumes you'd customarily see on an opening day for a movie event like The Dark Knight Rises, nor the idle geek chatter I hear at crowded screenings of superhero films. In fact, it was virtually silent until the trailers began to unspool. Then we sat and experienced with awe the vision of Christopher Nolan, carrying with us the heaviness not only of the events in Aurora, but the memory of Heath Ledger. I'm certain there wasn't a person in the entire theater that didn't also look toward the emergency exit several times during the screening, or flinch uneasily during the shootouts. By the end of the movie, a lot of us had welled up, and we walked out into the bright light of day running scenes through our mind while simultaneously checking our smart phones to get updates on the shooting.

For so many of us, cinema is how we grieve and how we process the events in our own lives. Sometimes it is an escape, but so often, it's just the opposite: Our heightened emotions pick up on connections we wouldn't have otherwise made, finding clues in how to deal with our own heartaches and losses in the most unusual places. Go see a movie after you've had a child, and everything will remind you of her. See a movie after a break-up, and there's something in nearly any character that will recall the characteristics of that ex. See a movie after you've lost a loved on, and even the brightest comedies will wash pangs of sorrow over you.

The year after my own father's senseless death, I spent nearly every day in a theater, hoping to find in any movie some clue in the characters or in the dialogue that I could use to process the grief. I remember seeing a movie called A Simple Plan that had absolutely nothing to do with my father or the circumstances surrounding his death, and yet I ruminated for hours after that film, drawing wild connections between my Dad and Billy Bob Thornton's character. I don't know why, but it helped just to mull and ponder and turn over ideas and thoughts in my head. That was when my true obsession with movies blossomed, though it wasn't until two years later after a lot of trial and error that I finally found the movie, Billy Elliot, that allowed me to move on. I watched it four times, on back-to-back days, and each time I saw it, I was able to let go of a little more of the bitterness, the unfairness, the injustice, and the sadness that I'd carried with me for twenty-four months. The irony, of course, is that I was neither Irish, nor a ballet dancer, nor the son of a union worker in the 1970s. But I found something in that film that worked for me, that struck a chord that resonated in a way that spoke to my experiences.

Film won't offer much solace yet to the families that have lost loved ones in Aurora. It probably won't for quite some time. But when the scar tissue begins to form over those psychic wounds, movies may not provide an answer, but they may help to bring some perspective or recharge long-dormant feelings.

"I guess just to be able to say goodbye," Ms. Donelson, 49, said of why she visited the memorial. "Bring some closure."

I saw that quote in a NYTimes piece earlier today about how the city of Aurora is coping with the shooting, and my first thought was a Jim Sheridan film called In America. In a year or two years or five years from now, when the parents who have lost children are still struggling to move on, I hope they stumble upon that film. It will probably resurrect every feeling of dread they are feeling right now, and it may bring them little but emotional devastation in the short term. But I cannot imagine a better therapy for a parent trying to move on from the loss of a child that the final, epiphanic moments of that film. Sometimes it's not about finding answers; sometimes it's enough to know that others have felt similar losses and found ways to make the best of their lives.

Goodbye, Frankie.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • When my dad died in a terrible accident 9 years ago I found solace in both the last movie that I saw with him, Finding Nemo as well as the first movie I saw after he died, Pirates of the Caribbean. My Mom would curl up with movies every night since she couldn't sleep and we kids would curl right up with her.
    My thoughts and prayers remain with the families in Aurora, and I am so very thankful my neice was not at the midnight shows.

  • Lucyem

    Very touching. I have to mention, however, that Billy Elliot is set in the North-East of England and involves no Irishness at all. We have impenetrable accents in England too, you know.

  • Maguita NYC

    Beautifully written.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Since this is turning into a comment diversion ...

    Magnolia did a strange kind of loss processing for me and maybe even some prep. What do you do when you've been damaged by someone else's self-indulgence?

    Almost exactly three years ago, my estranged father was diagnosed with terminal cancer - 6 months, plus or minus. I wrote about that here, at the time. I relocated to be of help, anticipating damage to my psyche, body and career, which turned out to be true. (Sometimes, I'm smart.)

    I had a contract job, which ended, and spent 18 months or so after he passed (9 months after diagnosis) getting my mother, her house and affairs squared away. Nobody knew where or what anything was, on top of the 9 months' accelerating medical gyrations. My sister did the same, less the relocation. The service was interesting - so many people he helped, who thought well of him. Using us - the family - to do so. We were fodder, not so much people. There was glee, *glee*, in his voice as he reported it had metastasized into his lungs - official, lung cancer. Now it's something that people understand. The man lived on a tiny, tiny stage, playing mostly to himself, and we were props.

    Same month my father died, my best friend's nephew killed himself drunk-driving (his way-too-many-th time), leaving two kids, one an infant, with their drug addict mother. Same season, best friend's dad-in-law died. While my father was dying, my friend and professional mentor of (mumble, mumble) years was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer - remissed eventually. That guy saved my mind and probably my life, in large part from damage my father did.

    Last winter my mom nearly died - weeks of nursing her back after a UTI landed her in critical care. Shouldn't have gotten that far, and isn't that a big pack of tangle to carry. Right now she's as healthy as I've seen her in years & we don't need surgery (glaucoma) in the other eye.

    So, what do you do? Lessons from Magnolia ...

    - "This happens. This is something that happens."

    - You stand with them, when people are riding out the suck, like frogs falling from the sky for no reason.

    - It's OK to be furious and do what you have to, to hold your shit together even if you do wear improbable bikini-bulge-ware, as TC did. (I do not.)

    - Own your regrets, which are not absolution. I've hurt some people along the way, even though I should have known better.

    - There aren't do-overs, only do-nows. Cling to what could or should have been, or might be, and you end up smashing your William H Macy braces in frog-rain you shouldn't even be out in.

    - The only thing we really have to offer is our damaged selves. The only ones who don't know they're broken are so broken they can't tell.

    - "Dad, you need to be nicer to me." And he never will. I was a prop, and never a sufficient one, and even Checkov doesn't write his stories for the benefit of the gun on stage(*). And that sucks, but I'm OK.

    (*) "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on
    the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

  • prairiegirl

    Thank you for this, Dustin. So well-written, thoughtful and heart-felt. God bless all those who are grieving.

  • Abbey Road

    On a carefully calculated rota, Good Will Hunting, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, Billy Elliott & The Sandlot were my therapist in college for sure. Not to mention a few important albums. Thanks for articulating why movies are an escape, sure, but also a real help in processing things. I've thought it, just hadn't put it into words.

  • Bert_McGurt

    In all the grief and sadness surrounding the tragedy, I'm heartened by the news that so many of the victims were killed or wounded while protecting their friends and loved ones. We see it in the movies all the time, but there were some REAL heroes at the theater that night, and their friends and family can hopefully take some small comfort in knowing that their selfless acts saved lives.

  • This was beautifully written. That's all I have to say

  • lauwer

    i loved this article, movies are an escape, whether they help you find solace, romance, comfort or maybe even revenge. In any case, they help. Thank you.

  • Tracey Sims

    Thank you.

  • The Mega Sage

    My high school sweetheart died when when was 17. I repressed a lot of emotions from that incident, because I was too young to really process what I was feeling. Then one day, a few months later, I went to see the The Fisher King with my father. I was enjoying the movie, but then, right near the end of the movie, Robin Williams has just woken up in a hospital after being attacked, and he turns to Jeff Bridges, sitting by his bed, and says "I really miss her Jack. Is that okay? Can I miss her now?"

    I just lost it right there. That summed up exactly what I'd been feeling and carrying in my heart, and I can barely remember the rest of the movie I was crying so much. But it was the start of my healing process, for which I am truly grateful.

  • psemophile

    I've never been faced with a tragedy, only those usual ups and downs in life, but I was, for a time, quite depressed and cinema somewhat healed me. Cinema made me feel better. It helped me to confront my feelings. So whenever I'm sick or depressed, I watch a good film.
    Cinema is the best medicine I've ever come across.

  • special snowflake

    My Mom died February 4, 2005, after a routine colonoscopy procedure went wrong, and at 72 was in otherwise fine physical and mental health. I was 45 and grateful for all the years I'd had with her, but it's never easy at any age. It was on a Friday afternoon, and after relatives from all over came pouring in overnight while my Dad and brother & his wife & I were in total grief, my 13-year-younger cousin and I went back to my house Saturday evening. I needed to be alone, but I needed my lifelong friend Lee to be alone with me.
    I asked him to turn on the TV, anything just to fill the quiet, and I noticed 'Napoleon Dynamite' was on pay-per-view. We both had had a curiosity about it but wasn't sure what it would be about at all. I ended up ordering it, and my cousin and I sat there totally engrossed for every single minute, forgetting the pain & loss around us and laughing out loud at scenes like the steak smacking Napoleon in the face as he's on his bicycle, or his brother slapping the sh*t out of him and running away, the absolute ridiculousness of everything. It was the perfect catharsis for just the right time.
    That movie remains a fond favorite today, just for the smiles it gave me in between the thoughts I couldn't bear to linger on.

  • 'The year after my own father’s senseless death, I spent nearly every day in a theater, hoping to find in any movie some clue in the characters or in the dialogue that I could use to process the grief.'
    Dustin, you have no idea how freakishly closely that sentence echoes events in my own life.
    Long live empathy.
    Long live cinema.
    Long live Pajiba.

  • Guest

    Seconded. Not a death in my case, but everything else. Everything else.

  • Leigh

    My grandmother died in 1997. I was in high school, and she was my first BIG loss. I went and saw TItanic at the Tuesday matinee 9 times... mostly so I could sit in the theater and cry. I know the movie's dialogue is lame, but I'm a nerd for all things historical, and that movie makes you connect with the 1500+ people that died. It gave me a great excuse to cry for two hours straight once a week, until my heart started to heal a little bit.
    Movies can be the catalyst for letting go of emotions that you might not otherwise be confortable feeling. You can adapt them to your mood... if I'm feeling swoon-y, I watch Romeo and Juliet (1968) until the marriage scene (and then pretend they lived happily ever after). If I want to wallow in depression or feel like crying, I watch it until the end. To me, a truly good movie allows for multiple interpretations depending on how you feel that moment. Even if it's only to revel in the escape.

  • junierizzle

    This really broke my heart. I know people get killed everyday and it is always sad but this really hit me. The victims were clearly movie fans just like me. I've lost count of how many midnight screenings I've attended. This could have been any movie fan across the country. The only reason I didn't see TDKR at midnight was because it was sold out. I had to wait for the 10 a.m. screening the next morning. I was really excited that morning until I turned on the news. The first thing that came to mind was how happy and excited everyone must have been, I teared up. I almost didn't go see TDKR not because I was scared to but because it just didn't feel right. I ended up going because in some small way, along with my prayers, I felt like it would be honoring the victims. Movies are powerful. Movie theaters are still my favorite place.

  • Lurker

    I really think it's too soon for this: too soon to say "Oh, you'll heal." Too trite to say that $100 million of glitz could ever make these families feel better. I understand what you're trying to do with this, but I really don't think it works. It's too insensitive; it's much, much too soon.

  • Patrick Garcia

    Please know that in no way do I mean to engage you in a debate as I reply to your post, and yes you are entitled to your own opinion.

    ( "Oh, you'll heal." Too trite to say that $100 million of glitz could ever make these families feel better. )

    I just feel that this passage makes Dustin's article seem very passive and casual, when clearly it is not. No one can even begin to imagine how the families of Aurora must feel, but I think each and every person deals with tragedy, and grieves in their own way. I remember when my friend's older brother died, he seemed very mechanical and unaffected by what had happened. Then a week later, he told me he was driving and he suddenly broke down in tears. Was he wrong in the way he handled his brother's death? No, I would assume not. Dustin's article merely suggests that movies can be possible therapeutic (hence the title) outlets in coping with such tragedies.

    Please keep in mind that not every movie is a mindless box office juggernaut set to come for the sole purpose of generating revenue for the studios. Film is not dead, there are some true auteur film makers out there that craft inspirational works of art that truly impacts peoples lives. But moreover, the most valuable thing I learned for this article is that maybe the form of therapy one can find solace in doesn't have to be a movie. It could also be a book, poem, an illustration, or a song. If you don't think any of these will work than that's ok. I just wouldn't be very quick to brush off the thoughts. I would just see it as doing your best to display an act of kindness.

  • Mr_Zito

    Thank you for that, Dustin, that's helping too.

  • SA ROE

    Movies are how my sister and I reconnected after our mother died. It was a spur of the moment decision when neither of us wanted to spend another day going through all the stuff you have to after someone dies. The first year we went to a movie nearly every week. Now, over a decade later it's maybe 8-10 a year. We went to TDKR friday. During The Hobbit preview, I glanced over and we both knew we had 'take a day off from work' plans on Dec. 14th. Movies are our common ground.

  • W.

    As a member of the law enforcement community in Denver, I appreciate your thoughts more than I can express. After spending 16 hours in a command post on Friday, neck deep in the details, grit and aftermath of such an event, I came home and watched a movie, for comfort. Movies are such a sanctuary for so many people, me included. To go somewhere dark and quiet, turn off your phone and voice and just be transported to a story is a powerful thing. Acts of terrorism are so effective because they take away our safety-not just from being hurt or killed but from being carefree and feeling permission to stop worrying. Though obviously murder, of innocents and so many, is horrific but that robbery of something sacred is terrible as well. Thank you for your well-written and thoughtful words.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Thank you.

    "Who does the hard thing? (S)he who can."

  • Pinky McLadybits

    As a fellow Pajiban and I left our screening of TDKR on Saturday afternoon, we saw an officer stationed in the lobby, near the entrance to the theaters. He had a grim look on his face and I smiled at him to let him know that he was appreciated. That we were happy that he was there. That we knew that he cared about the safety of the people in that theater. So thank you. I can't imagine having your job but I am thankful every day that you have it.

  • ,

    I was once at an amusement park where the air was getting chilly and I'd left my jacket in my car. I asked the girl watching the gate if I could go get it and she said sure. So I did, and when I came back, she said, "Sorry, I have to search it." I let her, and when she said, "Thanks," I said, "No, thank YOU for being here to help give us a place where we can come and have fun and feel safe."

    And she said, "You're the first person all year who's said that to me."

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