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The Dark Knight Rises, Aurora, and Cinema as Therapy

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | July 23, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | July 23, 2012 |

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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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.