Reality Bites; Film Should, Too

A scene from Warner Bros.’ “Gangster Squad,” which will be removed from the final cut due to its likeness to the July shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

We fear bullets. We fear emptiness. We fear life. We fear death.

But in an age of overwrought political correctness, astronomically ridiculous all-inclusivity, and children who get medals simply for “participating” in a little league game, our biggest fear seems to be insensitivity.

A month ago in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman entered a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his three-part social parable also known as a Batman trilogy. He opened fire, killing twelve people. That’s a reality.

The fiction of the films, however, are so much more than an glorification of violence. Nolan speaks to us on readily understandable levels of cinematic comprehension, albeit begging, in his own right, for small scale social revolution filtered through a pair of black tights and a pointy-eared mask.

The media began a connection between the film and the shootings, often calling the incident the “Batman Movie Massacre” or “The Dark Knight Tragedy;” headlines seeking to link a very tangible act of terror with the impressionistic experience of going to the movies.

In the weeks prior to the shooting, Warner Bros. Pictures was running ads for its period film, Gangster Squad, as it was set to be released in late September of this year. The film boasts an impressive cast including Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and Sean Penn. From the looks of the trailer, it’s a beautifully shot film with impressive sets, costumes, and explosive action. Near the end of the trailer, we see a few armed men enter a movie theater from behind the screen, tearing through it and opening fire on the audience. At no point during the trailer (the first time I saw it was prior to the Aurora shootings in a packed theater) did anyone seem to show any sort of concern for the victims of the onscreen shooting. Nor did they seem alarmed when the trailer ended without the perpetrators being apprehended for killing anyone in that theater. The film is fiction, and the audience accepts that.

Following the Aurora shooting the ad was pulled. The film was placed into “release limbo,” and reshoots were deemed necessary out of respect for the victims of the Aurora shooting. The scene (which was gorgeous, at least from what I could gather from the trailer) is cut from the film, replaced with something completely different (hey, Monty Python) when the film sees release in early 2013.

Not only are the film’s Oscar chances severely dashed (early year and mid-year releases hardly ever see a nomination), but an entire artistic endeavor was compromised for nothing. Are we to the point in our society that we can no longer accept fiction for being fiction, and must begin distorting fiction to make us feel better about our reality? Although Fox News viewers would have you believe otherwise, the majority of the American public is smart enough to understand the difference between a news report and a scene staged for a film. A reshoot will not bring back the victims of the Aurora shooting, nor will it make the memory of the shooting any less impactful.

Life and death happen. If anything, movies are the first ones to tell us that. If cinema didn’t contain death, it would be entirely too difficult to suspend our disbelief. We engage with films because of their likeness to our reality. A world without death is a world not grounded in reality and difficult to accept. Bullets kill people. Sometimes in a movie theater. That’s part of life. It happened. And to compromise a film’s plot and an artist’s vision simpy because it coincides with our “reality” at any given moment does not, in fact, erase our reality.

Perhaps HBO Films should have shelved the release of 2001’s Wit ,a brilliant drama revolving around one woman’s battle with cancer, because countless millions are infected with the disease worldwide. Perhaps we would have forgotten about World War II if Saving Private Ryan never saw the light of day. Perhaps your 90-year old grandmother with Alzheimers will remember who you are if you don’t watch Away From Her. Ignoring reality in cinema is propaganda. And, in this case, an insult to the victims in Aurora.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually remember to go see Gangster Squad now because Warner Bros. has successfully associated it with the tragedy, sending news outlets clamoring to the sets of reshoots to inform you that you’re being compromised.

And the day we start compromising escapist fantasy, ladies and gentleman, is the day we truly die.

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