About a third of the way into "The Dark Knight Rises," the villain Bane and his henchmen storm a stock exchange. To breach security, Bane, a human with the physique of a gorilla, clobbers and shoots some guards. Upon entering the trading floor itself, he and his goons train assault rifles and handguns on traders and blast them indiscriminately.
If you see this film in a theater, this is the point where your eyes will dart to the lit exit signs that flank the screen. And you'll imagine what it was like for the folks in a theater in Aurora, Colo. when a maniac armed with an assault rifle and handguns stalked in and began blasting them indiscriminately.
For all the mass shootings in the bloody recent history of America, the greatest country in the world where a 3-month-old baby can get shot to death during a superhero movie, this massacre in Aurora may be the first to ride mass media in quite this fashion. The shooter did not conscript news media in the way that the 9/11 hijackers did. They implicitly goaded cable news networks to re-run images of murder so that instead of a few thousand people seeing a terrorist act in Manhattan, we all became witnesses. That's how terror works, of course. Killing 3,000 people is not the point; the explosive anger, fear and grief of 300 million is. When in those dark weeks after 9/11 people in flyover America repeated earnestly that "We are all New Yorkers," it was more than symbolic. We all had experienced, vicariously, the horror bearing witness to slaughter.
Who knows if this James Holmes fellow turns out to be so coldly rational as al Qaeda, which succeeded in igniting multiple wars and steering the freedom-loving United States toward becoming a cowering surveillance state. Barring some revelation of design, we'll merely evoke Brad Pitt's lines from "Se7en" when addressing this fellow Holmes: "When a person is insane, as you clearly are, do you know that you're insane? Maybe you're just sitting around, reading 'Guns and Ammo,' masturbating in your own feces — do you just stop and go, 'Wow! It is amazing how fucking crazy I really am!'?" He's no messiah. He's a movie of the week, at best.
But what Holmes has done, whether he meant to or not, is to baptize this particular Batman movie in anger and fear and grief. Whenever we watch television or attend a concert or a play or — especially — watch a movie in a theater, we pay for the pleasure of sharing a hallucination with people around us and many others around the world. The most beloved films are those which lull us into a hallucination so vivid and real that our rational senses do not pull us out until it finishes. Filmmakers who accomplish this are revered as geniuses and visionaries. Audience members who whisper or open their glowing phones during this experience are scorned. And the result is one that is unique to each film. Where you see "The Dark Knight Rises" is no more consequential than where you drink a can of Coke. The hallucination, like the soda, is fungible.
As we share the hallucination on a mass scale, so too do we share such a massive disruption to it as occurred in Aurora. Nightclub fires make us more aware of emergency exits in dark, crowded rooms. Cruise ship disasters prompt us to make mental note of lifeboats. Seventy-one people got plugged in a public theater as they watched "The Dark Knight Rises" and so now anyone who goes to see "The Dark Knight Rises" in a public theater is condemned to feel that twinge of awareness. We hold our breath when driving past graveyards to acknowledge exactly this mortal sensation — there but for the grace of God. At nearly three hours, "The Dark Knight Rises" requires that you breathe.
To attend is to visit a crime scene and to attend a hallucination already punctured. No movie is strong enough to overcome that association, at least not yet, and not when it features scenes that mirror the shared collective vision we've all had in recent days: trying to imagine how we would clamber out of a crowded theater panic with children in arms and spouse at hand while a man shot and shot and shot and shot and shot and shot.