Friday, July 20, 2012


At the end of Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 film Targets, a mass murderer named Bobby Thompson, played by Tim O'Kelly, stations himself behind the screen of a drive-in theater where he fires randomly, but with precision, into the audience. Last night, or very early this morning, a man named James Holmes entered a Aurora, CO movie theater through one of the exit doors near the screen and did much the same thing. In Aurora, in reality, twelve people were killed and dozens more were wounded.

In Targets, Bobby Thompson's story is paralleled by that of aging horror film icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) who is touring to promote his latest Gothic picture. He's morose, though, due to his advanced years and, more to the point, his belief that the kind of old fashioned, cobwebby movies he makes are irrelevant and cannot compete, in terms of generating fear, with the real horrors splashing themselves across the front page. This is a very late '60s idea, one of the ones that got its hooks in and has hung tight up to today. In any case, Orlok will eventually confront this belief very directly, as it is his film showing at the drive-in Bobby Thompson has chosen for his shooting gallery, and this drive-in is Orlok's last stop on his tour.

All day today people have talked and written about what happened in Aurora, taking their irrelevancies very seriously, and with some kind of belief that perhaps if we news-watchers could just take the time to hash this out we could stop it from ever happening again. It is nearly impossible to engage in this sort of thing without being insufferably trite, as I imagine I'm in the process of confirming as I write this. But everything will be hauled out before it's all done -- all done for us, I mean. For the twelve it's already done. Of course the thinking often is that for those gone there's nothing to be done, and when looking at the big picture and in practical terms, it's who's left that matters right now. This is debatable. Everything is debatable, I've learned, including the movie playing in the theater Holmes stormed into. The Dark Knight Rises, it was. Who can resist that kind of synergy?

In Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, the impact of a fatal bus accident washes out over a number of characters, and while Lonergan's writing and the actors' performances makes each of them painfully specific, Lonergan's directing encompasses everything. His directing sprawls, so that sometimes the principal figures become lost, or just the next person in line after that one, who this film only happens to not be about. In a very real sense Margaret is about immensity and incomprehensibility, the bigness and wildness that we can't even see. "This is not an opera!" rages one of the film's more easily sympathetic characters, played by Jeannie Berlin, to another, rather less sympathetic one played by Anna Paquin, who is almost unconsciously trying to transform the central tragedy and her genuine feelings of guilt into something that is about her, rather than the woman who was killed. She says it again: "This is not an opera." It feels like it sometimes though, doesn't it? Conversations about What Is To Be Done Now sure can seem to. But it's not. It's just movies. It's all just movies.

Byron Orlok watches bodies falling around him at the end of Targets and does what we who are blessed enough to have never known, and God help us will never know, what it's like to find an exciting night out to the movies shatter into bloody chaos, might flatter ourselves into believing we would do: he approaches the source of the violence and means to stop it. It's all just movies, but with Targets, if Bogdanovich and uncredited screenwriter Sam Fuller understand one thing it's that yes, it really is all just movies. It would be disingenuous to claim that this excludes Bobby Thompson, but to the degree it's possible, Thompson is a separate entity within and apart from the film. Once the unavoidable is acknowledged -- Bobby Thompson is fiction -- it is allowable and possible to see him as a chillingly reasonable facsimile of Charles Whitman, his inspiration, or James Holmes. Byron Orlok is the opera.

The opera is the shape of things. Or the attempt to shape things. Margaret finally takes that same form, while Orlok was born to it. When confronted with the real horrors that had been grinding him down, Orlok is furious, using the cane with which he can barely keep himself up to beat down the killer, and then stunned.

"Is that what I was afraid of?" he says.


Many thanks to Glenn Kenny for the screengrabs from Targets.


Wes said...

Excellent post Bill, really enjoyed reading it. I was wondering how the blogging community (or at least the blogs I frequent) would respond to this, as the shooting seems now irrevocably tied to the Nolan film, but your piece was sensitive and measured. I'm writing from Ireland where the shooting is of course the top story, but I am an outsider looking in, and I must breathe a sigh of relief that we Irish do not have the right to bear arms. So far I haven't seen Obama speak on the problem of gun culture but I guess with elections coming up, this kind of event is fraught with political dynamite... The analogy with Targets is well made, I hadn't thought of the film myself but it makes perfect sense.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Wes. I've read a few things here and there that pissed me off because it seems to me that some people are using the tragedy as an excuse to score political points (there's on piece out there that wonders if perhaps Nolan's Batman movies bear some responsibility). So I didn't want to do that. I wasn't sure I wanted to do anything, but then I thought of TARGETS, and happened to watch MARGARET, and so there you go.

Jonathan Stover said...

The Dana Stevens piece on SLATE, bill r? It's pretty awful in much the same way of the bloviating after 9/11 that "irony is dead" and so on, and so forth. In this case, a shooting at a Christopher Nolan movie, or something like it, was "inevitable" because of the gloomy moral universe of these films. Dumb, dumb stuff.

bill r. said...

Actually no, although I can just imagine what Stevens's piece is like. I was referring to Andrew O'Hehir's piece for Salon called "Does Batman Have Blood on His Hands?" for Salon. Which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I couldn't bring myself to read all the way through, because I got far enough to know that he was taking that question seriously, despite throwing out his credentials as a "civil libertarian." But maybe he does a u-turn at some point, I don't know.

Kelly said...

Wes. M. - It actually seems more like the candidates are avoiding the gun control aspect of this like the plague. No one wants to risk pissing off the NRA.

Greg F. said...

Bill, congratulations! Apparently, you won the internet. Listen, can I borrow it this weekend. Swear, I'll give it right back. Tuesday at the latest.

bill r. said...

I just got it. I literally just got it.