Desecration

“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.”
― Stephen King, Pet Sematary

I have lived in Colorado most of my life. My home is a half-hour drive from the Century 16 theater in Aurora where so many people were recently murdered and maimed while watching a movie. Like most other non-psychopathic people, I felt immediate sadness, anguish, grief, and a myriad of other emotions as I read the unfolding news. In yesterday’s post by fellow Morlock, David Kalat, he says “I’ve lived most of my life in movie theaters,” and I feel the exact same way. I not only inhabit the film theater as a spectator, but as a film exhibitor and programmer I am also responsible for selecting the films that get shown in several venues. The films of Christopher Nolan that I’ve programmed are: Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception (which, despite being a blockbuster, had enough intellectual cachet for the arthouse crowd). I stayed away from the Batman films, those being out of my bailiwick. However, I was very impressed with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, in part because I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, a genre which is always, and predictably, rounded up and put up against the wall as one of the usual suspects when searching for scapegoats. Allow me to state the obvious: regardless of genre, movies can be joyous affairs that bring people together to share in the full range of emotions available to us. No matter how bleak their subject might be, they are ultimately collective acts of creation. What happened in Aurora is a senseless destruction and desecration of life, and my heart goes out to the victims and survivors. It was also a desecration of one of my favorite temples (the movie theater), and a desecration of one of my favorite art-forms (movies themselves).

Cinema is full of human psychopaths. Recent events remind us that, sometimes, the psychopaths are literally sitting among us.

Robert Hare, the creator of the standard diagnostic instrument to assess psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), estimates that while there are probably no more than a hundred serial killers in the United States at any moment, there are probably 3 million psychopaths (about 1 percent of the population). If Hare is correct, each of us crosses paths with such people all the time. (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 97)

Psychopaths are people who, whether because of nature or nurture (or both) have zero empathy or sympathy for their fellow human beings and, in fact, derive pleasure from inflicting pain. If the odds of personally being effected by a psychopath seem inflated, keep in mind that not all psychopaths make the front page. Most don’t. Some even make good money and live in gated communities. Hervey Cleckley, M.D., author of The Three Faces of Eve and The Mask of Sanity gives outlines in that latter book for “The Psychopath as Businessman,” “The Psychopath as Scientist,” “The Psychopath as Physician,” and many more. Which is to say, psychopaths are not limited to murderous cretins that arm themselves to the teeth with guns to cause maximum physical damage to other living beings. They can also be found in high-level positions, be it in banks that destroy lives via corrupted financial systems (American Psycho), or governments that use weapons of mass destruction (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), or executives amidst the fossil-fuel industry pushing our planet headlong into climate catastrophe (such executives are not singled out in An Inconvenient Truth, but that has been corrected by a long list of similar documentaries that have followed). My point for listing film titles within the categories above is to illustrate how movies of all stripes and colors (i.e., horror, comedy, documentary) provide us with tools by which we can try to make sense of the nightmares that humans inflict on themselves in reality.

My first experience with a psychopath occurred in grade school, circa the mid 70s. He lived up the street from me and tried to kill me three times. First with a giant rock, then with broken glass, and the last time I saw him he tried to drown me when we met at a public swimming pool. These incidents occurred within a span of about five years. He was eight-years-old on one end and 12 on the other. His father was a violent wife-beater, which leads me to, in this case, point to his so-called “nurture” to explain the cycle of his violence.

Later, in college, I knew another psychopath. This one threatened to kill two of my friends and I personally saw him run past me in a bar to punch a stranger in the face, for no other reason but to provoke a fight. We are now talking about a man in his late teens and early 20s. The last time I saw him he cornered me at a party and relished in making me very uncomfortable as he talked about the joy he felt in feeling like a god when he held somebody else’s life in his hands and they begged him for release. I later heard a rumor that he had killed someone, and I never saw him again. His parents were peace-loving hippies who had never done anyone harm, so I’d be hard-pressed to chalk up this deviant behavior to “nurture.” Maybe a skipped gene was involved and “nature” (in all its vague mystery) played a stronger hand in his violent predisposition. But, really, who knows?

Colorado has had more than its share of nightmares recently resulting in friends asking me, “What’s wrong with Colorado?” In some cases they were thinking of the Columbine High School massacre and the most recent shooting, while in others they were referring to the record fires that destroyed over 300 homes. But this is not about Colorado, it’s about all of us. We’re all in this together.

“If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States.”

The above excerpt is the first sentence from Bill McKibben’s horrifying article on global warming in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, which is full of madness. The fact that Rolling Stone can print an article “about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced,” (to use McKibben’s words) and then it puts Justin Bieber on the cover is another form of madness and disconnect altogether.

“Too little rain and too many guns.”

Colorado again? No. That’s a sentence from an A.P. wire service article by Jason Straziuso writing on the one-year anniversary of the famine in Somalia that claimed up to 100,000 lives. My reason for dropping that in here is because when I write that “we’re all in this together” (one of my favorite lines from Brazil, by the way) I’m not just talking about the U.S., I’m talking about everyone on this planet. We’re all connected, and yet as we get increasingly more connected via so-called social media platforms, cellphones, and laptops, there seems to be a growing disconnect regarding what it means to be a human being in the modern world.

On the Friday night of the shooting, I had to make a decision regarding an outdoor movie I had scheduled days before the Aurora massacre. Josh Trank’s debut film, Chronicle, concerns three teenagers who slowly develop supernatural powers. Despite its PG-13 rating, it gets pretty dark, especially toward the end when it becomes clear that one of the kids wants to use his powers to destroy things and kill people. The film can work as an allusion to the Columbine High School massacre, but it also works on many other levels. One very memorable scene shows us these three kids wielding their telepathic powers and levitating and constructing objects in mid-air. The entire time they are doing this they are also still playing with their cellphones, multi-tasking, texting each other, and video-taping (chronicling) everything they do. It’s as if their new awesome powers are no match for a growing and dangerous egocentricity. One of the markers of a psychopath outlined in Cleckley’s book is “pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love.” That theme gets played out to an extreme near the end of Chronicle. It was chilling to watch, and it carried extra weight given the context of events earlier that day.

Which is also another way of saying that, yes, I screened the film despite the fact that it cut too close to home in the art-imitating-life-imitating-art department. Was it too soon? Was it too violent? Would it make people uncomfortable? The answer to all of these questions was yes. The easy thing to do would have been to cancel the film and let people cocoon themselves at home. But, somehow, the act of going on with the show felt like an act of reclamation. Humans are social animals, but a lot of the devices we now surround ourselves with simply make it easier to hide in our homes and disconnect from the world at large. Reality is a messy thing, and it needs to be confronted head-on. That’s a task made easier when people work together, come together, play together, and connect, even if just for a moment, under that big screen that continues to tell our story.

16 Responses Desecration
Posted By AL : July 29, 2012 5:41 pm

CHRONICLE is an amazing film.

Posted By AL : July 29, 2012 5:41 pm

CHRONICLE is an amazing film.

Posted By robbushblog : July 30, 2012 12:00 am

I was surprised by how much I liked Chronicle.

Posted By robbushblog : July 30, 2012 12:00 am

I was surprised by how much I liked Chronicle.

Posted By swac44 : July 30, 2012 8:58 am

I have seen a lot of terrifying images in my time, but scrolling through a Movie Morlocks article only to suddenly be confronted with the face of Bieber … well, some things you just can’t brace yourself for. The horror…the horror…

Posted By swac44 : July 30, 2012 8:58 am

I have seen a lot of terrifying images in my time, but scrolling through a Movie Morlocks article only to suddenly be confronted with the face of Bieber … well, some things you just can’t brace yourself for. The horror…the horror…

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : July 30, 2012 3:40 pm

People seem to think that the criminal psychopath is some sort of modern phenomenon, but the first by-the-numbers psychopath in fiction is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver. Not at all the lovable rogue of the movies, the Long John of “Treasure Island” is a manipulator, a flatterer so adept at projecting innocence and benevolence that he makes the hard-nosed Dr. Livesay and Capt. Smollet feel guilty for suspecting him. He knows exactly how to make the neglected adolescent Jim Hawkins feel special an gain his loyalty. All the time he is a merciless killer and plotter willing to kill Jim or anyone else who stands in his way.

Stevenson was a great natural psychologist. Remember, he invented multiple personality disorder with “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : July 30, 2012 3:40 pm

People seem to think that the criminal psychopath is some sort of modern phenomenon, but the first by-the-numbers psychopath in fiction is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver. Not at all the lovable rogue of the movies, the Long John of “Treasure Island” is a manipulator, a flatterer so adept at projecting innocence and benevolence that he makes the hard-nosed Dr. Livesay and Capt. Smollet feel guilty for suspecting him. He knows exactly how to make the neglected adolescent Jim Hawkins feel special an gain his loyalty. All the time he is a merciless killer and plotter willing to kill Jim or anyone else who stands in his way.

Stevenson was a great natural psychologist. Remember, he invented multiple personality disorder with “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Posted By Juana Maria : July 30, 2012 5:39 pm

John Maddox Roberts:I too have read the whole book of “Treasure Island”,and over time I have seen many versions of “Treasure Island” on film. From the black and white version with Jackie Cooper to the ones by Disney:the one with Robert Newton;the one with the Muppets,and “Treasure Planet”,set in outer space. I have seen versions with Charleton Heston and Jack Palance,and versions in between. Alright,so I’m a “Treasure Island” fan!Arr! Matey. Yep,Long John Silver is really bad,of course he is! He is a pirate,remember? If you know anything about real pirates,they were nothing like Captian Jack Sparrow. NO!! As for Long John Silver’s character,the manipulation and facade,I agree. You would like “Muppet Treasure Island”,because in my opinion Tim Curry portrayl of Long John is verbatim of your description. I also think Curry was playing the same character he had on “Earth 2″. Thanks for your comments,they were very interesting.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 30, 2012 5:39 pm

John Maddox Roberts:I too have read the whole book of “Treasure Island”,and over time I have seen many versions of “Treasure Island” on film. From the black and white version with Jackie Cooper to the ones by Disney:the one with Robert Newton;the one with the Muppets,and “Treasure Planet”,set in outer space. I have seen versions with Charleton Heston and Jack Palance,and versions in between. Alright,so I’m a “Treasure Island” fan!Arr! Matey. Yep,Long John Silver is really bad,of course he is! He is a pirate,remember? If you know anything about real pirates,they were nothing like Captian Jack Sparrow. NO!! As for Long John Silver’s character,the manipulation and facade,I agree. You would like “Muppet Treasure Island”,because in my opinion Tim Curry portrayl of Long John is verbatim of your description. I also think Curry was playing the same character he had on “Earth 2″. Thanks for your comments,they were very interesting.

Posted By keelsetter : August 2, 2012 12:14 am

Man raises $7,000 in ticket money through “Take Back the Movies.”

Reading the local news today I came across this, and was moved by the spirit behind it:

http://www.dailycamera.com/louisville-news/ci_21203450/louisville-man-raises-7-000-ticket-money-through

Posted By keelsetter : August 2, 2012 12:14 am

Man raises $7,000 in ticket money through “Take Back the Movies.”

Reading the local news today I came across this, and was moved by the spirit behind it:

http://www.dailycamera.com/louisville-news/ci_21203450/louisville-man-raises-7-000-ticket-money-through

Posted By Ayumi : August 4, 2012 8:30 pm

Sometimes we reap what we sow.

Might the extreme violence and psychopathy depicted in cinema of the decade be a self-creating and self-culfilling prophecy?

A veteran cinephile, I find that I attend film less and less because of the raw violence and sociopathy. I could barely watch Heath Ledger’s brilliant and sick Joker. Psychopathy is not heroic, and the villain should not be preented as progagonist.

Think of films like Seven, the Saw series and Hostel, which are public and popular fare. Healthy fantasy life for adolescents? For anyone? I think not. Ghastliness breeds ghastliness.

What we place before our eyes matters.

Posted By Ayumi : August 4, 2012 8:30 pm

Sometimes we reap what we sow.

Might the extreme violence and psychopathy depicted in cinema of the decade be a self-creating and self-culfilling prophecy?

A veteran cinephile, I find that I attend film less and less because of the raw violence and sociopathy. I could barely watch Heath Ledger’s brilliant and sick Joker. Psychopathy is not heroic, and the villain should not be preented as progagonist.

Think of films like Seven, the Saw series and Hostel, which are public and popular fare. Healthy fantasy life for adolescents? For anyone? I think not. Ghastliness breeds ghastliness.

What we place before our eyes matters.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 4, 2012 11:55 pm

Ayumi:You are right! I could not stop thinking of how messed up emotionally Heath Ledger’s life was after making that movie! He played the worst version of The Joker ever! Not that he wasn’t a good actor–it’s just that part was too extreme. These superhero movies are too extreme and the kids and some young adults can’t tell fact from fantasty and want to live out the comic book world in real life,often with tragic results. I know it’s not as gruesome as what happened at the theatre in Colorado,but I remember this terrible game/reality show wher people are living superheroes with Stan Lee as the host of course..there are too many so-called reality shows that are all fake! When tradegies like this happen then you really know what reality is! There is no “Game Over” and start again button in real life! Also in real life as oposed to “reel life” when people are killed,they don’t just show up in another show or movie. No! They’re gone…We,the living are left to mourn them.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 4, 2012 11:55 pm

Ayumi:You are right! I could not stop thinking of how messed up emotionally Heath Ledger’s life was after making that movie! He played the worst version of The Joker ever! Not that he wasn’t a good actor–it’s just that part was too extreme. These superhero movies are too extreme and the kids and some young adults can’t tell fact from fantasty and want to live out the comic book world in real life,often with tragic results. I know it’s not as gruesome as what happened at the theatre in Colorado,but I remember this terrible game/reality show wher people are living superheroes with Stan Lee as the host of course..there are too many so-called reality shows that are all fake! When tradegies like this happen then you really know what reality is! There is no “Game Over” and start again button in real life! Also in real life as oposed to “reel life” when people are killed,they don’t just show up in another show or movie. No! They’re gone…We,the living are left to mourn them.

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