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The Dark Knight Rises: Safety Not Guaranteed ...

07/28/2012 11:48 EDT | Updated 09/27/2012 05:12 EDT

I had planned to write this post after seeing The Dark Knight Rises but I haven't seen it. Not in protest. I've considered going but the thought leaves me... uncomfortable. I don't know if, and to what extent, the movie's to blame for what happened but blame seems too simple anyway. In a recent op-ed Stephen Marche urges his readers to move past blame-wrestling to think about deeper connections between violence and movies (theatrics). I'm not an expert on this topic and wouldn't know where to begin breaking down these connections into sociological or historical claims, but I know I'm struggling with them and from within them.

I know that, as much as I haven't seen Dark Knight out of respect, it's also fear driving me: fear of contextualizing the tragedy and making it more real, but even more so, fear of the movie itself, of its raw darkness brilliant in its ability to present an iconic fantasy in horrifically realistic tones. And that goes beyond violence. The Dark Knight movies offer a perverse kind of escape because we escape into them with all our grittiest baggage (this may be a definition of art). But when it feels like the exchange is going both ways, how do we understand that? Without placing blame, the shooting in Colorado mimics these movies, movies which were already mimicking us as we might be if our superhero games were played out in real life. This collision between the world we escape from and the world we escape into destabilizes both.

Underneath that instability is a further anxiety: on screen at least, this collision can also be thrilling. After all, orchestrating a show of it extremely well is at the heart of The Dark Knight trilogy's success, exactly what we want from it. That, more than anything, is what I didn't want to face this past week.

So I went to see Safety Not Guaranteed instead. An ironic choice. Safety groups the classic time-travel themes -- regret, lost opportunity, fate vs free choice -- around questions of escapism; rather than exploring consequences for the space-time continuum, we're just waiting to find out whether or not the damn machine works. Are the characters running towards or away from their important truths?

Walking into the theater with multiple versions of this question already very much on my mind, it seemed like Safety was taunting me. Which it was, a voice from the just-distance-enough past that it could taunt these things lightly. Beyond taunting, however, Safety does something similar to what I thought I wouldn't be able to stomach in The Dark Knight, except rather than host the all-too-human in a comic book world, Safety reverses the procedure.

It introduces us to Kenneth, a character integrating practices he's picked up from action-figures into an otherwise hapless small town life. Kenneth is rather good at this, so it doesn't come off as completely pathetic. At the same time, it stays continually awkward, uncalled for. If you've seen the movie, think of the break-in scene. The thing is, Kenneth never transcends being-a-nerd-trying-to-be-a-hero. Which makes it so we're not able to tell if he's closer to hero or lunatic. Is he a visionary assessor of reality (the only one who understands how time works) or does he have no grasp on reality at all?

Because Darius, the intern working on Kenneth's story, can't know if trusting him is very right or very wrong, we can't know if we're rooting for the good guys or the bad guys. We don't know who to trust and who to mock, or if the movie is trusting us to play along or mocking us for it. This goes beyond time-travel. Every life choice shown is also shown to be susceptible to accusations of escapism, and defiant against them.

This extends to the audience's choice to watch the movie. Safety's strength is that it's genre-ambiguous until the last will-it-or-won't-it moment. This makes what's at stake (above the fictional outcome) what kind of movie you're even watching, what kind of viewing experience you're having. And continually leaves open the question of which experience do you want. But it's a trick question.

If what you think you want is an indie feel-good, then you're hoping the time machine works at the end. But if the machine works, the main characters are admirable because of their ability to shake off cultural distractions in order to engage with life substantially. The escape is the illusion that we can avoid escapism, or that what looks like escape may not be. If the machine doesn't work, we'll have been watching something harshly realistic. But the unavoidable reality it will have shown us is that we're all escapists and that that's a dangerous thing to be. Either way, each ending contains something of the other.

This puzzle resonated with me. As did Kenneth, his sincerity evoking what is best in dreams and make-believe but his defensiveness and anti-social behavior begging concern. Concern made all the more palpable with James Holmes on the mind. The filmmakers behind Safety obviously didn't intend for this, but it does seem, rather eerily, to speak to those deeper ways in which art and society are interconnected and responding to each other.

In Safety, the demarcation between what we should be expected to take seriously and what we should be expected to dismiss as fiction (or craziness -- this word comes up again and again in the movie) falls but doesn't crash, spared the weight of this past week. It is, therefore, easier for the movie to offer its characters a balancing redemption, first, through the trust which becomes so critical and so binding when other foundations become shaky, and, second, through trust specifically in the possibility for imagination to actualize into the extraordinary rather than the horrific.

Giving in fully to this trust, the way Darius can, of course isn't an option outside of the movies. It would be like re-releasing The Dark Knight with the villains edited out and cheering for a shadow-boxing Batman. But the hope is that, with this trust, the hazy space between our escapes and our constraints becomes a little less daunting. Otherwise, the question of healing seems unapproachable.

So I know I will see The Dark Knight Rises, though I know it might still be a little bit longer before I do.