April 19, 2014

Guest Column: Aurora, ‘Targets’ and the persistence of guns

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By Luke Baynes

It is no exaggeration to say that the July 20 reports of the Aurora movie theater massacre are among the most disturbing news items I’ve ever read.

The facts, as we now know them, are that during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” a masked gunman—later identified as 24-year-old James Holmes—allegedly entered the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., set off two smoke bombs, and then opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing at least 12 people and wounding at least 58 others.

The news is disturbing for multiple reasons.

The first and most palpable reason is the hard facts—12 dead, 58 wounded—the type of figures one is accustomed to reading in a war report.

Secondly, the news is disturbing because of how neatly it fits into an established news pattern. The Century 16 theater is now inexorably linked in the annals of history with Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and a Safeway supermarket near Tucson, Ariz.—all sites of gun-inflicted mass murders.

Yet the Aurora massacre is unique from the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson shootings in that the former three incidents took place while victims and witnesses were fully engaged in “real life,” while the Aurora shootings occurred while moviegoers were sutured into the escape from reality that is the cinema, with several witnesses reporting that they initially thought the gunman was “part of the show.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, there will undoubtedly be debate over what role, if any, fictional movie violence played in the shootings.

While it is unlikely that Holmes saw “The Dark Knight Rises” prior to its official midnight premiere in Aurora and other theaters across the country, it is highly probable that he had watched the 2008 Batman movie “The Dark Knight,” in which Heath Ledger’s Joker served as the comic book embodiment of a post-9/11 terrorist.

A similar debate occurred in 1981, after John Hinckley Jr., in an attempt to impress teen actress Jodie Foster, tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan after repeatedly watching “Taxi Driver,” Martin Scorsese’s psychotic cabbie picture, which featured Foster as an underage prostitute.

Another debate ensued in 1999, when the parents of three victims in the 1997 Heath High School shooting in West Paducah, Ky. filed a lawsuit that named among the defendants the makers and distributors of the 1995 film “The Basketball Diaries.” The lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2001, contended that 14-year-old shooter Michael Carneal was influenced by a dream sequence in “The Basketball Diaries,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character shoots his teacher and several students.

The movie that immediately sprang to mind when I learned of the Aurora tragedy was not “The Dark Knight,” but rather an obscure 1968 picture called “Targets,” the debut of director Peter Bogdanovich.

I highly doubt that Holmes has seen “Targets.” Indeed, an NYU or UCLA film major could well slip through four years of schooling without ever hearing of it.

Instead, “Targets” can be viewed as a cautionary tale and a disturbingly prophetic anticipator of the wave of mass shootings of the past several decades.

Made on the cheap in 1967 for independent producer Roger Corman, but not released by Paramount Pictures until after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Bogdanovich’s film was inspired by an Aug. 1, 1966 incident in which Charles Whitman, an engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed his wife and mother before barricading himself atop a university building and embarking on a shooting spree, eventually killing 14 people and wounding 32 others.

“Targets” concerns a gun-obsessed insurance agent who, after emotionlessly slaughtering his family, drives to a public works facility near a Los Angeles area freeway and proceeds to pick off drivers with a high-powered rifle. The film’s conclusion takes place at a drive-in movie theater, where the audience at a horror movie premiere is confronted with real life horror when the sniper begins systematically shooting them through a hole in the movie screen.

Besides the chilling parallels to the Aurora massacre, what is most remarkable about “Targets” is how relevant its depiction of gun culture remains, more than 40 years after its release.

One of the most ironic aspects of watching movies released prior to Sept. 11, 2001 is the ease with which characters board airplanes. For example, take a scene in 1974’s “The Parallax View,” in which Warren Beatty’s character walks onto an airplane without a ticket and pays for the flight at his seat prior to thwarting an alarmingly prescient terrorist bombing.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government passed highly restrictive air travel regulations that continue to be enforced by the Transportation Security Administration.

Yet in the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre, one can argue that gun control laws have become less restrictive, beginning with the 2004 expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and continuing with 2008 and 2010 U.S. Supreme Court rulings that extended individuals’ firearm rights under the Second Amendment.

In “Targets,” the sniper stops by his local gun shop, writes a check for $249.60 and walks out with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight and two clips of ammunition. Aside from the low price tag and not having to show identification, is there anything in the scene that would be unrealistic today?

According to The Associated Press, Holmes purchased a Glock pistol on May 22 at a Gander Mountain store in Aurora, Colo. On May 28, he purchased a shotgun from Bass Pro Shops in Denver. On June 6, he returned to Bass Pro Shops in Denver and bought a Glock pistol. On June 7, he bought an AR-15 assault rifle from a Gander Mountain store in Thornton, Colo. He also purchased more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet.

“All the weapons that he possessed, he possessed legally,” Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said, according to the AP report. “And all the clips that he possessed, he possessed legally. And all the ammunition that he possessed, he possessed legally.”

In 2003, director Gus Van Sant released “Elephant,” the story of a fictional high school shooting that was directly inspired by the Columbine massacre.

As the years pass and the shock from the Aurora tragedy wanes, an ambitious filmmaker might feel compelled to make a movie based on the events of July 20, 2012.

He or she needn’t bother.

“Targets” beat them to it, almost half a century ago.

Luke Baynes is a reporter for the Williston Observer and a former film critic.

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