In the moments following the incomprehensible massacre at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" Friday in Colorado, entertainment journalists struggled with how to frame their coverage of an issue that, while trivial in the big picture, would be relevant to their readers – the effect of the tragedy on the film from an industry perspective.
The event exposed the banality of what we in and around the entertainment industry do. At its best, film is an art that touches us and affects is in a meaningful way. It can be a positive, life-changing experience. Falling short of that, it can be a plain old good time, making our lives happier for a couple of hours here and there. Because it has that effect on so many people, it becomes serious business – literally so for the people who are invested financially, if not emotionally, in that world. That's until something like Aurora happens, when that investment becomes less than a footnote in importance, and any attention given seems like too much.
Right now, the awkward moment for the entertainment news cycle surrounds reporting the box office returns of "The Dark Knight Rises," with estimates flowing inexorably, despite Warner Bros. decision not to report revenue out of respect to the victims and their survivors. But it won't end there.
The implicit plan for this weekend, in addition to what financial heights "The Dark Knight Rises" would scale, had originally also included the ongoing initial assessment of the film's award chances, The third piece of Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise stood to be one of the more interesting Oscar contenders of 2012-13, with the film academy's omission of the previous installment of the franchise, "The Dark Knight Returns," widely credited for inspiring the ensuing expansion of the best picture field.
But while perhaps not quite as overtly unseemly as discussing the financial returns of a project that ultimately became the backdrop for 12 lives ending, weighing the awards prospects of "The Dark Knight Rises" still leaves a bitter taste. Who, at the end of the day, cares (or at least wants to acknowledge that they do)?
Why, in fact, should we care about any awards at all, when there are clearly so many deeper issues in our society to address? You think about that and you realize, this discomfort isn't about the price of a ticket of "The Dark Knight Rises." It's about the entire business of assessing the business – something that includes Variety but is far from limited to Variety.
Going forward, the intensity of that feeling will ebb and flow, but it won't go away. That's the bargain we signed up for when we came to care about that some onlookers see as so frivolous. Aurora's tragedy is not the first people will endure, nor the last. That point is not to trivialize Aurora but to underscore the massive scope of the suffering that touches us at different times, past, present and future. The entertainment world will always be navigating questions of its relevance and its propriety, questions that time and again will have uncomfortable answers.
In the end, what we cling to is the idea that entertainment, at its core, can be a force for good, no matter how banal it might be in its worst light. The box office in some sense addresses the ability of the industry to reach people with that force, though certainly not always in the ideal manner. The awards aim to give respect to those whose employ of that force comes closest to the ideal.
I can't imagine any conversation in the forseeable future, in print, online, on television, on the radio or waiting in line for the next film to be seen, about "The Dark Knight Rises" that won't live in the shadow of Friday's nightmare. That is not to blame the film, but to acknowledge its presence in the story. Nevertheless, the conversations will continue, just as the other aspects of our lives continue even as we try to honor those whose lives were lost and make sense of it. We care about the consequential and inconsequential alike – not with any pride – but we do.
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News