Fire in a Crowded Theater

In case you haven’t heard, a 58-year-old “drifter” appears to have opened fire randomly on movie-goers in a Lafayette, Louisiana theater, killing two and injuring nine before killing himself. As WaPo’s Alyssa Rosenberg notes, this happened just a week after Aurora, Colorado murderer James Holmes was convicted for killing 12 people in a theater in 2012.

As American Film Institute president and Chief Executive Bob Gazzale said in a statement, “Going to a summer movie is a celebration of the American creative spirit and one of our nation’s most beloved pastimes.” And that beloved pastime, while not necessarily a moral act, is a deeply vulnerable one.

When you go to a movie theater, you are deciding to sit for two hours in the dark with dozens, even hundreds of people, you don’t know. Unlike on a plane, or even in a live theater or concert performance, to name other captive experiences that put us in close proximity with strangers, there often aren’t paid staff in the theater with you, watching for disruptions or quietly managing other people’s behavior. Often, if you’re polite, and if you want to give yourself fully over to the experience unfolding on the screen, you’ve turned off your phone, putting another step between yourself and calling for help if it should suddenly prove necessary.

Once the lights go down and the previews (and pre-previews, sadly) come up, we’re giving ourselves over not just to the conditions of the movie theater, but to the story on screen. This is what makes film so powerful, and what in the past has made it seem so threatening to decency crusaders who decried the medium’s impact on children and immigrants. Whatever divides us before we take our plushly cushioned stadium seats or our places in community theater chairs worn thin by decades of showings, we’ve been drawn together by the same story. And that story will continue to unite us, at least for a little while, as we spill back into the bright heat of summer daylight, or the cool of the evening, and talk about what we’ve just seen.

The odds of being shot in a movie theater are still infinitesimal. But after we have our week of Kabuki arguments over gun control, with us liberals wondering how a deranged “drifter” was in a position to use deadly force and conservatives arguing the whole audience should have been armed to the teeth to defend themselves, the residual impression is going to be that you’re talking your life in your hands when you go into a dark room with strangers.

I noted in passing earlier this week that the beloved independent movie house in Monterey, Osio Cinema, was closing down, reportedly due to competition from Netflix. I’d say Netflix got a big boost in Lafayette last night, and all of us lost something we didn’t even think about valuing until recently.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.