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Aurora’s economic, artistic consequences still unfolding

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As the immediate trauma fades after the shooting during a Colorado midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," studios and movie lovers are processing the economic and artistic consequences of that evening's tragic events.

The economic impact was immediate: As Nikki Finke noted at Deadline.com, "business was gargantuan Friday but definitely off Saturday." It was off Sunday as well: Despite opening to $30.6 million in midnight grosses — 67 percent higher than the midnight haul for May's "Avengers" — the film finished with $160.9 million on the weekend.

While this is a staggering sum and the highest-ever opening-weekend gross for a film not in 3-D, it is far below studio expectations when the weekend began. Some studio heads thought Warner Brothers' summer-tentpole film had a shot at beating "The Avengers," which holds the record at $208 million.

Scarred by the weekend's tragedy, however, audiences trickled into the theater at a slower-than-expected rate. After Friday's one-day total of $75 million, expectations for the weekend were downgraded to $180 million. Then to $170 million. Then, finally, to the actual total.

The tragedy likely resulted in a studio loss in the tens of millions, at least on opening weekend. It remains to be seen whether the audience for this highly anticipated feature merely shifts to later weekends or stays home altogether.

But a ding at the box office is only the beginning of Warner's troubles. The studio also was forced to pull the trailer of its highly anticipated period film "Gangster Squad" because the footage contains a shootout set in a movie theater. This fiery set piece starring Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling was prominently featured in the film's preview, which was attached to prints of "The Dark Knight Rises."

In addition to pulling the trailer, the studio is likely to engage in extensive — and expensive — reshoots of "Gangster Squad," likely delaying the picture's release.

The commercial aspect of this tragedy is only one angle to consider, however. There is also the very real chance that this senseless slaughter of innocents — and the criminal's direct invocation of director Christopher Nolan's epic trilogy; he reportedly called himself "the Joker" to police and had Batman paraphernalia in his apartment — will have a lasting impact on Mr. Nolan as an artist.

"The movie theater is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me," Mr. Nolan said in a statement issued Friday.

Critics aren't helping matters; even before the film's release, many were clearly uneasy with the film's darker, largely conservative view of society and good and evil.

"I can't get away from the fact that this act of violence took place … at an opening-night midnight showing of 'The Dark Knight Rises,'" wrote Dana Stevens in Slate. "In Christopher Nolan's pitch-black vision, no communal cultural event is safe from potential invasion by marauders."

Ms. Stevens went on to ask, "Why shouldn't we assume … that the grim, violent fantasies we gather to consume as a culture have some power to bleed over from the screen into real life?"

Andrew O'Hehir, writing in Salon before the shooting even took place, went a step further, calling the film "fascist" and "unfriendly," while arguing that, "Maybe it's an oversimplification to say that that's the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much." (He does concede that the film is a "masterpiece.")

With this kind of vitriol aimed at Mr. Nolan's epic work, it is fair to wonder what kind of impact such language will have on his worldview and aesthetic sensibility. Our greatest directors have suffered similar tragedies before — and their reactions are not necessarily inspiring.

Consider Stanley Kubrick, whose 1971 film "A Clockwork Orange" — a tale of youthful murder, rape, punishment, free will and the power of the state — inspired a 16-year-old boy to murder a tramp, another to stab a younger child while dressed in a costume from the film, and the horrible gang rape of a girl set to the tune "Singin' in the Rain."

After the violence spawned by the film, Kubrick kept "A Clockwork Orange" out of circulation in the United Kingdom, his adopted home country, for the rest of his life. He also slowed down creatively. While Kubrick made five films between 1960 and 1971, he would make only four more between 1971 and his death in 1999. It is, of course, impossible to say what the effect of such violence had on the famously cerebral auteur, but it is not unreasonable to wonder how badly he was damaged.

Then there was Martin Scorsese, whose "Taxi Driver" (1976) was cited by John Hinckley as his inspiration for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

After churning out a series of brutal, and brutally real, dramas — "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" — Mr. Scorsese spent most of the 1980s making farces and fantasies. There was a Michael Jackson video, an episode of "Amazing Stories," the darkly comic "After Hours," and the star-driven "The Color of Money."

He eventually returned to grim and gritty realism with "Goodfellas" and "Casino."

"It is almost as if they believe that [Mr. Scorsese], Schrader and De Niro invented" these horrors, wrote Annette Wernblad in "Martin Scorsese: A Critical Study of the Films." "But whether we like it or not, Norman Bates, Travis Bickle and John Hinckley are there, both in the outer world and as a reflection of parts of ourselves."

Mr. Nolan is no more responsible for the madman in Aurora's actions than Mr. Scorsese was for Hinckley's, Kubrick was for the sadists inspired by "A Clockwork Orange." Let us hope Mr. Nolan realizes this.

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