That pretty much sums up the movie-going world today, July 20th, the release date for The Dark Knight Rises. It also happens to be a new moon, Rosh Hodesh Av, a dark night indeed (someone has some clever scheduling skills). It is the ultimate escape. But what does that mean for us observant Jews? Why did this have to happen during the Three Weeks? The Orthodox moviegoing public won’t be going until after Tisha B’Av, avoiding such escapism up through this hallow day. This might be the most anticipated film ever, yet we’re going to have to wait. Or are we?
Some of us won’t wait and some of us will. “It’s too all-encompassing to miss” some might say. “I can’t put aside the burning embers of Jerusalem just to go be entertained,” the others will retort. I think the former are more prominent than Modern Orthodox (and other types of) Jews might like to admit. The popularity of the last movie makes me think that this custom will be utterly decimated by the end of next week. But that really depends on how we take it. How do we understand the customs leading up to the 9th of Av?
Not succumbing to the escapism of film is obviously recent as a custom. It’s the natural extension of avoiding musical concerts and big public spectacles. Generally though, people don’t have release parties or dress their best as for a play or a party, much less in costumes. The same here, right? This movie probably will be the exception. Anything people get up to go do at midnight, where they might even dress up or cheer when things happen on screen might be indicative this movie is something different. There is a party revolving around this film. It’s a problem.
All the while, Av marks devastation. Going to see this particular film would certainly break the principle “When Av enters, we minimize celebration.” And why do we do these things during the Three Weeks? To emphasize the loss of the Temple and feel the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s an emotional catharsis from which there is no escape. It’s a message modern Rabbis struggle to impart today. The city stands prosperous and that satisfies a lot of us, even though the Temple has not yet been rebuilt and our kin are still scattered worldwide. Our leaders are corrupt and our people divided. In the words of Rabbi Josh Yuter, feeling that pain should make us “feel compelled to correct the problems which led to the exile in the first place.” Escaping into film isn’t the way to embody these emotions.
But what are we looking to escape into? The Dark Knight Rises is a three-hour episode of anxiety and terror. Its synopsis indicates the city itself will be central to the story; Gotham will be devoured and burn. “Legions have devoured her, idolaters have possessed her.” How often do we honestly encounter a deeply thoughtful film about the experience of idealism surrounding the destiny of a single city? To be more direct, how often do we get to watch, on screen, a perfect metaphor for the ancient pain and struggle for Jerusalem? Much less, in Av?
This offers something very dark and very difficult to watch. The film guarantees anxiety and pain. This movie seems to be thematic of the season in the same way some people will watch Schindler’s List. But better than Schindler, this title implies a probable vision for overcoming the scourge. It’s an element of Tisha b’Av we often lose in the discourse of mourning and loss – redemption. Tisha b’Av itself is modeled after Yom Kippur: the fasting, the contemplation, the fear and trepidation. That pain is the foundation of personal and collective redemption, rising from our own darkness. It’s rare to find an experience that can exemplify those things in such potent detail, especially in film. To quote critic Todd Gilchrist, The Dark Knight Rises serves “as a mirror of both sober reflection and resilient hope.”
I’m writing this more out of concern that observant Jews might lose sight of the Three Weeks getting caught up in the fever that is this movie. Without saying what I’d prefer to do, I think I’m offering a compelling justification to go see The Dark Knight Rises and to integrate a serious viewing into the experience the Three Weeks have come to embody. Ultimately, this movie is about a single man. But it could be about any one of us living in a city that needs redemption. Gotham is fiction but Jerusalem is our reality. Can we really run from the parallels this film is going to inevitably offer the devout Jew? I doubt it. I sincerely doubt there is much escapism in this movie.