No Sympathy For The Shooter: Contrasting TARGETS (1968) & JOKER (2019) In An Era Of Mass Shootings

Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film Targets (1968) is composed of two narratives. One narrative follows Byron Orlok, an aging actor, played by Boris Karloff, who has decided to retire after growing weary of being typecast in horror films and feels that he can no longer play a “straight role” anymore. During an argument with a writer, who is trying to convince him to do one more film, Orlok tosses a newspaper into the writer’s lap with the headline “YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET” and says, “My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore. No one is afraid of a painted monster.”

The new type of horror discussed by Orlok is the second narrative strand of the film, which follows Bobby Thompson, played by Tim O’Kelly, who is a clean-cut, square-jawed all-American young man who lives in the California suburbs. He is an insurance salesman from a good family, yet he decides to go on a killing spree with an arsenal of guns that he bought at the local gun shop.

The horror of Targets was ripped from the headlines of the time. The character of Bobby is an amalgamation of Charles Whitman, the notorious University of Texas tower shooter, and the lesser-known Michael Andrew Clark, who killed three people and injured eleven people when he began shooting motorists on Highway 101 in 1965. Targets turns the events of its time into a horror film that reflects on the seeming rise in violence in the late ‘60s, yet it serves as an interesting model of how to portray the monster that is the modern mass shooter or mass murderer without accidentally glamorizing the perpetrator of the crime.

The Problem with Covering Mass Shootings and Its Relationship to Film

Since September 11, many films have tried to address our fear of the outsider to our society who enters it and becomes an agent of chaos, destruction, and death in various ways. In the past ten years, this fear has transitioned to the mass shooter, who usually does not come from the outside. Instead, the mass shooter typically has been homegrown and feels a sense of alienation from society.

As we reflect on this modern phenomenon and our fear of it in film, we must be careful not to make the same errors as the media has made in covering mass shootings in the past twenty-one years. Mass shootings are good for ratings because disasters will always attract our attention. In addition, there is always the mystery of who is behind the shooting and what inspired him (most mass shooters have been male) to do it. The unintended consequence is that the shooter becomes infamous and appears, according to research, to inspire others.

No Sympathy For The Shooter: Contrasting TARGETS (1968) & JOKER (2019) In An Era Of Mass Shootings
Targers (1968) source: Warner Archive Collection

The question for filmmakers who want to deal with this issue is how to make a film that critiques the societal structures that allow this horror to exist without accidentally glamorizing the perpetrator of the crime. Targets provides an example of how to explore this phenomenon without falling into the pitfalls of a more recent film on this phenomenon like Joker (2019).

Sympathy for the Devil and the Failure of Joker

The Joker is portrayed as a monster in the early comic books. He was a disfigured serial killer who took pleasure in killing people. In Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the Joker returned to that role: in Burton’s Batman (1989), he was a lunatic serial killing who saw murder as an art form, and in Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), he is a symbol for the chaos of terrorism and was used to force the audience to reckon with the surveillance state post 9-11 through Batman’s response to his actions.

The Joker and other mass murderers in cinema can be defined as monsters because they serve the purpose of monsters. According to Asa Simon Mittman and Marcus Hensel in their introductory essay to “Classic Readings on Monster Theory”, “Monsters do perform important work for us as individuals and communities, policing our boundaries, defining our norms and mores through their inversions and transgressions. Through their bodies, words, and deeds, monsters show us ourselves” (p. x). The conflict between the Joker and Batman is supposed to be a conflict between good and evil—between chaos and order. The Joker shows us the depravity to which we can sink if we abandon all mores and all laws. The Joker both shows us the depths of evil and warns us of crossing certain boundaries.

The problem with the Joker since The Dark Knight, and even more so in Todd Phillips Joker, is that certain sections of our population have connected with the outsider nature of this character and have even seemed to connect to some of the nihilism within certain presentations of the character’s philosophy. People have misunderstood the abusive relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker as some form of relationship goal after Suicide Squad (2016). When Joker was released in 2019, my dread in seeing the film is that by turning the monster into the protagonist, one naturally has to build some form of empathy for the character, which can further confuse members of the audience who see the Joker as some form of anti-hero already.

PhillipsJoker suffers from ambiguity in places where it should be objective. Phillips constructs a narrative that is not meant to be trusted, yet he only shows us an objective perspective for one plot point of the film and allows the reasoning of the unreliable perspective to persist through all of the acts of violence and the reasoning behind the violence. The only plot point that reveals the unreliable perspective is when we find out that his relationship with the neighbor is a delusion. This provides the insight that maybe we should not trust the rest of the narrative, but Phillips doesn’t provide another moment that shatters the other possible delusions. Objectivity in other areas of the film could have been useful in completely deconstructing the delusions of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and providing a method for the audience to think through the delusions of the mass shooter in the film.

No Sympathy For The Shooter: Contrasting TARGETS (1968) & JOKER (2019) In An Era Of Mass Shootings
Joker (2019) – source: Warner Bros.

Philip’s Joker sets up a narrative that blames society for allowing an Arthur Fleck to become a Joker. The social services that should provide mental health counseling fail, the crime rate in the city skyrocket due to poverty and a lack of a social safety net, and the Child Protection Services of Gotham fail to properly protect the child Arthur Fleck from his own mother’s mental illness. While these criticisms of the U.S. government are reasonable and necessary and can and have created monsters like Arthur Fleck, the film in some ways justifies Fleck’s actions because the system failed him.

When Fleck commits his first three murders, the film presents the situation as a form of justice. The three Wall Street financiers are rude to Fleck and bully him. They represent the uncaring rich who are accumulating wealth while the poor of Gotham are sinking lower into poverty. By the end of the film, he is temporarily saved from arrest by a mob who are protesting economic inequality in the city and see his actions as those of a folk hero.

When Fleck kills his co-worker and the late-night host played by Robert De Niro, he is again portrayed as the underdog standing up to a couple of bullies. His final televised speech rings of countless manifestos left behind by mass shooters and the audience is left torn between sympathy for his underdog plight and horror at the actions of one who has mentally become completely deranged. Then, to further the ambiguity, the Joker dances in the midst of a rioting crowd at the end of the film as a victor; chaos has won and the wealthy and the ineffectual government employees are punished.

The film’s hesitancy to provide an objective view of De Niro‘s character and Fleck’s actual treatment is a flaw of the film because objectivity allows one to both feel the horror of the situation while also ensuring that Fleck is placed in the proper light. Once the film plays around with Arthur’s perspective and only provides one moment of objective clarity, the film becomes ambiguous and could lead to misinterpretation by someone who is experiencing similar ideations as Fleck.

Targets as a Corrective

Filmmakers that want to explore the issue of mass shootings through cinema could benefit from revisiting Targets because the film never falls into the empathy trap of Joker. In Targets, Peter Bogdanovich maintains objective distance from Bobby Thompson, the mass shooter. The two narratives of the film allow the audience to build a connection with the eventual victims of Bobby’s crimes while looking on in horror at Bobby’s actions.

The film establishes from the opening that our focus should be on the victims of the mass shooting rather than the shooter. The film opens with a screening of Orlok’s new film, which is actually 1963’s The Terror. In the screening on the day before the film’s opening, the audience meets the main characters of the film, Orlock; Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich), the writer who tries to convince Orlok to do one more film; and Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), who is Orlok’s secretary. Boris Karloff, who is much loved by horror fans, connects with the audience automatically. His voice is authoritative and soothing, and his feelings of being stuck in a rut and the problems that he causes his colleagues and friends pull the audience into the small drama of these character’s everyday lives.

In addition, within the first ten minutes of the film, the audience learns that Jenny is in a relationship with Michael, yet she plans to return to England with Orlok upon his retirement. A whole film could be made about the drama between these three characters and their conflicts and desires, but their narrative is interrupted when Bobby is introduced just as the lives of real victims are interrupted by the terror of these delusional men.

A Predator

The audience does not see Bobby when he is first introduced; instead, we see Orlok’s head within the circular target of one peering through a rifle scope. Then, the film cuts to the handsome Bobby Thompson, standing in a gun store, examining a scope on a rifle before purchasing it. This shot lets the audience know right away that Bobby is a predator, yet his report with the gun store owner is friendly and their knowledge of each other implies that he is a returning customer, which is verified by the horrifying scene when Bobby opens his trunk and places the newly purchased rifle with a large cache of various type of pistols.

No Sympathy For The Shooter: Contrasting TARGETS (1968) & JOKER (2019) In An Era Of Mass Shootings
Targets (1968) – source: Warner Archive Collection

The scenes that follow let the audience know that Bobby is already in the midst of planning the mass shooting that begins in the middle of the film. As he drives from the gun store to home, he looks at towers on the side of the interstate, which foreshadows where he will later set up a sniper’s nest and kill motorists. When he is target shooting with his dad, he points the rifle that he just purchased at his dad with his finger on the trigger and only stops when his father yells at him. Bogdanovich only enters Bobby’s point of view to let us see that he is looking at the world through the sights of a gun to build tension through dramatic irony for the audience rather than to build sympathy for the monster’s plight in the story.

Bogdanovich also suggests Bobby’s background without establishing any clear and definable motives for the crime. When he returns from the gunshop, we discover that he and his wife are living with his parents, which means that they are probably not bringing in enough money to live on their own despite the fact that she is a phone operator and he is an insurance salesman. The viewer sees a photo on the wall from when Bobby was in the army, but he is smiling in the picture and the film never mentions his service besides that glimpse, avoiding the trope of the PTSD veteran who is struggling to cope with his return to civilian life.

Bobby’s relationship with his wife and parents also seems healthy. He is friendly with his father and they make plans for future hunting trips. His mother worries that he is working too long and is generally nurturing, and his wife seems to generally love him and their relationship seems stable and happy. By providing no clear motive, Bogdanovich does not give Bobby an excuse for his crimes because there is no excuse. The audience understands that his life may not be perfect, it may not be what he wants, and he needs psychological treatment for whatever is motivating him, but Bogdanovich does not even hint that a single victim may have deserved it as Phillips does in Joker.

Connecting to the Victims

Bogdanovich also slows the film down enough so that the audience can connect to the victims. On the night before Bobby begins his series of murders, the family is portrayed watching TV together happily in the den. When Bobby shoots his wife the next day, she is approaching him with arms spread for a hug and does not see the gun. When she is shot, she is shocked by the act of betrayal. His mother, who rushes into the room to see what has happened, doesn’t have time to comprehend the scene before she is shot, and the grocery boy who was helping her freezes in fear and is shot before he clearly understands the situation.

Bobby then goes to the tower that he looked at earlier that overlooks a section of the interstate. In this scene, Bogdanovich both builds the tension of the scene by putting us into the viewfinder of the scope and showing the cars he focuses on but doesn’t shoot. Then, when he takes a shot, and a car swerves off the road, we look on in horror as chaos ensues. A woman, who is unaware of what has actually happened, rushes to the car to assist the first driver who was shot and is shot from behind. Other cars are shot at and some are hit and some are missed, and the audience, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, can only look on in terror and outrage that this is possible in America.

Bogdanovich slows down even more in the last thirty minutes of the film when the two strands of the narrative come together. Bobby escapes from the tower and eludes capture by police by running away to a drive-in movie where Orlok’s film is premiering and he, Sammy, and Jenny are supposed to be in attendance to promote the film. When Bobby pulls into the drive-in, he is the only one there besides the employees. He uses his isolation to find a sniper nest behind the screen as other cars begin to park.

Bogdanovich introduces you to many of the people who come to see the film. You see a mother monitoring her children near the playground area. Several parents and their kids arrive to see the film, packed into the front seats of their cars. Teenagers arrive for the privacy that the car and the darkness of the drive-in provide. Bogdanovich allows us to connect with people going about their daily lives without a fear in the world, preparing to enjoy a movie with their loved ones.

Both the tension from the dramatic irony and the pathos of the situation for the onscreen audience must have been at a zenith for those who saw this film in 1968 at the drive-in. For contemporary audiences, the scene is still difficult to watch because for too many times the aftermath of the same type of scene has appeared on the news and we reflexively imagine the horror of going about our lives and then suddenly being pinned down or killed by a mass shooter.

During a break in the shooting, when Bobby drops a box of bullets and has to move from his spot, Bogdanovich furthers our pathos for the victims by panning the camera over the drive-in audience again. The cars that were able to escape have cleared out, and many of the families and people that we watched buy popcorn and joke with their family and partners are now dead. In one shot, the camera returns to the car with a child who was brought by his father. The camera pans from his horror-stricken face that is looking toward the driver’s seat to his dead father.

No Room for Pity

In the final scenes of the film, Bogdanovich not only ensures that the audience sympathizes with the victims but also ensures that the mass shooter is seen for what he really is. Orlok arrives at the drive-in late, and within a couple of minutes realizes a lot of cars are leaving. He is unaware that shooting is happening, and he and his assistant get out of their car. He sees Bobby as he is moving positions behind the screen and says, “That man has a rifle,” just before his assistant Jenny is shot in the shoulder. Orlok is both afraid and enraged. He takes his cane and walks toward the shooter who grazes his head with a bullet.

No Sympathy For The Shooter: Contrasting TARGETS (1968) & JOKER (2019) In An Era Of Mass Shootings
Targets (1968) – source: Warner Archive Collection

Bobby becomes confused as Orlok approaches him both on-screen through the film and in real life. He runs out of bullets as Orlok reaches him and hits him with a cane, knocking a second gun from his hand. He smacks Bobby multiple times in the face, and then Bobby curls up against the wall. Orlok looks down on Bobby with a disgusted look and says, “Is that all I was afraid of.”

In this final scene, Bogdanovich leaves no room for pity for Bobby. None of Bobby’s actions can be misconstrued as heroic or as revenge for some past fault. Instead, the heroes of the film are the common people who while under fire turned on their headlights to blind the shooter and Orlok who risked his life to approach and disarm the shooter, ending Bobby’s reign of violence.

The True Heroes

In ninety minutes Bogdanovich directs the audience’s attention toward what should be our focus after these incidents. He makes an argument that guns and mass amounts of ammo are too easily accessible in the United States, he makes an argument for the need for broad access to mental health professionals, and he praises the true heroes of these incidents—the people who stop the violence. Most importantly, he provides a guide for future filmmakers who are unfortunately still trying to find ways to grapple with the issue of mass shootings in the U.S.

Bogdanovich highlights systematic failure while reminding us that the monsters who commit this crime are not to be obsessed over; they are objects of our mutual disgust.

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