If you’ve been online in the last 12 hours, you’re well aware of the tragic destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral currently taking place in Paris. I was watching a live feed of the fire on Youtube during work, which had over 240k active viewers. The loss of life was minimal, thankfully, but the loss of culture is irreplaceable.
But as I was watching, I was struck by something – the news commentator mentioned that they have a shot of the spire of the cathedral collapsing. Within the span of five minutes, they must have replayed that shot four times. Was it powerful? Yes. And for those just tuning in, it was a sobering update as to just how devastating the fire was. But as they kept re-using the footage, and even commented that they were re-using it, I couldn’t help but think of a movie that I had just watched a few days prior: Nightcrawler.
Nightcrawler is about a man named Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who finds a niche in becoming a cameraman. Not just any cameraman though, one who listens to police scanners at midnight so he can be the first to capture the grisly aftermath of a fresh crime scene. If he gets to a scene too late, he wasted a drive. If he gets there before other cameramen, or even before the cops, he can sell the footage to the morning news for a handsome price. After all, what news studio doesn’t want first-hand footage of a murder scene?
Now, I’m not trying to equate the morality of what Louis does to what today’s newscasters did in describing Notre Dame. Showing footage of a couple murdered in their home is undeniably more gruesome and less moral than footage of a national icon being destroyed. Yet the underlying principle is the same – how can tragedy be capitalized upon for maximum viewer impact? How can we show a ‘perfect shot’ of a car-jacking that encapsulates the rise in inner city crime? Or, how can we show a ‘perfect shot’ of the spire collapsing, one that encapsulates the moment of irredeemable loss?
What I hated about Nightcrawler was that Louis’s character was utterly unlikable, and the lengths he goes to for ‘quality footage’ is nauseating. What I love about Nightcrawler, especially in light of today’s tragedy, is that it raised a thought-provoking question that I’m still contemplating three days later. Was it really Louis’s fault? Wasn’t he responding to market forces that demand visceral video? Wasn’t he trying to fill a hole in people’s lives for real-life trauma caught on film? Can you blame him?
Nightcrawler, much like the footage Louis captures, shows the unpleasant side of life – one that we ‘don’t want to think about’, yet secretly enjoy watching on TV. As I watched the movie (to my friends’ annoyance), I kept shouting at Louis how terrible he was. But I didn’t look away. And as I watched the fire earlier this morning, I was inwardly furious that the news anchor so blatantly commented that ‘we captured a perfect shot of the collapse’. But I didn’t look away as the spire fell.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to the question of how best to respond to social tragedy, whether it’s healthy to watch the world be destroyed. I would argue that it’s cathartic, but only to a certain extent – and defining ‘to a certain extent’ is the root issue. Nightcrawler offers no easy solutions, and indeed seems nihilistic in its approach. But in depicting Louis as such a vile symptom of a broken audience, it stirs us to at least acknowledge that we have a problem, which is necessary if we’re ever going to solve it. Maybe it’s healthy to watch video of today’s destruction, for closure, for solidarity, for honesty. But let’s also remember the Cathedral in its former beauty – that’s the ‘perfect shot’ we need for the long-term.