Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who Speaks for the People?

I'm going to say it: The Dark Knight did not impress. Yes, of course, I thought Heath Ledger's turn as the fledgling Joker was an impressive performance. (And, yes, of course it's a tragedy that Heath Ledger is no longer with us.) I know I'm going to sound a bit like a broken record here, since I already made this same complaint about the film There Will Be Blood a few weeks ago, but I still maintain that a single compelling performance, even by a first-rate actor, is not enough to carry a film if there isn't an equally compelling narrative context in which to situate said performance. The Dark Knight was sloppily edited, disjointed, overly ambitious, and weighted down with some of the worst dialogue ever penned by Hollywood. (And that's saying something!) The darkness-that-could-have-been-brilliance in it was merely dark. Admittedly, I have to give The Dark Knight a little more leeway in my criticism than I allowed There Will Be Blood, since at least one of the themes of the film involved the fundamentally disruptive power of "chaos" (so I suppose some kind of "performativity" argument could be made here), but the chaotic filming and the chaotic storytelling actually lessened the effect of what chaos means, in my view, instead of staging a real confrontation between sense and nonsense.

But this is not going to be a film review...

As you no doubt know already, The Dark Knight has received almost unanimous critical acclaim. Almost. Accompanying me in the despised minority who didn't like the recent Batman installment is film critic for New York Magazine (as well as NPR's Fresh Air and CBS's Sunday Morning), David Edelstein. Edelstein offered his (rather tame) criticism of The Dark Knight in an article for New York Magazine a couple of weeks ago... after which, the gates of holy hell were unleashed on him by Batmaniacs near and far. Receiving so much hate mail from raging fans of the film, Edelstein was forced to write a second essay in response. And this is where things get interesting. In his second essay, Edelstein writes:

Why — apart from narcissistic injury — do I respond to the abuse? Because there has been a lot of chatter in the last few years that criticism is a dying profession, having been supplanted by the democratic voices of the Web. Not to get all Lee Siegel on you, but the Internet has a mob mentality that can overwhelm serious criticism. There is superb film writing in blogs and discussion groups — as good as anything I do. But there are also thousands of semi-literate tirades that actually reinforce the Hollywood status quo, that say: “If you do not like The Dark Knight (or The Phantom Menace), you should be fired because you do not speak for the people.”

Well, the people don’t need to be spoken for. And a critic’s job is not only to steer you to movies you might not have heard of or that died at the box office. It’s also to bring a different, much-needed perspectives on blockbusters like The Dark Knight.

Now, I don't want to over-inflate the significance of this rather mundane exchange between a film critic and his readers-- especially not an exchange over a film as mundane as The Dark Knight-- but I think that Edelstein has really put his finger on something significant about the role of public intellectuals. Critics are not politicians. Critics are not "representatives." To paraphrase Edelstein, if "the people" are looking to be "spoken for," they should call up their politicians and representatives and tell them to do their jobs, because speaking for the people is not the job of a critic. The job of a critic is, ironically, much closer to what Batman does-- trying to effect justice before-and-beyond the laws of mass consensus. The job of a critic is, often, to compel the people to critically reflect on who they are trusting to speak for them.

There's a quote, attributed to Lord Chancellor Baron Brougham, that says: "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." I say, replace "education" with "crticism" in that passage, and you can see the beginnings of the critical intellectual's responsibility to his or her people.

Criticism may very well be, as Edelstein fears, a "dying profession." But I, for one, am encouraged to see a gasping, dying protest like his.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Of course, you'd say that. Just yesterday you told us that you hated democracy.

DOCTOR J said...

Holy crap, Ideas Man. Between your comment and the comment by melanie yesterday, I fear my people are turning on me...

Brunson said...

Personally, I was satisfied overall, but a bit disappointed in Two-Face. That is, Aaron Eckhart is pretty good (hell, I liked him even in The Core), but Two-Face is also of two MINDS, so I wanted to see "Harvey" and "Two-Face" argue with each other/himself. I don't see why schizophrenia (properly, Dissociative Identity Disorder) wouldn't fit the realism established for Nolan's Bat-verse.
On the other hand, I am surprised that you didn't comment on the need to lie to the public about Harvey's descent into vigilantism. Why do we need to believe that (at least some of) our elected officials are superhuman, when really they are people like us, perfectly capable of going a bit bonkers after a really bad day.
Perhaps the most important line of (often clunky) dialogue is the Joker's incredulity that Batman would believe that the Joker would bet the battle for the soul of Gotham on a fistfight.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Turn on you? Never. I just figured that since I've never read Ranciere nor have I seen the new batman movie, I'd be the perfect (ideally democratic) critic of criticism.

Hamilton said...

Masses be damned. This movie was horrible. I find it interesting that in a vain attempt to pay homage to a rising star who has passed away, people and critics alike are giving this movie so much as a pass (much less the rave reviews it has received). Why is it that when someone dies so many people feel the deep seeded need to enshrine everything that person took part in (other performances not withstanding)? Perhaps Heath’s depression had a little something to do with the direction in which he saw this film taking his career. Critique on David (and J). I'm sure Heath won't mind.

christophresh said...

Huh. Much to say. First, I think I can say, as a former Fanboy, that none of what I have seen discussed here admits that this is a GENRE film: that it obeys laws of genre that are not reducible to politics, for instance. It is a comic book (movie) movie. So, for instance, re: Brunson's comment, the film is not talking Directly about Our need for Pure elected officials, so much as it is talking about the need of Heroes (that is, comic book heroes) to be pure. Because, a Hero in the strict sense is pure; Batman himself, not a hero but a vigilante, does not need to be pure. Harvey D is a "White Knight"; a pure knight. Not Pure?= not a white Knight, not 'Harvey Dent' but just a guy named dent.

DrJ: one performance is not NOT not enough to carry a film: I'm with you 100%. a brush stroke cannot carry a painting: we forget this when confronted by a face, especially a dead face

and, way bad editing. Never enough time to register the new information, or the 'new message about terrorism', the new back-stabber, etc.

which speaks to the fact, that, as DrJ said, the movie is over-ambitious, and tries to discuss (not limited to the following) justice, extra-judicial justice, corruption (and it's legitimation: sick mommies), mass action, crime, war, today's war, terrorism, terrorism-as-chaos, cops vs. lawyers, the darkness of man (man is a beast to man), loss, blame, servitude,,,,,, for days, right?

What are examples of this terrifically terrible dialogue? I believe there must be some; I don't recall any.

DrJ, I sort of like your point about the role of critics.
Yes, critics, no less than artists (or philosophers...) need not respond to demands (terroristic demands? !?!?!) from the multitude. But politicians don't really address films, music, etc. qua flim, music, etc,- do they?
I mean, Lieberman can shit talk rap all he wants, but he is obviously not addressing it as a form of art, or even as entertainment, but instead treats it as a political issue (it harms 'the children!').
So the poli's and the critics do not have anything like an overlapping function; the people are not in the dilemma of EITHER asking the critics OR the poli's for input on Batman. In terms of discussion of a film (not discussion of a political football) they can only rely upon critics.

1) which is not to say that the critics are therefore beholden to 'the people'
2) but, in a roundabout (and totally awesome) way, brings us back to the point that---
although we live in highly political times (war, elections, general despair among 'the people'), this movie is not to be analyzed on exclusivelypolitical terms, but also the forms of film and the forms of the genre.

DOCTOR J said...

Hamilton: In his original piece, Edelstein also made mention of the (very possible, but obviously non-verifiable) relationship between Ledger's tortured performance in the film and his untimely death. And Edelstein's readers pretty much strung him up for saying that, too.

Christophresh: I'm not sure that taking note of The Dark Knight as a comic-book/graphic-novel/genre film really saves it from my criticisms... unless you want to say that films in that genre don't need to be well-edited, well-written, or reliant on something other than decontextualized compelling performances.

Now, I'm not a comic book expert, so I don't pretend to know the "laws of genre...not reducible to politics" that you say this film was not obligated to obey. However, the little I do know about the comic book character of Batman leads me to believe that he is a highly "politicized" character-- and that he is meant to be "read" that way. If a Batman movie came out that was basically just a love story, or an adventure tale, with NO thematic political content, I suspect that "real fans" of the genre would complain more about that. But, again, I'm probably out of my depth in that conversation... and besides, I wasn't really making any claims about how The Dark Knight *should* be analyzed (either in political terms or in the terms of film/genre form). I was just agreeing with Edelstein that the measure of a good critic is not how faithfully she echoes popular sentiment.

Last thing, re: politicians vs. critics... I don't really think that it's ALWAYS (or SIMPLY) the job of politicians/representatives to echo popular sentiment, either. But if the complaint we're considering here is as Edelstain formulates it (i.e., "you're not speaking for the people!"), then I think that complaint is better and more appropriately directed at (political) "representatives" than it is at crtics. A critic who feels inclined to temper or modify her Kritik because it is not in line with popular opinion is just a hack or shill... and since nobody else is talking/thinking seriously about film, music, art--and, yes, even politics--then we need the critics to resist.

Brunson said...

I wasn't criticizing the need for Harvey Dent to be a hero so much as pointing out my surprise that others are not criticizing the message. Within genre conventions, however, why did Batman save the Joker's life, but seemed fairly untroubled by knocking Two-Face off a building? Was there no other way to save Jim Gordon Jr.? This goes to the editing point as well - did Two-Face die, or is Dent's funeral at the end a broader cover-up?

Bryan said...

At least there wasn't a bat-card like Clooney had.