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.