Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why "The Dark Knight" Shouldn't Be Called a Masterpiece ... At Least Not Yet

Forgive the breach of protocol, but since no one is commenting on “Gates of Heaven” yet, I thought I’d respond to some great feedback I received about my "Dark Knight" review from Barrett Hilton and Chris Barragan, two film lovers whom I respect. The entirety of their comments is listed beneath my retort.

And neither of you needs to be apologetic about your dissenting opinions; I welcome opposing views. That’s partly what this site is for — for us to “consider the cinema” together. And Barrett, you’re the Batman to my Joker: I’m thankful for your critiques of this critic; in fact, I count on them. That being said, as much as I appreciate both of your comments, I’m still going to proceed to debate with you and defend my initial position (despite my admittance of still having much to learn).

Once I wanted a blue guitar. The first pretty, blue guitar I saw at the first music store I went to is the one I bought. (I’m glad I didn’t select my wife this way.) And it was a pretty, blue guitar. But after becoming acquainted with it, I learned its faults and flaws on an intimate level, insomuch that I become quite dissatisfied with it. But I didn’t learn my lesson yet.

Last summer I saw “Transformers,” and I must admit, I was blown away. I wanted to rate it as a masterpiece. In fact, I may have for a brief second, but I quickly came to my senses. Just a day or two later, as I thought on “Transformers” again, I realized that I had been seduced by the glamour and glitz of Tinseltown magic. It was a big, flashy, splashy, popcorn-selling blockbuster, and I was carried away by it. About a week later I saw “Transformers” again and enjoyed it much less, similar to my cooled sentiments toward that blue guitar.

The point is this: Even though both of you advised me to “follow my heart” and just give in and rate “The Dark Knight” as a masterpiece, I am wary of such hasty decisions. Setting its controversial nature aside, when “Citizen Kane” was released, many viewers thought it was “just OK.” And when “Bonnie & Clyde” was released in ’67, many critics hated it. But “Citizen Kane” turned out to be the film that many people call the greatest film of all time, and “Bonnie & Clyde” marked a historical shift in the violence portrayed in American cinema, thus becoming one of the great motion pictures of the ‘60s and filmdom at large.

Movies, like people, need time to prove their greatness; when you first meet a guy, do you decide right that minute if he’s a trustworthy person? I hope not. It is always prudent to let the smoke clear (especially in today’s flashy cinema) and re-assess what we’ve been given. “The Dark Knight” is, without question, an excellent film — especially for the superhero movie genre. Indeed, I called it the masterpiece of the genre. That’s still good, right? But to hand out “masterpiece” ratings like they were Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets won’t further the cause of film criticism: What if the imperfections of “The Dark Knight” were remedied and the next film were essentially flawless? How might we distinguish between the two, having already crowned “The Dark Knight” with the loftiest rating of all?

“The Dark Knight” might be a masterpiece, but it’s too early for any of us to tell. Here’s a challenge, if you’re interested: Write down all your burstings about your love and admiration for this film. Seal it in an envelope and read it a year later. Tell me how you feel after some water has passed under the bridge. When I reread my own reviews from just six months ago, I often cringe. I don’t think we can be trusted, at first blush, to ascertain whether a film is truly a masterpiece, because the cinema is so powerful; after all, it’s a several-senses experience. It is wiser to ruminate on the matter, considering a movie’s merit after our initial infatuation has worn off.

Regarding films being too lengthy (or not), one time Roger Ebert (my unwitting mentor) said a great movie is one that can be watched over and over and still seem fresh and new with each viewing. We must disagree somewhat on the fundamental definition of a masterpiece. And I guess that’s my fault. Or Barrett’s fault. Or Chris’s fault. None of us ever took the time to establish our criteria for what constitutes a masterpiece. We’ll do that on this site someday soon.

But considering Ebert’s description of a great film above, in order for a movie to be considered a masterpiece, I think it should be one that can be lovingly re-watched, again and again, without boring its viewer. Tell me, honestly, if either of you wouldn’t grow weary of “The Dark Knight” during its lengthy, cumbersome set-up for its labyrinthine plotline. I didn’t look at the time, exactly, but at about 45 minutes into “The Dark Knight,” it loses significant momentum and even lulls a bit. That’s fine for a drama, but let’s remember that this is a superhero flick. That is a noteworthy strike against a movie whose objective is to be an action movie. Why do you think most people hated “Hulk” (2003)?

Yes, I loved “King Kong” (2005), Barrett, but it’s too long, as well. Yep, I would have watched that movie three more times since it was released if it weren’t so long. I have considered popping it into my DVD player, but then I’d think, ‘I sure love this movie, but it’s awfully long.’ Just because a filmmaker has the ability to make a long film and make it well, doesn’t mean that he or she should. Remember that, Barrett, as a general rule when you make your own films: Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Dare I conclude that you two are spellbound and infatuated with “The Dark Knight” right now? Yes, methinks you are … which is nothing to be ashamed of. We all love a pretty, blue guitar.

Barrett Hilton previously wrote:

Regarding your review of "The Dark Knight," here's where I play Gene to your Roger:

What is this too long business? How short does a movie have to be to be considered a masterpiece? We can throw out The Godfathers I and II because they're close to 3 hours. I've seen them each maybe 8 to 10 times. What about Keneth Branagh's "Hamlet" clocking in at 4 hours. It's a masterpiece and I've seen it probably five times. What about "Heat?" That movie is incredible, and I've watched it several times. Finally, what about my beloved "The Thin Red Line?" I will punch anyone in the shoulder who says that movie's too long. If you can pick 30 seconds from that film that are throw-awayable then you have no soul.

So maybe you are feeling that a comic book movie isn't in the same class as the above mentioned. This could explain your theory that a long movie isn't good for multiple viewings like other shorter, more blockbustery type movies. Well, what about your beloved "King Kong" which mosies like no other monster movie ever? You don't think it's fun to watch over and over? What about the Harry Potter movies and the later Star Wars movies and even "Titanic," all of which audiences saw over and over and over making them some of the highest grossing films ever--and they're all "long." I have watched my "Lord of the Rings" trilogy several times, and I think others have as well.

Here's my point: a movie should be as long as it should be. You clearly loved "The Dark Knight," so why does the length bother you? Are you worried about speaking for the average American viewer with ADD? Well, judging by the audiences I saw the film with, nobody was remotely bored. I have never whitnessed such unanimous audience joy at a movie in my life as was present at the opening day showing I saw of "The Dark Knight." I really think people don't mind watching long movies as long as they like them.

If you thought it was too complicated or Two Face too shallow, then that's a real critique. I for one am tired of people complaining that movies are too long. Forget about wherever you think you need to go afterwords. Just get some popcorn, sit back and savor the movie. Sure you could argue that some scenes could be cut, but why? They're all brilliantly executed and relevant, so enjoy them, and stop looking at your watch.

"The Dark Knight" is a masterpiece--a pop-culture phenominon and artistic achievment that deserves a spot among the best films of all time. I refuse to let the comic book stigma convince me otherwise. So don't fight it man, let it be a masterpiece.

ps- The Two-Face portrayal was brilliant, and Batman invented the self-reflective and questioning superhero, so it can't be a cliche for starters, for enders, what about Batman's experience felt ingenuine to you? If nothing, then who cares if it's been done before. A cliche is something that you borrow from everyone else to avoid having to think. Artful, poiniant story telling is taking the same stories that have been told over and over and making them special and unique.

These are all my opinions of course. Just be warned, I'm going to pounce like an attack dog on anyone who has anything remotely negative to say about this movie which I couldn't have loved more if it was dredged in buttermilk and flower and deep-fried in peanut oil.

Your pal


p.p.s. I assume you take all this as fun and friendly exchanging of strong opinions not in any way intended to belittle your review or to imply that I think I'm smarter than you. I upset people sometimes, so I wanted to post this disclaimer. I think you're a very talented film critic whose more than up for a spirited academic argument.

Chris Barragan previously wrote:

Jason, I enjoy your reviews. I created the "Lazy Pants Movie Club" as a spinoff of both Brooke Eaton's "Smarty Pants Book Club" and your move review blog. If you go to the blog site you'll see that your even a link. That being said, I think that re-evaluation of your review maybe in order.

Now I won't tell you your business, I like that you have great opinions on movies. "The Dark Knight" an instant classic. I'd like you to read my thoughts on my blog to get more to the heart of why I thought the movie was a classic. The length is perfectly adequate. As for the Lord of The Rings Trilogy I can't sit through one without getting itchy let alone three.

They are great movies but There length is evident as you're watching them. I personally did not feel that with "The Dark Knight". If anything I thought the movie had an ending that was well timed and allowed for us to know that it was okay to take a break from Batman for a little bit.I had a conversation with Craig Tovey today about the movie and we both agreed that the movie completely transcends comic book movies.

It was such a refreshing movie because it was so gritty and yet so thought-provoking. What do you compromise to be good? What is a hero? Who says that guy should be allowed to be a vigilante and not me? Should one man die so we can save a hospital? Which ferry's fate will it be? Should we lie so that the public knows he was always the "White Knight"? (I almost want to say "we'll find out next time. Same bat-time, same bat-channel")

I loved Heath Ledger from his introduction he immediately established himself as a perfect evil menace. I loved that we don't know his past. He told us how he was scarred and it was so convincing. Then he completely mocked our trust in him by sharing such a compelling yet different tale on his scarred face. Not a single actor in this movie failed. It didn't get cheesy, it didn't hold back. It didn't tie up every question but it didn't have to.

There is not a better movie this year and I venture to say that it has a strong shot for an oscar. As you mentioned Ledger is well deserving. The Academy is smart enough to know and the public is smart enough to know that he won that trophy well before he died. He shadows over Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter. It was an amazing film.

Come on give it a "Masterpiece" you know it will feel so good to do it. Oh and Watch "Return of the King" and tell me that it can really hold a candle to this movie. The Rings Trilogy did what it had to. It made a perfect retelling of Tolkien's works. "The Dark Knight" however stands alone, apart from "Batman Begins" as a Masterpiece.

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