In Response To Jim Emerson: Don't Penalize Dark Knight For Popularity

Late last week I published an editorial titled: Note to Awards Givers: Ignore the Dark Knight At Your Own Peril. In the past few days that particular story has been flooded with comments; some of which we were able to publish, some little better than half-crazed death threats, all of which support the assertion that not only does The Dark Knight not deserve awards, but it’s the worst movie of the year.

Today we discovered the source of all this surprising distaste for The Dark Knight by following those commenters back to their lair, at the blog of well known Roger Ebert cohort and excellent film reviewer Jim Emerson. His readers found their way to CB via a passionate response to my editorial written by Mr. Emerson himself who, should not be blamed for the somewhat violent responses of a few unstable readers. Have you read our comments section lately? It’s not pretty.

Mr. Emerson disagrees with my opinion on many points and, since he went through the trouble to write up such an excellent (though extremely sarcastic) response, it seems only fair that I do the same for him. I love a good debate.

He starts his argument with the assertion that box office success should be enough for TDK saying sarcastically, “Success is no longer its own reward. At least not according to some partisans of The Dark Knight. Fame, critical approbation, unimaginable riches, pop-cultural impact -- they are inadequate achievements. The picture must be showered with year-end awards consistent with the all-consuming Batmania of last July, no matter what else was released in 2008. Dammit.”

This is exactly the attitude I was attempting to address in my own rant on the subject. I think Jim’s viewpoint here is a fairly common one, particularly among a lot of awards voters who may feel that The Dark Knight has received enough acclaim. To me that shouldn’t matter. Bottom line, it all comes back to what you believe the real purpose of these end of year awards is. Do they exist to reward the best movies of the year or highlight the best movies of the year that haven’t already gotten recognition? I think it’s the former, Mr. Emerson apparently thinks it’s the latter and would penalize The Dark Knight because it’s been seen by a lot of people.

Maybe his viewpoint is the right one, Mr. Emerson’s critical pedigree is far superior to my own. However, I suspect that the average newspaper buyer or Jim Emerson reader would be shocked to discover that “Best Picture” doesn’t actually mean “Best Picture”, but rather “Best Picture that didn’t make any money”.

Emerson goes on to characterize my piece as a series of threats I’m issuing against his profession. Mr. Emerson please understand that I’m not the one making the threats. It’s our readers who have us (and I do mean us) by the balls. Your colleagues are being fired, shut down, kicked out. The film critic is dying and I submit that it’s attitudes exactly like this which are killing him. Without readers you, I, and every writer on the planet cannot exist. Emerson however insinuates that it’s people like me who are killing the profession, tearing it down from the inside. Interestingly, it’s not critics like me who are quickly becoming unemployed. It’s critics like him. I’m not happy about it and I’d rather live in a world where there’s room for both, but I don’t sign their paychecks.

He also takes issue with my assertion that The Dark Knight “is fast becoming the new mold from which all future movies will be poured,” and wonders “what all movies will look like once they have been poured into it.” I don’t know Jim, but some time in 2009 we’ll find out. I’m not sure how much you actually follow industry news, most old media critics only give cursory attention to what’s happening with the industry outside of what they actually see on screen. It’s a luxury no internet writer can afford, since in addition to reviewing films we spend our days reporting on them as well. My brain is by necessity filled to the brim with Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 facts, surely I deserve your pity. Since The Dark Knight’s mega-success over the summer barely a day goes by without some filmmaker proclaiming his upcoming movie to be “like The Dark Knight” or some studio pronouncing that they’ll pattern their newest mega-franchise after what Christopher Nolan did with Batman. Things they are a changing, and they’re changing into Batman.

Here though we get past the snide restating of my post to the real meat of Jim’s response. He says of what I wrote, “Tyler implies that the function of a critic is to choose between cultural phenomena and "some undeserved indie-film agenda."

No Jim, that’s not what I’m implying at all. Those are two separate points. Point one: The Dark Knight is a cultural phenomenon. Point two: Voters should vote for the best film, not the best indie film. That’s what I mean by indie-film agenda. In your first paragraph you made it clear where you stand on this issue and it seems we’re simply on opposite sides. This isn’t so much about The Dark Knight as it is about the broader issue of honest voting. Every award from the Golden Globes to the Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics Association claims to reward the best movie of the year. You however have all but admitted you vote not for which film is best, but which film hasn’t already had success. That’s what I’m getting at here, popularity is beside the point and was only mentioned as evidence that indeed, many of the people voting for these awards love The Dark Knight. If they love it, why aren’t they voting for it?

I am however delighted that a few moneymakers like WALL-E have managed to cut through the popularity bias you support to win awards this year. Unfortunately wins for movies like WALL-E have been extremely rare so far and let’s face it, we all know that Heath Ledger almost certainly wouldn’t be racking up nearly as many wins were he not in fact, dead. I’m not suggesting here that The Dark Knight should win every award or for that matter even be guaranteed any wins. I’m only suggesting that it ought to be in the conversation and so far, for the most part, it isn’t. Why isn’t it? Because all too many awards voters feel as you do, that The Dark Knight has had enough success.

Josh Tyler