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Have passions cooled? Can we discuss calmly? Without dispute The Dark Knight was the big story of the cinematic summer, which is the same as saying the big money of the summer, $500 million domestic and counting. A movie doesn’t ascend into that empyrean without ascending also into the rare air of a religious revival, a Great Awakening, an E.T., a Titanic, a Lord of the Rings. Passions simmer and seethe. There’s no reasoning with people in the throes of such rapture.

On the one hand I might want to assert that these are sham religions, but the other hand finds something touching about it: the craving, the yearning, the needing. Ever since the conceptualization of the “event-movie,” a mere movie can’t quite fill the bill. Moviegoers en masse don’t even seem to want movies these days. They want something more, something they’re missing. Paradoxically, one of the things they’re missing is movies. Movie-movies, that is to say, movies like they don’t make them anymore. And the new industry of the event-movie, the ongoing quest to heighten, deepen, broaden, lengthen, strengthen the experience, can only take the moviegoer further away. But that’s a large subject.

Let’s get back to The Dark Knight. And let’s not pretend there would have been anywhere near as much hoo-hah around it if not for the pre-release death of its Joker, Heath Ledger. We can never know how big the story would have been, how big the money, were it not for that. And because we can never know, I’m free to speculate that while it would have been guaranteeably big, it would not have been significantly bigger (if at all) than the Indiana Jones film, the Hulk film, Iron Man, Hancock, WALL-E. It had been anointed in advance. This was The One to see. A viewing of the body. A canonization of the martyr. A sacred rite.

The question we might hash out on solider ground is that of how big was Heath Ledger. Granted he had made a splash in Brokeback Mountain — a right-place-at-the-right-time cannonball — and he already had been established as something of a hunk. Still, the subsequent Casanova hardly convened a sizable congregation, and Candy barely got an airing. (I missed it altogether. Did it play in San Diego?) Before Brokeback, there was no gathering flock to be discerned around The Brothers Grimm, The Order, The Four Feathers, A Knight’s Tale. He was pretty much just another pretty face, first brought to wide attention as a sacrificial lamb to Mel Gibson’s masochism in The Patriot. It’s a marvel what a drug overdose can do.

Had it been Christian Bale who perished beforehand, as opposed to (allegedly) assaulting his mother and sister in the midst of the promo tour, would The Dark Knight have been exactly as big? (Surely Ledger commanded a somewhat more ardent following.) Had it been Robert Downey, Jr., would Iron Man have been bigger? Or would Hancock, had it been Will Smith? These questions are unanswerable, and probably, in polite society, unaskable. My own preferred point of reference would be the unhypothetical River Phoenix, who died under mysterious circumstances (meaning mysterious drug influences) on the street outside a Hollywood nightspot in 1993 at the age of twenty-three, half a dozen years younger even than Ledger. In my memory, Phoenix was at that time an arguably bigger figure than was Ledger at the beginning of this year. And yet Phoenix’s just completed The Thing Called Love, by Peter Bogdanovich, got no added bounce (it never made it to San Diego), and his posthumous Silent Tongue, by Sam Shepard, went straight to video.

Now, admittedly The Thing Called Love, although a decent little movie, was not a Batman movie; and superhero mythologies, savior mythologies, do tend to tap latent religiosity. (Craving, yearning.) But much of the difference, I would postulate, can be seen solely as a measure of the increase in media rapacity over fifteen years, and commensurate increase in public rapacity. The difference, to put it another way, is the measure not of a bigger star, but of a bigger spotlight.

Item: Anna Nicole Smith, a Marilyn Monroe wannabe, dies of (wouldn’t you know?) a drug overdose a year earlier, and the media, as if to make up for their laxity in 1962, carry on as if she actually were Marilyn Monroe. How much more could the media have done for the Real Thing? Item two: a summer ago, the public seemingly couldn’t get (or be given) enough of Lindsay Lohan, for reasons founded on mug shots and pantyless paparazzi shots, and yet practically no one got in line to see her in Georgia Rule or I Know Who Killed Me. These were not event-movies, but even so. You might have thought, or I anyhow might have thought, that the mug shots and paparazzi shots were of interest in proportion to the interest in her movies. But I, or we, would have been mistaken. They were of interest, quite precisely, out of proportion. Tangible evidence, should any be required, that there really are no movie stars anymore, only celebrities. (If Brad Pitt is going to do The Assassination of Jesse James, he might as well be Dermot Mulroney. If Angelina Jolie is going to do A Mighty Heart, she might as well be Julie Delpy. No one is going to come.) For all practical purposes, mug shots and paparazzi shots will serve as well as movies. And please don’t bring up James Dean as a point of reference for Heath Ledger. James Dean was a movie star. They were extant then.

I urged earlier that we not pretend The Dark Knight would have been as big without a dead Ledger, and for certain it would be worth our while to isolate and separate the Ledger factor if we want to talk about the movie per se as distinct from the cultural phenomenon. But in truth the entire phenomenon, movie included, smacks powerfully of pretending. Working ourselves up, convincing ourselves, deceiving ourselves. (Craving, yearning, again.) A large part of all that pretending is making believe that the late actor’s performance is a great performance rather than only a grandiose performance: the Oscar drums begin to beat. (Related item from outside the movie world, though not outside the celebrity world: we have to pretend that John Edwards was within a hair’s breadth of the Presidential nomination in order to spice up the commonplace tale of his extramarital dalliance.) I can’t, and I didn’t, go along. I honestly fail to see how anyone can feel any kind of excitement in The Dark Knight, much less keep it going into the light of day.

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Russ Lewis Sept. 5, 2008 @ 1:30 a.m.

Dylan at a casino? You sure you got that right, Josh? Which casino? I thought it was at the Concerts on the Green or some such place in Emission Valley.

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aescaffi Sept. 5, 2008 @ 3:59 p.m.

And this part:

Now, admittedly The Thing Called Love, although a decent little movie, was not a Batman movie; and superhero mythologies, savior mythologies, do tend to tap latent religiosity. (Craving, yearning.) But much of the difference, I would postulate, can be seen solely as a measure of the increase in media rapacity over fifteen years, and commensurate increase in public rapacity. The difference, to put it another way, is the measure not of a bigger star, but of a bigger spotlight.

Item: Anna Nicole Smith, a Marilyn Monroe wannabe, dies of (wouldn’t you know?) a drug overdose a year earlier, and the media, as if to make up for their laxity in 1962, carry on as if she actually were Marilyn Monroe. How much more could the media have done for the Real Thing? Item two: a summer ago, the public seemingly couldn’t get (or be given) enough of Lindsay Lohan, for reasons founded on mug shots and pantyless paparazzi shots, and yet practically no one got in line to see her in Georgia Rule or I Know Who Killed Me. These were not event-movies, but even so. You might have thought, or I anyhow might have thought, that the mug shots and paparazzi shots were of interest in proportion to the interest in her movies. But I, or we, would have been mistaken. They were of interest, quite precisely, out of proportion. Tangible evidence, should any be required, that there really are no movie stars anymore, only celebrities. (If Brad Pitt is going to do The Assassination of Jesse James, he might as well be Dermot Mulroney. If Angelina Jolie is going to do A Mighty Heart, she might as well be Julie Delpy. No one is going to come.) For all practical purposes, mug shots and paparazzi shots will serve as well as movies. And please don’t bring up James Dean as a point of reference for Heath Ledger. James Dean was a movie star. They were extant then.

I urged earlier that we not pretend The Dark Knight would have been as big without a dead Ledger, and for certain it would be worth our while to isolate and separate the Ledger factor if we want to talk about the movie per se as distinct from the cultural phenomenon. But in truth the entire phenomenon, movie included, smacks powerfully of pretending. Working ourselves up, convincing ourselves, deceiving ourselves. (Craving, yearning, again.) A large part of all that pretending is making believe that the late actor’s performance is a great performance rather than only a grandiose performance: the Oscar drums begin to beat. (Related item from outside the movie world, though not outside the celebrity world: we have to pretend that John Edwards was within a hair’s breadth of the Presidential nomination in order to spice up the commonplace tale of his extramarital dalliance.) I can’t, and I didn’t, go along. I honestly fail to see how anyone can feel any kind of excitement in The Dark Knight, much less keep it going into the light of day.

Some of the rest had an air of "religion".

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aescaffi Sept. 4, 2008 @ 9:40 p.m.

Oh and I fogot to mention...this movie is based off of a comic book (or has a basis in comic books) which obviously isn't based on "reality". Most of the themes in Batman (and its characters) are fantastical. of course The Dark Knight is going to have its "ya right' moments. That is the beauty of action movies, anything is possible.
If you want reality, that is what Dramas are for.

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fuser Sept. 4, 2008 @ 1:53 a.m.

Interesting article. I think that Heath Ledger's death bumped this movie's ticket sales from huge to ridiculous.

If Heath had not died before the release I bet this movie would have made between $350 and $400M. It is a popular franchise, it had a successful predecessor in Batman Begins, it was a summer event movie and ... it was a really good movie.

I don't think you have to be caught up in the oscar hype to appreciate Heath's performance in this movie. The Joker could not have been pulled off any better. And the rest of the actors were at least decent.

Another factor that helped was relatively weak competition for the summer.

thanks.

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Josh Board Sept. 4, 2008 @ 11:35 a.m.

You are both right and wrong in the write-up on Dark Knight. Obviously, his death created a lot more buzz. Would Hancock have been bigger had Will Smith took a dirt nap? No. Maybe a little, obviously. But not much.

Batman had the buzz. His death heightened that, surely.

It also helps him with the Oscar buzz (you mention James Dean...I believe the same thing happened with him and Oscar buzz, too; and, because he died young, nobody got to see how overrated an actor he really was. He couldn't hold a candle to Brando, but then, who could?)

But to make it appear as though his death is what drove this movie into box office records, just isn't the case.

I can give you an example.

My friend hates the fact that I loved Nirvana. He would say "They're only as big as they are, because Kurt Cobain killed himself. He died, just like Morrison and Elvis, and that makes rock stars become bigger."

The only problem to this logic is this: the Blind Melon singer, Shanon Hoon, died over a drug overdose. I still only hear the radio stations playing their one hit. Nobody goes on about Hoon being a genius.

The singer of AC/DC died. They got a replacement singer and put out Back in Black in 1980, and it was their biggest record ever.

So, if Ledger portraying the Joker wasn't a good performance (it was overrated, I'll give you that)...or the movie wasn't very good, it would've broken a weekend box office record (like all super hero movies seem to do, see Iron Man for that). And, we wouldn't be talking about it today.

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joeb Sept. 4, 2008 @ 6:03 p.m.

The commenter above me seems to have missed Shepherd's point.

That is, there is a certain kind of moviegoer (a lot of them, actually) for whom movies serve as fetish, or religious totem. These are the sorts of people who refuse to acknowledge failures -- even tiny surface defects -- in their "anointed" movies. They are even more intolerant of the critic who dares to point such failures out.

Mr. Shepherd's piece is a fine piece of psychoanalysis of this type of fan. Perhaps the commenter misses the point because it hits a little too close to home.

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aescaffi Sept. 4, 2008 @ 8:01 p.m.

(I think most people with common sense realize that Heath's death, unfortunate and untimely, without a doubt, served as serious advertisment for the Dark Knight movie. Of course it banked more than expected because of this tragedy. Most likely it would have done very well in theaters even if Heath was alive today. But, the Joker was played exceptionally well and like never before. Ledger gave this character, loved by millions, a new image. I have been waiting for this movie since before Heath died. He made me want to see it. His death made the movie legendary. One thing that this movie has done (and would have done even if Heath was living) is embrace a wider range of people...fans, that he hadn't before. His role as the Joker attracted an audience that Broke Back Mountain nor 10 Things I Hate About You didn't attract. As an actor, he is being recognized by people who probably hadn't seen him act before and the acting in this movie is sensational! Not many actors I have seen could have pulled it off like that. Heath, not Heath's death did that. Though your article is very well written and most of what you said is true....it seems a bit "petty" almost cruel.

Andrea

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Josh Board Sept. 5, 2008 @ 1:23 a.m.

I think I got his point. But my point was, who cares about that point? Death does that.

I heard a radio station talking about some website that voted on the Top 20 musicians you would want to see, if you could bring them back to life. I immediately thought who could top this list...maybe Elvis, or Hendrix. I went with Lennon, because you could get a Beatles reunion out of it.

Well, the people voted for John Bonham, the Zeppelin drummer. Which just shows, that a lot of Zep fans filled the ballot box. But...people on the list like Frank Zappa, well...when he was alive, he couldn't even sell out big venues. Yes, he's innovative, some say a musical genius. He was certainly a great spokesman for music.

But, look at Dylan. He's playing one of the casinos in town. I saw him a few years ago, at the SDSU open air theatre. Yet, if he had died in 1975, he would be on the top of that list. People would wish he was alive, and he'd be able to sell out Madison Square Garden, if back for one last performance. Yet, here is this legendary songwriter, alive and well...and he can't play the biggest venues in town.

So, I just don't see the point in talking about how Batman is so huge because of Ledger's death. It's a pointless thing to bring up. And, it's an obvious point he made.

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John Rubio Sept. 5, 2008 @ 8:55 a.m.

I believe what "joeb" was illustrating (rather astutely) is that Ledger's death was not the point of Mr. Shepherd's article. Whether or not an actor's death is a relevant topic when discussing a film's status was merely an introductory derivative. The notion of the "event" movie versus the motion picture as a form of storytelling was the core issue being addressed. Ledger's death and his last film are merely starting points from which the more pertinent questions were asked: why does the public now flock to the movie houses as if in pursuit of some divine significance? Why is this mission so insatiable that the masses become the mob when presented with any opinion counter to compliment? When did art and entertainment become drug and scripture? Mr. Shepherd goes on to raise some productive suggestions--is this the given evolution of advertising and media? Is it the current state of technology in films and the self-importance they tout with grandiose themes? Is it simply our willingness (or perhaps desire) to transfer dramatic performance into holy tenders--or are we simply so lacking in our lives that we turn our desperation to any grand phenomenon? Are our celebrities now substitutes for the sacred because our actual leaders of faith, government, etc. behave like posturing caricatures? I don't believe Mr. Shepherd is any more concerned with Ledger's death than the next movie critic. But unlike most of them, he is able to comment on a greater human profundity rather than remain an awestruck devotee of spectacle.

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Josh Board Sept. 5, 2008 @ 9:47 a.m.

well, good point johnrubio. i guess my point is, why is it more bizarre for john to figure out why people would flock to a film or whatever his point was, because of a death? to me, it's just as weird a thing, that eddie murphy can continue to make "comedies" and people go see them. sure, his last one (Meet Dave, I believe it was) nobody apparently went to see. but really...people have track records of making bad film after bad film, and they break box office records (ie Adam Sandler).

I believe Dylan is playing concerts on the green thing, and also one of the local casinos as well. But, i believe tickets start at something really expensive, so be prepared.

(on a side note: is there a better album than Blood on the Tracks, that thing is amazing)

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MarkScha Sept. 5, 2008 @ 10:18 a.m.

John, you do a far better job of making Duncan's points than he did; I bet most under-21 Batman fanatics were lost after those first two sentences. Maybe you should hire on as interpreter, as Herb Caen used to be Willie Brown's interpreter for white San Francisco.

-- Mark

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zafiroblue05 Sept. 5, 2008 @ 12:35 p.m.

Interesting that Shepherd liked Batman Begins but criticizes the drive "heighten, deepen, broaden, lengthen, strengthen the experience" of a movie. That is what the first movie without argument did. (He also criticizes the fake death, which I happen to agree about; but he cannot possibly think Gylenhaal survived the explosion. A better example for his point might be Harvey Dent, though Eckhart has said that he's really dead. He shouldn't have had to, though.)

The massive anticipation for the Dark Knight occurred for the following reasons: 1) It's Batman, 2) People loved Batman Begins, 3) The Joker is in it, 4) Heath Ledger died. IN THAT ORDER. Ledger made another movie before his death, and despite a huge cast (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, etc.), no one is going to see it.

Shepherd's main point is that movies today fill a quasi-religious or -mythological need, that we need "event movies" that enrapture us all rather than pure story-telling. Come on! Does he really think this is anything new? Let's make a list, going backward: Titanic, ET, Star Wars, Godfather, Sound of Music, just about anything with Charlton Heston - but let's say Ten Commandments, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind... etc., etc. Now, to his credit, as I look back through the archives, Duncan isn't particularly enraptured with any of these movies, but the idea that this phenomenon is new is silly. The only difference, nowadays, is the focus on gross revenues, but that has little to do with quasi-religious devotion to movies but instead with a final acknowledgment of the massive control money has over the movie industry.

(Oh, and as a total aside, it is dumb to say that the gross of a movie of Titanic or the Dark Knight is smaller than that of Gone with the Wind because of inflation. There were no DVDs or home video in the 30s. The best estimate would be to compare tickets sold with tickets sold + DVDs sold, but they might not even have those numbers.)

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aescaffi Sept. 5, 2008 @ 3:56 p.m.

I was referring more or less to this section of the article that souned more like a personal attack on Heath and Dark Knight.

The question we might hash out on solider ground is that of how big was Heath Ledger. Granted he had made a splash in Brokeback Mountain — a right-place-at-the-right-time cannonball — and he already had been established as something of a hunk. Still, the subsequent Casanova hardly convened a sizable congregation, and Candy barely got an airing. (I missed it altogether. Did it play in San Diego?) Before Brokeback, there was no gathering flock to be discerned around The Brothers Grimm, The Order, The Four Feathers, A Knight’s Tale. He was pretty much just another pretty face, first brought to wide attention as a sacrificial lamb to Mel Gibson’s masochism in The Patriot. It’s a marvel what a drug overdose can do.

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aescaffi Sept. 5, 2008 @ 3:58 p.m.

Oh and this part ":

Had it been Christian Bale who perished beforehand, as opposed to (allegedly) assaulting his mother and sister in the midst of the promo tour, would The Dark Knight have been exactly as big? (Surely Ledger commanded a somewhat more ardent following.) Had it been Robert Downey, Jr., would Iron Man have been bigger? Or would Hancock, had it been Will Smith? These questions are unanswerable, and probably, in polite society, unaskable. My own preferred point of reference would be the unhypothetical River Phoenix, who died under mysterious circumstances (meaning mysterious drug influences) on the street outside a Hollywood nightspot in 1993 at the age of twenty-three, half a dozen years younger even than Ledger. In my memory, Phoenix was at that time an arguably bigger figure than was Ledger at the beginning of this year. And yet Phoenix’s just completed The Thing Called Love, by Peter Bogdanovich, got no added bounce (it never made it to San Diego), and his posthumous Silent Tongue, by Sam Shepard, went straight to video.

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anony_mous Sept. 5, 2008 @ 4:42 p.m.

Dylan played last night in Temecula. The show got some pretty good reviews. He plays tomorrow night at Concerts on the Green. I think he's done about 75 or so shows this year, mostly in Europe and some in South America. We saw him last summer and it was one of the better shows I've seen him do.

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MarkScha Sept. 22, 2008 @ 7:54 p.m.

Q: When did art and entertainment become drug and scripture? A: Birth of a Nation? Triumph of the Will?

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Josh Board Oct. 17, 2008 @ 10:14 a.m.

aescaffi's point is great. i once debated a friend of my stepdads (who has now passed away). he said there are no movie stars today like there were back in his day, with Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogar, James Dean, etc. for some reason, he went on and on about Brad Pitt and the late River Phoenix, not being able to hold a candle to those guys.

i pointed out two reasons for that. back then, a movie would come out, and it was at the theatres for months. and, it was the only movie in town. it's not like now where you have a theatre with 20 different screens inside of it, and 13 different movies to choose from. and, if a movie has a weak opening, it's gone the following week. and, a lot more movie stars, a lot more TV show in which they can promote them (and us, the viewer, getting to know those "stars" on more personal levels).

it's not that the actors are any less talented, good looking, or whatever. not to mention, the tabloids now (including TV tabloid shows), will tell us stuff about drugs, womanizing, etc....back then, I think a lot of that didn't get reported.

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MsGrant Oct. 17, 2008 @ 11:10 a.m.

Joshb, you are correct about stars bad behavior not being reported back when. They had PR people and handlers that made sure that negative information stayed out of the press, in exchange for exclusive interview, etc. Also, papparazzi was not tolerated to the extent it is today. There's no "mystery" anymore.

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berniexp Dec. 14, 2008 @ 8:05 p.m.

The majority of critics and, obviously, moviegoers, believe that it was an excellent movie. Ledger's death may be have been a selling point for the film, but c'mon... after opening week, how long can that sustain a film and make people want to come back and see it? We have to pay $10 and up a ticket to see a movie, while most critics get to watch them for free. It's hard to find a movie worth paying for once let alone for a repeat viewing, especially when in 3 months, you can go to Wal-Mart and buy the DVD. The point is that this "film/social critic" is asking himself what was so great about Ledger? What was so great about this movie? Here is the answer.... You're out of touch.

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julianjenius Feb. 1, 2009 @ 2:21 p.m.

A few things about Dark Knight. It was too long. It just kept grinding away long after my interest. You have to dismiss the fact that since no one (9/11 'truthers' aside) could rig all the explosives it would take to blow up a building or boat in so short a time, the Joker would have been caught or rendered harmless in a few hours of impotence. Lastly, I doubt this movie will stand the test of time. It was good to see it once, but I have no need to see it again. That is what makes a classic.

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