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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Sons of the Batman

When criticism leads to...threats?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sometimes, I think this guy had it right: Heath Ledger as The Joker.
Promotional art for The Dark Knight.
© 2008 Warner Brothers/Detective Comics. Batman® is a registered trademark.
This post isn't really about classical music, opera, or modern music. It's about criticism, what it is, and why I choose to do it. It's also about...Batman.

 It started as a reaction to a recent news story involving movie critic Marshall Fine, whose review of the new Batman film The Dark Knight Rises (on his site Hollywood and Fine sparked vigilante-like rage from fans of the Caped Crusader on the film site Rotten Tomatoes.

Mr. Fine's negative (if even-handed) review of the film triggered an ugly upswell of comment from fans of the movies. Some of those comments were vulgar. Others were actually threatening, as if the writers were going to don cowls, fire up Batmobiles, and exert "street justice" in the name of their favorite superhero. One thinks of director Christopher Nolan's dead-on depiction of the "Sons of Batman" in the blockbusting, earlier film The Dark Knight.

In 1975, a movie called Jaws appeared. Steven Spielberg's direction, John Williams' brilliant, Stravinsky-inspired score, and a direct current into the subconscious of the masses led to the first modern Hollywood "event picture," where going to the movies became not just a cultural activity, but one that could move people in lemming-like masses to fill movie theaters and make millions for the movie studio. Like Richard Wagner's cultural transformation of opera into a near-religious "festival event," Mr. Spielberg had transmuted film into gold.

The Hollywood marketing machine swung behind this new trend, and pictures like Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (also by Mr. Spielberg) and lesser pretenders like Independence Day grappled for that golden ring forged from fan adulation and box office moolah. When George Lucas unveiled his "prequel trilogy" of Star Wars films, the rise of the Internet gave voice to the disappointment of those fans who grew up on the "old" movies. That the kids, Lucas' target audience, largely liked the films, went unnoticed--after all who listens to kids?


Writing about art, whether it's chamber music, opera, or grandiose motion picture adaptations of popular comic books, can be a dicey proposition at best. You get to go see stuff, (mostly for free.) You write to the best of your knowledge and ability, working on a tight deadline and for a minimal budget. At the same time, the professional critic risks drawing the wrath of either the presenters of that art-work, the artists themselves, or the audience , whose opinion might not match your own, published one.

With opera houses adapting Hollywood marketing techniques and showing their wares in an increasing number of movie theaters, the line between hard-core opera fan and hard-core comic book movie fans begins to blur. With enough marketing, audience members spend their money and wait in lines...for what? For the art they are witnessing to make up for the troubles in their lives? Is it healing, or is it group therapy? And is it the fault of the artist, or the critic when the work in question does not meet the expectatons of the public?

The Internet brawl over Dark Knight Rises recalls similar controversies in the world of opera, particularly the operas of Wagner. A disastrous Lohengrin premiere in 1999 that triggered tabloid headlines. Recent Bayreuth productions of Die Meistersinger and Tannhäuser have triggered outrage from their audiences--some of whom waited a decade for tickets. And then there's the headline-grabbing imbroglio over the Met's new Ring, which has triggered disappointment from critics and the public, and massive amounts of "damage control" (read: attempted press censorship) from company general manager Peter Gelb.

This is a weird job. Sometimes, we comment validate or comment on cultural phenomena or happenings. Others, it's straight reporting, letting readers know what happened, where and who did it. On a few occasions, it's to shine light on lesser-known examples of artistic genius. Speaking of which, it's time to stop ruminating here and go write about another controversial work, Sir Simon Rattle's new recording of the "completed" Ninth Symphony by Anton Bruckner.

I'm sure somebody will be disappointed.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.