When Tim Burton's Batman hit theaters in 1989, I was 10 years old. I had only read a handful of Batman comics then, but I knew that seeing this movie would be a seminal moment in my young life. I also knew that my dad had refused to take me to see Ghostbusters II a week earlier, and by God, he was going to pay for that.
And pay he did, that son of a bitch. We waited in the longest line I've ever seen that didn't lead to Space Mountain or a stadium urinal to see a movie that, to my father's annoyance, did not at all resemble the Adam West go-go TV freak show of his own youth. But I was hooked. Batman would send me down a slippery slope of geekdom that would insure my virginity's safety through high school and leave the adult me forever compensating for having spent my formative years reading only books with pictures and word bubbles. (If you think it's easy trying to make it in the world with a Starman tattoo on your back, it's not.)
So yeah, I was excited about The Dark Knight when I went last night to an advance screening. I don't get "holyshitholyshitholyshit" excited about movies anymore, but a small, unprofessional part of me is thrilled by the recent glut of superhero films. Geekdom, after all, is like cancer: You don't get cured -- you go into remission. My excitement, however, was nothing compared to what I was surrounded by last night. I'm used to grown people talking back to movie screens, laughing at inappropriate times and letting slip the occasional "Aww, hell no!" What I'll never get used to is people clapping at movies. I counted three moments in The Dark Knight when clapping occurred. The first two came during the movie. The second came at its end, when a dedication to Heath Ledger appeared onscreen.
Heath Ledger was -- and I swear I would have said this before he died if anyone asked -- the most talented screen actor under 30 in Hollywood. His death was no doubt tragic for his family, as most people's deaths are tragic for theirs, and was unfortunate for the rest of us, who won't get to see the good work he would have done. Yes, the amount of attention hurled at him after his death seems silly and cheapening, but actors are the closest things we have to artists that people actually give a shit about. There are certainly worse people to mourn (see Helms, Jesse).
So no, I don't like the fact that Heath Ledger is dead, but I'm not going to clap when I see his name on a movie screen. Why? Because Heath Ledger can't hear me. Not only that, but the people who actually cared about him can't hear me either. No one who could possible give a damn that I'm clapping for Heath Ledger can hear me, so clap I shall not.
I work for Us Weekly, which is owned by the same company that owns Rolling Stone. When I go to the restroom, as I often do, I walk through a hallway plastered with the every Rolling Stone cover ever. So every day, about 3 to 17 times a day, I pass a picture of Heath Ledger on my way to the can. And you know what? I don't stop to clap.
Pictures, moving or otherwise, are not people. When you applaud them they do not understand. At least when the guy behind me laughs at a character having a pencil shoved through his forehead, the reaction is involuntary. Misplaced as the sentiment may be, it's real -- and you can't fault someone for keeping it real. (Well, you can, but you'll likely get your ass whooped for it.) When you clap at a movie, you're making a conscious decision: "I approve of this exploding cop car/snappy rejoinder/gratuitous nude scene, and I want those around me to know I approve. I will clap now." You're making a conscious decision to be a jackass.
Throughout the history of hands, applause have been used to acknowledge things people do in front of other people -- things like perform violin concertos, score touchdowns and compete in wet T-shirt contests. But as we grow dumber, we've begun to confuse live performance with recorded image. We are smarter than this. Heath Ledger cannot hear you clap. You can stop now.