Monday, January 26, 2009

All the stars in heaven ... and film criticism

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal last week in which the majority of movie critics lament the fact that they have to assign stars to their reviews:

I particularly love the quote from the New York Times editor, which is so quintessentially Timesian (read: find large wooden board, insert in rectum forcibly): "We don't seek to reduce our arguments about a particular piece of art to a number, or letter grade, or golden spatulas, or whatever."

Roger Ebert often assails the necessity of reducing reviews down to stars, and yet he seems OK with the even more reductionist method of thumb up/thumbs down, which made him rich and famous. He and Gene Siskel even went so far as to copyright the thumbs, and when Ebert and Disney parted ways over his TV show, he refused to allow the new guys to use the thumbs.

I am apparently in the small percentage of critics who approves of stars, or letters, or whatever grading system they come up with.

The argument critics use against ratings is: People will just look at the rating and not read the review. Well, tough toodles and welcome to the real world. Some people aren't going to read the whole review no matter how great the critic is. But they want a quick guide to help them with their movie-going. This way, the critic is still providing a service to the time-stretched reader.

Do I like the idea of someone skipping the review? Hell, no. But I look at it this way -- if they're looking at the stars or whatever, chances are they'll probably glance at the headline. And if they're interested, maybe they'll take the time to read at least some of the review. Over time, there is the potential to turn this non-reader into a reader. But if there's no stars for him or her to refer to, they'll just skip the movie section entirely, and there's no chance of them ever becoming an avid film criticism consumer.

Beyond that, I think stars are a good way of pinning a critic down. Too many times I've read a review from a big-paper critic that doesn't do stars, and it reads like a pan. Then, when the movie becomes a hit, you'll see them in another forum claiming that although they said some nasty things about it, the "thrust" of their review was actually positive. The same happens in reverse: A critic writes a seemingly positive review, then turns more dour when the weight of his colleagues aligns against him.

Star ratings keep a critic honest -- or, at least, prevent any ex post facto fudging.

I often agonize over what star rating to give a movie -- particularly deciding between a 2 star and a 2.5 star review. In my mind, a 2-star movie is "average, marginal thumbs down" and 2.5 star is "average, marginal thumbs up." It's so tough when watching a movie you're ambivalent about to decide if you'd recommend it to friends. Having a rating system helps me flesh out my own thoughts, and prevents me from wallowing in the quagmire of indecisiveness.

Historically, I'm fairly stingy with stars. I only gave out one four-star rating in 2008: To "Wall-E." "Slumdog Millionaire" was very close, and in retrospect probably should have been given four stars. But I admit I'm reticent to give out the highest rating, because to me when I do that I'm saying: "This is a classic. Thirty years from now, people will still be watching this movie with awe. This is another 'Casablanca,' 'Godfather' or 'Return of the King.'"

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