On July 31, 1928, the New York Daily News gave The Port of Missing Girls one star out of three. It’s only fitting that what many think might’ve been the first appearance of a star system to rank movies was for a bad review.
I hate star ratings.
Seemingly immortal film critic Roger Ebert – when accused of handing out stars like candy – said that he’s always happy for people to disagree with what he said about a movie. If you want to disagree with how many stars he gave it, though, you “can mail your opinion to where the sun don’t shine.”
He’s right. No one expects opera, or dance, or novels, or elaborate and pretentious modern art to be summed up in one to five stars. People are expected to read the reviews instead. We use star ratings over at jmag where my reviews are only around 170 words a piece. I swear it’d barely take more time to pick out the key words than to count the stars under the title.
Maybe it’s because movies are “show business” – the emphasis on that last word and not the first. People just want to know if I movie is worth their money; so a movie ticket is thought of as a less complicated commodity than other kinds of art. (Music is, too.)
I’ve never been much of a thumbs-up / thumbs down critic. One editor once said they still couldn’t tell if I actually liked the movie after reading my take on it. I suppose I try to point out some things that I thought were interesting about the movie; maybe the things that I think made it worth seeing, so if you value those things – a great performance, a kick-ass action sequence, a clever genre twist – then you’ll like it.
That means a 2.5 star movie might be A) an amateurish, clumsy, disappointing film with one gobsmackingly amazing performance right in the middle, or B) a perfectly competent film that takes no risks but is a pleasant way to waste an hour and a half. Is that fair? Is there any kind of metric with which you can accurately compare a schlocky-but-smart teen horror flick with a desperate-for-Oscars costumed tragedy? I don’t know.
When I first needed to use star ratings, I found myself agonising over them. (“Two? Two and a half. No, two. Two. Three? Two and a half.” This could go for hours.) Now I just tell myself that there’s at least a full star margin of error and leave it at that. Still, though, I find myself trapped in weird inconsistencies: I’ll happily give a film 4 stars if I really enjoy it, but 4.5 seems lightyears ahead; two stars might still be enjoyably mediocre, but 1.5 is pretty damn terrible.
The New Yorker just profiled one of the anonymous ‘inspectors’ from the Michelin guide: one of the most prestigious restaurant guides in the world. You’d think that food would be more like opera and dance than movies and music, but no – there’s a long tradition of ranking restaurants with stars. The New Yorker writer – given rare permission to tag along with the inspector he called ‘Maxime’ – asks her what she liked about her latest meal:
“It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’” she said. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products. At this level, they have to be top quality. You’re looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?’”
It’s a fascinating approach to criticism: either something is correctly cooked, or it’s not. Yes or no. Zero or one. It’s a way of thinking that’s completely foreign to me.
Look, I can’t even make myself rate my songs in iTunes. (It just feels rude.) I give you permission to entirely ignore my star ratings in the future. My opinions, however, should of course be followed as if chiselled into stone tablets by an angry god.