A Star is (More Than) a Star

I wrote this in a Facebook note on June 19, 2010. It’s kind of unpolished; I feel like I’ll probably return to the idea later on to try to discuss it in greater depth than I did here, but I wanted to re-post it nonetheless because, as somebody who likes to think of himself as a film critic more than just a viewer, the question of star ratings is one that I have thought about often.


Here is an excerpt from a comment left by Noel Murray, a member of the A.V. Club staff, on another staffer’s review of Bug, starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. Just as a little bit of context, the comment was left after a string of comments from A.V. Club readers complaining that the review was overwhelmingly positive, and yet the letter grade that was assigned to the film was a mere B.

Not that it will deter many of you from complaining in the future, but for the record, it’s really frustrating to spend a lot of time working on a review, and then get a bunch comments focused on the grade. And if you’re answer to that is, ‘Drop the grades,’ forget it. Most readers like them, they’re useful to sites like Metacritic, and they’re helpful to us.
Think of the A.V. Club reviews as two separate answers to two separate questions. The first question is, ‘What did you think of this (movie/record/book)?’ and the answer to that comes in the body of the review, where we try to set a little context, lay out the good and the bad, and get into what we thought was interesting (or not). The second question is, ‘Where would you rank it among the other (movies/records/books) youve (seen/heard/read) lately?’ and the answer to that is the grade. In other words, if I’ve reviewed two similar movies this month and given one a ‘B’ and one a ‘B+’; and both are playing at the multiplex right now, I’d suggest going to the ‘B+’ one first.
…And though I tend to think of the grade as more objectively applied than the review, it’s still hugely subjective.

I get the feeling that this is the way that most film buffs understand film criticism. The idea being that the critic’s opinion of the movie ought to be found in the actual review, and not in the letter grade, or the star rating, or number scale, or whatever rating system is being used. To a certain extent, I think that’s probably true. There are different reasons to like different films. An action movie can be extraordinary for different reasons than a dramatic period piece is, and just looking at the star rating is not going to be enough for a reader to get a reasonable idea of the critic’s opinions regarding the film.

But the reaction that cinephiles are likely to give to somebody who is unduly concerned with the star rating is: “The stars don’t matter!” Murray skirts that line here, offering the fact that ‘most readers like them’ to explain why they exist in the first place, and telling readers to interpret them as a statement of which movie is more worthy of being seen. I know that the ‘stars don’t matter’ line of reasoning wasn’t stated overtly in the quote I’ve shared with you, but it’s the thing that got me thinking about this. It irks me to hear that.

The stars do matter to me. The way that I use the star scale may be different than the way that others use it. I’ve kind of polished this up over the years and it still may not be completely coherent, but… I used to write a review for every movie I saw. Sometimes it would take me a long time to get all of my reviews written because it was difficult for me to find the time to dedicate to writing a long piece about every single film. If I didn’t spend at least a good 30 minutes writing a review, then I was dissatisfied – I didn’t care if the movie was The Little Mermaid III. I’ve softened a bit on that point in the past few months, because the conclusion that I’ve come to is that a review is only worth writing if there is something worth saying about the film. I’ve written countless reviews that begin with something like “I’m just repeating what everybody else has said”, and anybody who reads Roger Ebert’s output is aware of his tendency to just run through a movie’s plot in the bulk of the review.

I’m getting kind of off-track here. What I’m meaning to say is that I have a pretty good feeling about where a film lands on my 5-star scale. It’s subjective, in the sense that it is entirely my opinion, but I try to look at my subjectivity objectively, if that makes any sense at all. When I watch a movie like, say, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, I think to myself: “Is this more similar to Step Brothers or Transformers 2?” I like that accuracy. I don’t know for certain, but my feeling is that somebody who reads my writing on a regular basis would be able to look at my star rating alone and get an idea of what I think about the film. I have a pretty good idea of what the difference is between a 3 1/2-star movie and a 4-star movie, and I believe a regular reader of my reviews ought also to be able to get a feeling for what those ratings mean to me. Then they, in turn, can compare my tastes to their own.

The review, then, is a place to defend or explain the rating. Murray seems to see the rating as secondary, tacked on last in order to satisfy the desires of the masses. My feeling is that the rating is the heart of the whole enterprise. I see the review as the place where you explain what was lacking to prevent you from awarding 4-stars instead of just 3 1/2. It’s the place to discuss ideas, interpretations, concerns, and so on.

Murray explicitly states that his first question is: “What did you think of this (movie/record/book)?” He says that the answer to that comes in the body of the review. I disagree. The first question may be what did you think of this movie/record/book, but I think that the answer to that comes in the rating. The second question, though, is the primary question, and that is: What did you think about while interacting with this movie/record/book?”

Isn’t that the purpose of film commentary? Discuss.

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