For a long time now, I’ve been fascinated by the way film reviews are capped off with some sort of rating. Tradition is to assign a film a quantity of star, or likewise to give it a numbered score. Some have boiled it down to “Go Out and See It”, “Stream It/Rent It”, and “Skip It”. Or to take the whole thing one cutthroat step further, there were the critics that inspired me who boiled it down to “Thumb’s Up” and “Thumb’s Down”.
On the surface, it seems like a quick way to sum up the entire discussion of a film. However, now and again, I find myself wondering if scores are more trouble than they’re worth. Roger Ebert (he of the “thumb’s up” in case you don’t recall), used to bemoan the way people would be fixated on ratings all the time. In the last few years of his syndicated television show, I remember several instances where he wondered aloud if people were so hung up on stars and thumbs that they were neglecting to actually listen to the logic that brought on said rating. He pointed out that not every rating is equal – that two films can both be rated 3 out of 5, but one is an affectionate 3, and one is a cautious 3.
To many (and this was ten years ago, so I can only imagine that now it is many more), the context didn’t matter. The high or low score was all they paid attention to.
About a year ago, I conducted a little experiment about the scoring of films on this very site, and I’ll wager that almost nobody noticed.
Last November, I stopped including the rating I gave a film in the review’s headline. I moved the rating down to the bottom of the page, forcing people at the very least to click-through on their feed readers if not from the main page to see what I thought of a film. At first I had the feeling that the switch had cost me a bit of traffic, but I’ve lived with the hit.
You see, including the star rating in the post title would do one of two things to the people who come and go. Either they would click on something because they deeply agreed with the score, or they clicked on something because they avidly disagreed. The resulting conversation would predictably turn into a circle-jerk or a brawl (ever give a film someone dug “Zero Stars”?). Now though, with the score being at the bottom, the stars simply punctuate my point instead of making my point for me.
I’m beginning to believe that stars are reductive, that no matter whether you rank on a scale of five, twenty, or one thousand, that they will never fully encapsulate what a film leaves us with. A piece of art – be it a movie, an opera, a novel, or an album – will often leave us with things we like and things we don’t. Sometimes we’re even left with things we like, but later don’t. There’s a level of technique that is tangible in the craft, and the intangible that we take away with us – every bit of it nuanced and subjective. So sure, if you’re hard up on time I guess I can give all that a letter grade between A and F.
If there’s an exception to this point, I believe it’s a high score given to a low-profile film. Raving about something others might not have known about can only benefit the artist, since it raises awareness of their work and gets people looking for something they didn’t even know they should be looking for five minutes ago. However, even those sorts of raves are tricky. For starters, there’s the question of how low-profile is low-profile, and for seconds there’s the possibility that too high a score could do more harm than good when people finally do catch up with a film with too-high expectations.
So there you have it – even a well-intentioned high-score can be a bad thing. I just believe that for the attention-deprived, the score becomes a sticking point. That no matter how much the would-be critics underlines their affections and dislikes, that it will be hard to ever get a debate opponent past “You gave that four stars?”. Sometimes it’s actually quite innocent, such as last week when a fellow film lover noted that sometimes it seems like I’m afraid to give perfect scores. He said that a piece I wrote seemed like it was fully in love with the film, and when he finished it with seeing a score of “only” 87.5%, that something felt amiss.
The person who brought it up is a good friend, so I don’t mean for this to single him out, but why not take away the fact that I loved the film I just reviewed, instead of wondering “where the other 12.5% went”?
Maybe we’ve all just become too attention-deprived to actually read someone’s critique and take it for its positives and negatives. Maybe we do need to reduce it all down to numbers, letters, thumbs, and tomatoes. Heck, maybe we should extend this out beyond movies. Could you imagine?
“How was work today, sweetheart?
“I owned the morning meeting, but the afternoon deadline felt really contrived. 3 out of 5”
Ratings aren’t going anywhere, I realize that. Hopefully though we can all start offering up something more substantial around them, and start to consider the score itself as something less substantial.