Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Two-Pronged Movie Review System Attack

Lately I've been meditating on the inherent inadequacies currently existing in contemporary film reviewing. Often I think reviewers feel an obligation to review a movie on the average viewer's terms and not their own. But on the other hand, reviewers who provide an intensely subjective take on a film and fail to take into account other viewers' reactions merely produce so much more folderol for the universe. So what I've been wondering is: could there be a way for a film reviewer to strike an effective balance between the two impulses? A foolproof way to provide a little something for everybody? Or is such a project beyond the scope of criticism?

Behold: Little Earl's Two-Pronged Movie Review System Attack.

Allow me to explain.

I have noted before (and others have as well) that our movie experience today consists of two almost unrelated but simultaneously coexistent kinds of movies in the marketplace: the blockbusters and the art films. The blockbusters are usually created for people who are not interested in reading movie reviews, although some blockbuster fans do appreciate intelligent analysis of their favorite genres - as long as the movie reviewer respects the modest goals of the blockbuster, of course. Many nights on Rotten Tomatoes I have marveled at the heated and exhaustive discussions users will have over the merits of such artistically comical enterprises as the Die Hard and Rambo sequels. The art films are really where the movie reviewer serves the most valuable function. But because newspapers and websites (I presume) ask their critics to pitch their content in a way that does not exclude the blockbuster fan, what ends up happening is that movies that merely aspire to entertain will be praised over movies that aspire to move the human soul simply because the critic knows that the blockbuster movie is more likely to deliver what the viewer is hoping to see, even if the critic doesn't much admire the movie personally.

Roger Ebert has famously professed ambivalence over his four-star review system, but nevertheless he has stuck with it. He seems to understand the two standards at play, and yet he will use them interchangeably. When he feels like reviewing a movie solely based on what it is trying to achieve as a blockbuster, he will do so (hence the four-star review for M. Night Shyamalan's Signs), and when he feels like reviewing a movie solely based on his own personal gut response to a film, he will do so (hence the four-star review for...every cheesy Oscarbait movie of the past three years?). As a result, his four-star review is beginning to lose its weight. Unsurprisingly, when needled on the subject, he cops a plea on the grounds that his editors make him use it. Here is a legendary exchange from his Answer Man column:

Q. Do you hold different genres to different standards? It would seem so. You gave The Stepford Wives three stars, most likely just because it wasn't the WORST remake you'd ever seen, but you gave The Life Aquatic 2.5 stars, probably because to you it was not on par with The Royal Tenenbaums. Would you honestly rather sit through The Stepford Wives again than The Life Aquatic? I know I'd sooner have a Charles Nelson Reilly movie marathon.

Jeff Robinson, Los Angeles

A.Stars are relative, not absolute, and analyzing them represents a waste of valuable time that could be profitably spent watching aquarium fish or memorizing the sayings of Dr. Johnson. I am compelled to award them because of market pressures. I, too, would rather see The Life Aquatic again than The Stepford Wives, but within the context of the two films, I think The Life Aquatic falls further short of what it was trying to do -- even though what it does is better than anything in The Stepford Wives. I realize my logic is impenetrable. I recommend just reading the reviews and ignoring the stars.

Ah, but all this has got me thinking: what if I were to employ not one, but two star systems? One I might call the "objective" system, where I rate a film based on how well it achieves its purported goals, and the other I might call the "subjective" or "gut" system, where I rate a film based on how I really feel about it. Think about the impact this would have. Why, it could revolutionize the entire rating system world!

Or perhaps it is an even more ridiculous idea. Just how do I define a film's artistic goals "objectively"? Am I trying to guess the filmmakers' intentions? Am I trying to guess the average moviegoer's aesthetic tastes? Could that be a big fat waste of time? And just how do I propose to rate my"gut" reaction to a movie? Is my gut opinion really all that different from my cold, clinical opinion?

I don't know. And frankly, my dear, I think we might as well find out. As some of you may have noticed, I have thus far avoided the entire issue by leaving my film reviews free of a star system. But for the next few months, I think we shall try a little experiment. If it flops, then it flops. But if it succeeds...well, we'll wonder how we ever did without it.


ninquelote said...

Sure, you could use a multifaceted star rating system, but couldn't you just average the sum to come to a final, combined star rating?

Maybe that's what Ebert does. Or maybe he just picks a number out of a hat. If his actual reviews seem to conflict some of his ratings, the latter seems just as likely.

yoggoth said...

Any system that values The Life Aquatic below Stepford Wives is prima facie useless.

If I designed a system there would be some sort of minimum artistic standard that a movie would have to achieve to even be considered on the star scale. Die Hard would get 0 stars. Not because I didn't enjoy it, I did whenever the Apple guy wasn't on screen, but because it simply isn't intended as art. It's proper value is measured in dollars earned and entertainment received. I would give it 0 stars and then recommend it to anyone who likes action movies. There is no contradiction in this system.

To quote Wittgenstein, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Those things worth giving stars to are the things we cannot speak about, for the things you cannot speak about are often the only things worth discussing.

Little Earl said...

Come again?

The thing is, I think some blockbusters can be artful, if not exactly art. And sometimes it is useful to be able to say, with some intellectual rigor, that Speed, for example, is better than Bad Boyz II.

I think what I am going to do is have one system which I might call the "film critic" system, where I try to judge a movie based on what it's trying to be rather than on what I want it to be - because I do see the value in that approach - and then have another system which I might called the "Little Earl" system, where I just lay down my honest gut reaction. I think to average the sum would be to cheapen the value of the method. But then again, what is a method if it isn't cheapened a little, really?

yoggoth said...

My approach would still allow you to say that Speed is better than Bad Boyz II if you wanted to. I personally found Bad Boyz more entertaining but I have no desire to assign it a numerical value and then assign Speed a numerical value and compare the two. Like I said, if the movie doesn't reach a certain level it just isn't worth the effort to do something like that.

Sure, you could have two systems, stars and red balloons or green clovers or whatever, but what's the point? You either want to know whether you should spend $10 on a movie or which movie to spend your $10 on, or you want to hear someone's opinion about the artistic merits of a film. A star rating system does the first sufficiently and if you really care about the latter you read the essay that comes with it.

Honestly almost no movie ever released is worth $10 to me if I'm watching it alone-and many crappy movies are worth a lot more than they would be otherwise because of who I'm watching them with. Let's add a third rating-blue moons? This is getting sophisticated enough to be a videogame.

Little Earl said...

Who said you were the target audience for my system?

And did you really think Bad Boyz II was better than Speed?!?

yoggoth said...

Well I only saw about 5 minutes of Speed and what I saw was not nearly as entertaining as the absurd explosions and chase scenes in Bad Boyz 2.

ninquelote said...

If you would insist on having a rating system, I think there could be a marriage between both of your ideas (but don't run to Vegas or anything).

LE's system stated in Y's terms. The first rating would go at the top of the review stating whether the average moviegoer would be entertained by the movie or not. Have maybe a paragraph devoted to explaining why, and leave it at that. People who only care if they are entertained usually only have the capacity to read that far anyway.

You put your second rating at the bottom of the review. In between the two ratings you make your argument for the artistic merit of the film, what it is trying to do, and whether or not it achieved it.

Personally I find any rating system trite and arbitrary. An honest and educated review is much more useful. But Yoggoth is right, any movie can be good depending on the company you're watching it with.

Well, maybe not 'House of a Thousand Corpses'.

herr zrbo said...

This rating system reminds me of a Lucky Charms commercial. Blue moons, green clovers, all part of this balanced breakfast!

In the video game related blog world there's a similar discussion going on about how games should be rated. Currently games are rated more on their economic value (replayability, length of game) rather than any artistic value. The current system seems so flawed it makes the star-based movie system seem like a venerable institution. Nearly every game gets a rating between 6.0-9.5, never higher, never lower. Now that's a crummy system.

I like both LE's idea and Ninquelote's. Die Hard (the original, let us never speak of that new one) could get 5 stars in my book for being an "action packed entertainment thrillride!! a must see!" but zero stars for artistic merit. I could live with that.

Little Earl said...

Worst of all is Rolling Stone, which seems to award every single album 3.5 stars out of 5 (except for new Dylan and Springsteen albums).

I wouldn't dismiss every star system as "trite and arbitrary" though. The most effective use of a star system is probably the All Music/All Movie Guide's. I think they've achieved a nice balance of providing the consumer with the information they'd like to know in a relatively nonjudgmental manner, while at the same time presenting a definite hierarchy of works that are more artistically valuable than others. Almost every artist will receive at least one 4.5 star rating to let the listener know where to start if they're inclined to explore, but when you see a 5 star rating on AMG, you know that you probably need to hear that album/see that movie no matter what.