Friday, April 22, 2011

Grades? Stars? Perfect 10s? No Thanks

I'm about to get into some navel gazing here. You may have noticed that I don't give out scores or use scaled measures when writing up my movie reviews. I don't give my favorite films A grades, five stars, or perfect tens, though I admit that I do use one of these ranking systems in my own offline records. However, I'm not comfortable using them for the reviews I post on this blog.

Let's use the example of "Burlesque," the Christina Aguilera film about burlesque performers. It's a terrible film and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Rated by the usual grown-up movie critic measures, the highest score I can give it is something like 5/10, or rating only a marginal recommendation for its artistic and cultural value. However, on a pure enjoyment level, it's closer to 7/10 or even 8/10, and something I'd recommend to many of my girlfriends for good, brainless fun. In good conscience, I can't put it up there with films that are better on a technical level, such as the Coen brothers' "True Grit," though I actually liked them about equally. It makes no sense to me to try and evaluate the two films on the same scale, when they might end up with the same grade for entirely different reasons, or totally divergent ones that don't reflect how I ultimately feel about them. I know other reviewers use multiple means of valuation or will give more than one score to a film, but I honestly don't think it's necessary to use scores at all.

The only reason I can see to have ratings is as a handy shorthand for the reviews, but I haven't found that they're particular good for this, except in the cases of very high or very low scores. Also, using them tends to negatively affect my writing. I did write reviews for anime in the past that used a ranking system, since that's what everyone else was doing. However, I found that many times I'd end up spending the whole review trying to justify the score I gave a show or film, and sometimes I would be overly critical or laudatory to try and offset a score I was worried might be a little too low or too high. For instance, I might give four stars to a film and then spend the whole review giving caveats because I wasn't so sure it really deserved the high rating. If I don't have to worry about the scores, then I find it easier to get what I really want to say about a film out on the digital paper.

And I don't think that this applies to just me. I find less structured reviews tend to be much more fun to read or listen to. The absolute worst are the reviewers who want to break a film down into its base components and assign scores to every single aspect of a film, from the music to the cinematography, even if they didn't make much of an impact on the viewing experience. Better, but still often tedious, are the reviews that are mostly made up of pro and con arguments for why you need to see a certain film in theaters, or why you should wait until it reaches rental stores, or just hold off until it shows up on basic cable and you have two hours to kill. Reviews built around these basic recommendations are the standard, of course, but you can do so much more with a film review.

I like more free-form reviews that give me context for the viewing experience, that talk about the career of the director, or that point out the contributions of the sound designer, or that highlight the performance of an oft overlooked character actor in a minor role. Even better is when reviewers get personal and get meta and get ambitious. Sometimes a film is just a film, but sometimes it's part of an art movement, or indicative of a cultural trend, or maybe a harbinger of someone's creative downward spiral. Are these notions better suited for features and editorials? Maybe, but with many films it seems a shame not to talk about the issues that go beyond simply liking or disliking it. But then how are you supposed to quantify all of this was a simple letter grade or a couple of stars?

This is not to suggest that the reviews I write are in any way superior for getting all pretentious and not using a ranking system. I'm an amateur scribbler who uses dodgy grammar and this blog is a totally self-indulgent enterprise. Right now my reviews primarily consist of whatever thoughts and impressions I want to remember from seeing a film. I hope they can be helpful to other viewers, but mostly they're written for my own benefit. And I guess in the end that's why I don't use rankings. I almost always write reviews that gauge what I think of a film after a single viewing, but my relationships with certain movies can get complicated over time. Scores are often very arbitrary, but awfully permanent. So not using them essentially allows me more wiggle room to reevaluate or even outright change my mind later, especially when measuring up films against each other. It's not like you can work out any kind of numerical score just from the text of a review anyway. At least, not any I think are worth reading.

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