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Evening the Score: Ratings & Reviews…

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how I write my “non-review reviews” and what I make of a given film and so on. In particular, I’ve been wondering if I should start offering some form of “grade” to my reviews, like some sort of overzealous teacher – “this film has Darren’s seal of approval!” The thing is, I’m not quite sure if I should.

Stars in my eyes...

I mean nothing against those who review using numbers or scores – all credit to you. In fact, I’m a little bit envious – I wish I were that comfortable with stamping my opinion on a piece of celluloid. However, blogging (and writing in general) is meant to be about finding what works for yourself. So this post is much more of a rationalisation about how I write, rather than a thoughtful critique or analysis of how others write. So this is very meta.

I understand the logic. A grade – be it an A/B/C +/- or a % or a star rating (out of four or five) – simplifies my comments. It cuts past my waffle (which, as the number of subclauses my writing usual contains would suggest, I dearly love) and gets straight to the point: Despite your whining and moping and waxing of the lyrical variety, did you actually enjoy the film, Darren? Would you recommend it to a friend or family member?

The truth is that, a significant portion of the time, I don’t actually know. I studied law in college for my sins. I’m that kinda guy. I like ambiguities and uncertainties. “Wiggle room” is a phrase that I am more than a little comfortable with as is opening a sentence with the word “technically…” before adding a rake of qualifiers. If a question can be answered “yes” or “no” then it isn’t worth asking.

If my opinion of a movie is pretty much a straightforward “I like it” or “I dislike it”, that should be easy enough to garner from the text (as well as the siblings of those opinions “it did what it set out to do” or “it fails even by its own meager ambitions”). However, few movies are that simple, the parts rarely add up. A movie may be well-written and buzzing with awards-grade performances, but make some uncomfortable assertions about various things. Or it may work better viewed as a comedy, than as a drama. A lot of what you get from a movie depends on what you expect of it and I don’t entirely trust myself to condense that down into a grade.

Is this article grade-A bullplop?

Truth be told, I don’t like assigning fixed rankings or values. I’ll through around the word “masterpiece” or “disappointment” from time-to-time, but rarely. I don’t classify everything I see because I like the notion that not everything can or should be categorised. And, truth be told, putting a figure or a fixed value on something is tough to do on something as subjective as film. I mean, I could argue whether I am purely grading on my own personal enjoyment (in which case The Reader would fail because of the sheer offensiveness of the film) or on a far more pseudo-objective perspective (in which case The Reader will pass, barely, because I am oversenstive personally and most viewers will overlook what I see as crippling flaws). I mean even personally.

I have no problem with the notion that my opinions change – yep, sometimes on big philosophical stuff like the nature of life, but also on smaller things like the quality of Bladerunner, for example (which was “just above average” the first time I saw it). I’m human, it happens – it would be kinda pointless if I didn’t grow or develop or change as I lived my life. The problem with assigning a grade is that it really puts a measure in the ground, on a surface that arguably hasn’t fully formed – Public Enemies is a more recent example, going from ‘ridiculously disappointing’ (D) to ‘perfectly average’ (C), upon a second viewing. I don’t feel bad writing large amounts of text because… well, most of my observations remain valid – I’ve just reappraised the weighting of those attributes.

Even discounting the argument that my opinion may fundamentally change, my opinion is liable to change based on factors as simple as my mood. Demolition Man, for example, would skirt a line from a B+ to a C depending on how I felt watching it. Sometimes I’m in the mood to find “be f*cked” a hilariously witty rejoinder, and other times I’m not. Sometimes I laugh my head off at Anchorman and sometimes I simply smile giddily. Such is life, I suppose.

Finally, there’s the notion of comparability. Right now it’s a tie between Kick-Ass and Shutter Island as to the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. Were I grading them, I’d feel compelled to offer something between an A and a A- for both of them. But I would offer the same grade, for example, to The Godfather or Heat – and I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. I, personally, don’t think you can ascribe the description ‘classic’ to a film under half-a-decade old, just because you need to let films breath before truly appraising them, but that would mean no film I ever see for the first time could score above a B+, which seems a little unfair. I could arguable weight the judging within genre, as Roger Ebert arguable does – suggesting that a person seeing Die Hard 3 doesn’t want to know how it compares to Citizen Kane, but how it measures up to Die Hard – but that feels like something that needs to be talked about rather than inserted into a numerical grade. Paragraphs suit that sort of discussion, I find.

I guess if I should be so lucky (lucky! lucky! lucky!) to find myself writing reviews in some sort of vaguely official capacity I’ll have to compromise, but for now I think I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

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12 Responses

  1. I also feel that giving a grade is a shortcut for readers to just skip reading the review and just read my concluding thought and the grade. Nevertheless, I feel I have to balance the need for people to read the entire review with the need to make my blog user-friendly.

    Also, I don’t hide the fact that I sometime go back and edit my reviews. Most of the time, it’s just to add a thought or two and refresh the pictures but once in a while, I do change my grade.

    • Yep, I think it’s handy for that – like I said, I sort of envy those who can stamp their opinion on a film in a way that isn’t a wibbly-wobbly sort of thing. I’m an equivicator – I can’t help it! I don’t like to be tied down.

    • I also occassionally will change a grade, or some of my thoughts, but sometimes multiple viewings or if a significant of time has passed can change how you feel about a film.

      I always suggest it’s important to read my reviews, but sometimes I can spend the longevity of my review smashing a movie, but at the end say, “It fails here, but even so I still like it”. Or the opposite of that. I try to remedy that notion and make my reviews more readable my being careful about the length.

      My top tens though? I don’t think often people actually read my explanations or anecdotes, and because it’s so informal often turns into my best writing, and THAT can be frustrating.

      I don’t think you need a grade or star rating, but maybe a concluding paragraph, like Jim at my site does, or since you’re so introspective do your version of a Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” Ha! to give it a summation.

      Just a thought.

      I like the way you have things though. I read less of your total work because there is so much writing, but I do thoroughly read the posts I click on.

      • Thanks Heather. I tend to ramble on myself and talk about whatever speck of dust has caught my eye this week. I like the way you guys do things and I like to think that – like Jeff – you can get a pretty good read on how I feel on a film from my final paragraph.

  2. I wasn’t particularly fond of a ratings system, but like Castor noted you have to make your reviews user-friendly.

  3. very well written, and I do fully agree. I put scores on my blogs because it’s what I’m used to (coming from the old RT way of doing things). And when I don’t people request it, so I just throw it up there anyways.

    But, ultimately, the score means nothing as it’s a personal value assigned. The writing is what gives the review its meaning. There are films I’ve given 6’s I love more than ones I’ve given 7’s. It’s just how I rate things mentally. There’s no real comparing/contrasting. It’s really just a shortcut/handy tool for those who can’t spend the time reading (which is also why I throw a small “summary” paragraph at the end).

    • Yep, good point. I am probably putting far too much thought into this with “comparing” and “contrasting” and whatnot.

  4. I like having a rating system but it’s always hard because you end up having a bunch of totally different films on the same grade. You could also see a film so good (or bad) that they rock the grading system to the core and you should re-mark everything else against it!

    My biggest gripe with ‘markers’ is that some aren’t good at giving out the rubbish scores, and seem to mark between 5-10.

    I think you need harsh marking in order to make the high scores really stand out. (Personally I’ve never given out a 10)

    • Amen – I’d kinda feel the same way, to be honest. I’d be of the Ebert school of inflated marking – partially because I hate being overly negative, but also because I feel the need to justify how I spent two hours of my life. Chalk that up as another reason I don’t given grades or marks – “the big middle phenomenon”.

      I wonder if it works the other way too. Do certain reviews downgrade certain films to average because they don’t like being seen as “easy” or because they’d feel awkward giving a high mark to an action or comic book movie, for example?

  5. hehe, have to agree with you Daz, keep your reviews different without stars. have no problems with marks and stars – i always look out for a good scathing one star review to read – but sometimes you dont need em.
    Ross McD for instance is using the out of 10 scale for his reviews but ive decided not to bother. we are very different, him and i… when we bother writing reviews that is

  6. agree with Para and his comment about the abuse of grades. So many professional reviewers i find cop out with the three star mark, even if they didnt like the movie. i have to say the reason i like Para’s reviews are because he goes with his convictions. if he thinks something deserves a 2 and the world is telling him otherwise, hes damn well gonna give it a 2.
    it sounds stupid and simple but all you can really do is call the movie as you saw it.
    and anyway, i dont read certain reviewers cos i want to agree with them, i read them because they are good writers, and there is a lot of pleasure to be had from reading a really bad review of a film you loved.

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