Film Ratings vs. Reviews (Or, Why I Dislike the Star System).

In last Thursday’s New York Times, Catherine Rampell wrote about the measurable and significant gulf between paid critics’ and moviegoers’ film ratings. Overall, critics rate most films lower than the general public (surprise). Critics rate documentaries and black comedies higher than moviegoers; conversely, moviegoers rate romantic comedies higher than critics. Apparently, however, they agree on westerns and live performance films. Hah! But more on that in another post (I am intrigued).

Miss Rampell suggests that one of the reasons filmgoers rate movies higher is that if they “choose to see a particular movie, that probably means they think they will enjoy it, which means they are more likely to give it a favorable review afterward.” She also suggests that to some extent critics have less agency in determining the films they review and so may have to review films they wouldn’t have liked anyway.

As both a devoted filmgoer and critic, this article gave me pause, not for Ms. Rampell’s observations or conclusions. I was reminded that I dislike the star rating system and its variants.* I understand that, commercially speaking, filmgoers appreciate a quick reference of ratings, particularly if it’s a last-minute selection. Critics for widely-circulated publications and popular websites are expected to be brief: is this film worth the $15 and/or your time? Will this be good for date night? Not all critics have the luxury of a several-page exposition in the New York Review of Books on the cultural and technical significance of The Searchers.

However I think the role of the critic is to review, not to rate. Rating diminishes the complexity of even the most blockbuster of films and limits the appreciation to a dichotomy of like/don’t like. It is not the critic’s role to say whether a film is worth paying for or not, particularly on something subjective. I would not have paid to see Melancholia, but I would recommend it to people who like the Charlottes Gainsbourg and Rampling (which is the only reason I watched it). Reviewing is contextual and relative: it places the film within a historical timeframe, a filmmaker’s oeuvre, contemporary trends, an aesthetic movement, and many others. It is a useful tool for highlighting those elements which were more successful than others – and why. Finally, it keeps the dialogue open, interesting, and ongoing.

I realize that this is a rather serious diatribe against something relatively frivolous; but I do take the role of the critic seriously. But I do take the role of avid filmgoer seriously, too: I may not be swayed by stars, but I am definitely swayed by trailers.

*the exception to this is the San Francisco Chronicle’s Little Man rating system, which has a certain accuracy of feeling I find hilarious.