Dear readers, is the rating system helpful at all?
Ever since I instituted my overly complicated rating system just about a year ago, I have struggled to rate the films I’ve reviewed previously. Last night, when forced to put a number on one of my favorite films, The Sting, I just couldn’t. I reread my review (which was not one of my better ones, unfortunately), and then I decided to look up the other films I have given my highest rating to. Did The Sting seem on par with these other films? Much to my dismay, I got distracted trying to figure out if these films were even on par with each other.
The answer is: they weren’t. Not even close. Here is a list of them: The Third Man, Vertigo, Notorious, Rebecca, Bringing Out the Dead, Paths of Glory, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Shining, Mulholland Drive, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Tom Jones, Under the Skin, and Heathers. Here’s a few of the films that made the rating below it: Black Swan, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Inception, Psycho, The Night of the Hunter, and The Social Network. Now, who among you is going to say that Tom Jones is really better than any of the films that I gave a lower rating to? Obviously there’s a difference of opinion, but I don’t even understand my decision myself, other than Tom Jones is a ton of fun and that’s exactly what I had when I watched it. Looking back, I wouldn’t put Her in the highest category either, even though I still think it’s an extremely well made, emotionally complex, and thought-provoking film, I haven’t really had any desire to see it again (and I do think rewatchability should be a factor, but that’s hard to tell on a first viewing). The corrections don’t stop there, at this moment I would bump Psycho up (obviously), maybe The Night of the Hunter, and probably Black Swan too, take Her, Tom Jones, and possibly Heathers down a level, while taking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Inception lower still. That’s just me doing this off the top of my head; if I did this next week I would probably come up with a different answer.
I could continue on this panicked rant about the difficulties of rating films, but because most of you are bloggers or read reviews with ratings in them that more often than not don’t make sense, I’m sure you’ve all encountered the issues involved. The one I struggle with most when evaluating a film this way is whether or not to do it as a part of cinema as a whole or on its own merits. There are many things a film could or should be, but what about what it is? For example, Tom Jones was a hell of a good time, but looking back it wasn’t very deep, may have been overly stylized, and is certainly dated. It simply doesn’t fit in the pantheon of filmdom with films like Vertigo and The Shining. Simply on its own terms as being a hell of a good time though, Tom Jones gets full marks.
There have been many approaches to rating films over the years. There’s the classic so many out of four stars, which conveniently splits films into just four categories (instead of the seemingly limitless ones you have with a convoluted system like mine) with a bit of wiggle room if you want to do half stars (giving you eight categories, nine if you make zero stars an option). One can also employ a letter grading system like you see in school: A, A-, B+, B, and so on. If you use pluses and minuses for every letter, that gives you fifteen categories, more if you want to just keep adding pluses onto the As. Then you have the third option of coming up with your own crazy convoluted system as I have done.
As I see it right now, if I were to even bother changing my rating system as opposed to just scrapping it altogether, I would probably go with the star option. That seems to be the most widely used, but I’m not sure if it will help that much. My system is needlessly confusing; I developed it with the best of intentions so it would be more accurate but I think overall it’s just to hard to sort out my feelings like that. It’s hard to put a number, no matter what system you’re using, on something as subjective as a reaction to a film. Numbers are very precise, and reactions to art works simply are not as cut and dry as that. It’s really hard for me to muster up enough confidence to use one number to describe a film’s worth as opposed to 600-2000 words on the subject. The words give me enough space to say why I think what I’m saying, or why I have no clue what I’m saying. It’s hard to say “I don’t know” with a rating. Of course, that’s why ratings exist, because people like to have a bottom line. Isn’t that just an excuse for not bringing your feelings across in your writing well enough? I’m not sure, but the point of this paragraph before I rambled on hopelessly was that four categories would be a lot easier to deal with than what I have now.
There’s another problem with rating though, and it’s that I’m just too nice. I tend to rate my movies really highly; if a thing is watchable than I can’t rate it too low. I can’t help but thinking that a bunch of people put a lot of time and effort and probably put a lot of themselves into making whatever film it is I’m watching; that even if I can’t believe this based on what I feel about the film it may still be true. That’s a terrible way to go about evaluating something, but whenever I try to give films a low grade those types of thoughts just keep creeping in. It can’t have been that bad, I think, there must be hundreds of movies that are worse than that. Should that enter into my thoughts? Probably not. So I tend to cluster around the 90%. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug got a 90% just for that reason. I started to nod off during the end of that film; what was I thinking giving it a 90%? The problem is do I rate a film highly for achieving something (this should be the correct answer) or do I rate it highly for not making many mistakes (what actually ends up happening)? I end up going through bouts where I realize I shouldn’t be so nice to mediocre films for simply not screwing up too badly, then I feel bad about it and reverse the trend by giving everything a 90%. Consistency is not my strong suit here.
I’m not going to decide what to do about this problem right now; I’m fairly certain I came up with my rating system late at night with nothing to do, so I’m going to avoid the poor life choices I make in situations like that and think it over for a week or so. It would be really helpful to know whether you all actually pay attention to the ratings though. Specifically on this site, but in general as well. How much store do you all set in them? Do you struggle giving out ratings, or accepting other people’s ratings in light of their reviews? I promise to persevere if people really like them, but it is pretty difficult. Changes, they are a coming, but I’m not quite sure how big or small they are going to be yet, and I could really do with some input.