Monday, 5 October 2009

The idiocy of star ratings for films

Tommy Cooper is holding a violin and a painting.

"I have here a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt.

"Unfortunately, Stradivarius was a terrible painter," he adds with perfect timing, "and Rembrandt made lousy violins." (And he promptly destroys both.)

I used to be a fan of star ratings, but the more I've broadened my taste in films, the more the idea of comparing them in such a facile way strikes me as ridiculous.

A great diner does hamburgers really, really well. A great a la carte restaurant might do steak tartar or lobster thermidor really, really well. You don't write off the diner because it doesn't do a good lobster, or rail against the restaurant for failing to provide loaded potato wedges to take out.

The late John Hughes did Ferris Bueller's Day Off really, really well. Orson Welles did Citizen Kane really, really well. What kind of a schmutz gives Ferris 6 out of 10 because it's not Kane? Frankly, there are lots of schmutzes (usually critics) who would do exactly that. To me, they're both 10/10 movies.

Henri Langlois was a French cineaste who believed films were meant to be shown. Good or bad, high art or cheap entertainment, they were all included on the program of his legendary Cinémathèque Française in Paris. (Incidentally, he was so notoriously disorganized, the overbearing French authorities eventually shut him down, provoking riots. See Bertolucci's The Dreamers for a fascinating insight into Langlois's era.)

These days, taking my inspiration from Henri, I'll sit down to a Truffaut or a zombie movie with equal enthusiasm. So the characters are badly sketched. Maybe, but why not judge it on its own terms? Is it important to the movie that the characters are well sketched? No? Then let hamburgers be hamburgers and lobsters be lobsters.


  1. Great post. Five stars.

    (Just wanted to be the first to get in with the obvious "joke"...)

    No, seriously, I agree entirely. It's about genre (and/or form) as much as anything. Orson Welles would have made a terrible job of directing Ferris Bueller.

    Though on a largely unrelated matter, your cry to "let hamburgers be hamburgers and lobsters be lobsters" reminded me of the riposte someone made to Paul Newman's statement (explaining why he had been faithfully married for decades), "Why have hamburger out when you can have steak at home?"

    Can't remember who it was who pointed out that that's all very well, but sometimes you just really fancy a hamburger... ;-)

  2. Great post indeed. Star ratings can be quite handy at times, though whenever I am forced to give some I only rate this on my *own* enjoyment of the film, not on any general (or even "objective") qualities the production may have. As such I have no problem giving both Citizen Kane and, say, Starcrash a 10/10. Is Starcrash as "good" as Citizen Kane? Probably not, but my own personal enjoyment as well as nostalgia and the role both films played in my cineastic development ensures I'd give both the same high ratings.