Sunday, July 08, 2007

Critical Mass

As I mentioned a post or two back, my pal Rik has been sounding off about film critics and criticism theory in general lately. If you didn't take the opportunity to read his blog at the time, you can follow this handy link here. I recommend you read his entries, and perhaps bookmark the page, as it's updated a helluva lot more regularly AND appeals to many of the same interests as my blog. Plus it's all around entertaining and informative. I bring this up today because he's got me thinking about how I rate movies, and rather than post a reply on his blog that would rival the original posts in length, I moved it over here. I know he checks the site out occasionally, so I'm not worried about him missing it.

On top of Rik's regular blog posts, he recently invited me over to facebook, which has an addictively fast paced movie review application called Flixster. With a lot of time to surf the web during downtime at work, I have quickly rated a few thousand films(3085 have at least simple 1 thru 5 ratings, a fair portion of those I've taken the time to actually say something about). The question this ability raises is, how do I rate a film? What criteria should I use when judging what number to give a film? Basically I went with the breakdown provided to me by Flixster, because I figured it was a pretty general platform that would be recognizable to anyone who would look through my movie ratings. The system goes like this:

5- I was Amazed
4- I loved it
3- I liked it
2- It was OK
1- I hated it

Now, I just went back to Facebook to double check I had the wording correct, and could not find confirmation that this is exactly what the numbers stand for. However, I am certain that 2, 3 & 4 are ranked as I have explained them.

This is actually a pretty loose ratings system, and a lot more subjective than even regular criticism. All any of these ratings mean is that the reviewer either did or didn't like it. However, with that in mind, I'm still occasionally shocked at the criteria most users have. For instance, too many times I've come across a distressing amount of reviews with some variation of the phrase; "I didn't see it all, but it was really (good/bad)". If you don't watch a movie from start to finish, you can't expect to impose your opinions on other people. Of course, as I said, Flixster is pretty loose, and this isn't quite on the level of even a local newspapers movie section. This is just one step above people bullshitting in their living room with their friends about what movies they've seen lately. So maybe I'm taking this a little too seriously.

Still, the question remains; what criteria should I use when I 'review' a movie on this site? Or rate it for my friends- or anyone who's interested- to see. When I began writing on this site, my critical responses to movies were basically; "I liked it. I didn't like it. I thought this scene was cool." Etc... I may have gone a bit deeper than that on certain films, but more often than not all I bothered with was whether or not I enjoyed myself. But now that I find myself putting my thoughts out there for public perusal, I feel obligated to make more informed observations. Before each of my movie posts, even for movies I've seen before, I usually make time for research. A quick trip to IMDB & Wikipedia are mandatory, with maybe a few google searches on top of that. I'll also make an effort to watch a new movie more than once, although the second time around I'll either be watching the commentary or doing something like folding laundry while the movie is on in the background. It's not a very in-depth viewing, but it does allow me to see a few things again with the entire movie in mind.

You see, unlike many critics you probably know of(Roger Ebert, Owen Gleiberman), I have no real experience in this field, and I've done no real study of film theory. Hell, I don't even have a journalism degree. A lot of my faults as a critic I can attribute to my youth, however, I'm not quite so young anymore. You could also chalk it up to plain inexperience, which I'm happier with. Indeed, as I read over these posts I do feel as though I'm improving my skills. And even if I'm not improving, I'm more comfortable with it now than I was when I began this project.

Still, that question remains; how do I rate these films? Well, on my blog site I've avoided this problem by not rating the movies at all, I simply put my thoughts down and let the reader know what I think of a film. Before Flixster I had experimented with my own rating system, one that went into negative numbers. This was an idea inspired by the massive amounts of suckitude I discovered when working my way through discount horror DVD bins. The scale would have gone from 5 to -5. A 5 would obviously be my idea of a perfect movie, whereas a -5 would be for those movies that not only suck, but suck your will to live. I'm thinking of the Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing vehicle Scream and Scream again, which seemed to dehydrate my brain as I watched it, or Manos the Hands of Fate, which was so bad not even the Mystery Science Theatre crew could make it enjoyable.

This rating system was short lived, and really only ever existed in theory, because I could never really settle upon any type of criteria. How should I judge what a perfect movie is? Has one been made yet? And if so, how long will that perfection last until the rules of the game are changed, and something even better comes along? Should I use a bell curve? Obviously not. I tend to review a film based on what the film tries to do, and try to avoid the whole 'It could have been better if it had done such and such." And besides, too many of the movies I love are films I recognise as being patently horrible, and would only recommend to friends whose tastes I was familiar with. This is the genius of Roger Ebert's thumbs up/down review style(used only on his show, he has a more gradated 4 star rating on his website); it tells you instantly if he liked it or not, while allowing his explanation to go into more specifics. Many times I've seen him give positive reviews to films he didn't seem to like much, admitting that the film succeeded in it's goals and would appeal to it's intended audience.

Generally I'm of the opinion that films, in major publications at least, should only be reviewed by people in that films target audience, because people have usually made up their mind about whether or not to see it before hearing any hyperbolic summary. This is why I tend to trust a critic like Roger Ebert, who gauges the movie against it's own criteria. And I tend to do that as well. Rik is correct in asserting that there is no objectivity in criticism, and perhaps I've been a bit too strict in my own self-imposed rule about not putting my personal life into my blog(which I've broken whenever it suited me), because you can't truly understand someones tastes unless you understand the person. Ebert(I know I keep mentioning him, but he's the only critic I read on a regular basis at this point), or whichever critic you listen to, is trusted partly because of your experience with them in the past; what films they turned you on to, what favorites of yours they shared or didn't share, etc.

So I've got that answered, or maybe I don't. I've decided to just review the movies completely subjectively, putting up my thoughts as they occur and trusting that the people who read this will understand where I'm coming from. The question I have now is; why do I do this at all? Why do I sit and review these movies when most of my friends have heard me talk about them already, or were there when I saw them? Well, I've said before that I use this site primarily to hone my rusty writing skills, and that's true... to a point. In the documentary on the 3-disc Brazil set that Criterion put out, Jack Mathews said that he views it as his duty as a critic to find great, hidden gems and share them with the rest of the world. I think that's a great sentiment, and the one that most informs what I do here. I don't pretend that I'm unearthing any hidden treasures, but I do like sharing with people, letting them in on these great things I've found. I think they're great, and I think you, the reader, would enjoy them too. Unless they're really awful, then I'm trying to spare you. It's about half egoism, half love.

Okay, maybe 60-40.


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