Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

A three-star bonanza in The Ticket.

Hang around film writers for long enough and — after explaining that they have the hardest job in the world — they will eventually get around to complaining about the star-rating system. It really is an appallingly reductive business. For …

Fri, Aug 6, 2010, 19:57


Hang around film writers for long enough and — after explaining that they have the hardest job in the world — they will eventually get around to complaining about the star-rating system. It really is an appallingly reductive business. For centuries critics got along without attaching ratings to their reviews, but, at some point in the early 1990s, the dreaded stars became ubiquitous.

Two stars.

The timing is surprising. You could be forgiven for assuming that the internet — with its constant need to rate and rank — is responsible for the pressing need to assign scores to reviews. But the final, unstoppable rise of the phenomenon occurred a few years before the web went mainstream. The NME began rating record reviews around 1990. The Guardian gave in a few years later. The Irish Times began scoring films and albums with the arrival of The Ticket in 2000. A few stalwarts such as The Observer held out, but, for the most part, the star system had taken over by the turn of the century.

Of course, a certain hierarchy holds sway here. It is worth noting that — though mid-market tabloids behave differently — the quality press still refrains from granting scores to book reviews. The consumers of those notices are, it seems, regarded as smart enough to actually make their way through the text.

Critics will put forward waves of arguments against the system. As the stars allow no space for irony or nuance, one is prohibited from giving a high score to a film whose very awfulness is entertaining. The jumps between grades are perceived as uneven: the difference between one and two, for instance, is a matter of little consequence; the difference between two (bad) and three (good) is more considerable. The bald stars allow no explanation of how some films — though poor — may satisfy their target audiences nicely: I view the Harry Potter films as slavish, overlong and pompous, but, knowing they work well for fans, I find myself guiltily typing out three stars every year.

These are all fair arguments, but the true reason critics hate the system is more easily stated: it dissuades punters from actually reading the text. I can’t be bothered to go through my mails and produce accurate statistics, but I would guess that around 75 percent of complaints about my reviews mention the stars and the stars alone. One recent communication in particular illustrates the point nicely. Early this year, somebody mailed me to complain about giving three stars to Robin Hood. How could I justify this? The film was awful.¬†Could I please explain my reasoning? Well, having attached 700 apparently unread words to the star rating, I felt that no further explanation was necessary.

Another example from a few years back also does the business. My late colleague Michael Dwyer was not a fan of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Following his negative review, several letters appeared in the paper objecting to Michael’s “comments”. (One, from Maureen Lipman, neglected to mention that the sender was actually in the film.) The missives took particular objection to Michael’s assertion that one should attend “only if you must”. In fact, the phrase appeared nowhere in the text. The line could be found in the accompanying panel explaining what “two stars” indicated. The entire debate focussed on the star rating and no mention was made of the review itself.

Three stars.

That said, we critics, for the most part, reluctantly admit that the star method has become unavoidable in publications such as The Ticket. With “today’s busy lives” — where did that phrase originate? — punters demand and expect an easily digestible ratings system within their entertainment supplements. Moreover, the average citizen has become used to scoring films, albums and books on internet sites. It would seem odd if newspapers were the only place where such entities were not rated. (On a side note, don’t you love those maniacs who score films out of 100 and to two decimal places? “Erm, I think Empire Strikes Back is an 87.54 rather than an 87.55.” That sort of thing.)

Like everybody else, your average reviewer finds himself or herself reluctantly referring to a “four-star film” or a “three-star film”. Moreover, he or she will inevitably begin charting apparent trends in the ratings. I can remember that on just one occasion — for the life of me, I can’t identify exactly when — we had the full gamut of star-ratings in an issue of The Ticket. I see a five-star film looming (guess it if you can) over the next month and wonder if there will be a repeat occurrence.

All of which eventually brings me round to the trigger for this piece. There were seven three-star reviews in today’s issue. That’s got to be a record. My goodness, it’s like the entire world has come over all average.

See how this nonsense overpowers you?