Donald Clarke on those controversial
Thank you for reading this. No, really. If advertisers are to be believed, “today’s busy lifestyles” leave the average consumer barely enough free time to eat or breathe. It is, thus, decent of you to waste five valuable minutes reading a bunch of facetious remarks concerning the unstoppable advance of the star rating in the review pages of newspapers and magazines.
If you go among any gathering of film critics, it won’t be long before some bearded malcontent begins whinging that most punters now simply glance at the star rating that heads the reviews and ignore the text beneath. A glimpse of the furious e-mails that arrive weekly at Screenwriter Plaza suggests that the diligent readers of The Ticket are, in fact, happy to plough through a surprising amount of drivel from this writer (thanks, again). Still, it can’t be denied that, relieved of the need to actually disentangle sentences, film fans with particularly “busy lifestyles” do, indeed, tend to use the star ratings alone as their guide.
Space precludes any comprehensive examination of the flaws in such an approach, but consider, for example, how the ratings system fails to accommodate irony.
I would very much like to see a film in which lizards wearing hats ram spittle- soaked copies of The Da Vinci Code down Dan Brown’s unwelcoming gullet. Guy Ritchie’s Hatted Lizards vs the Monster Hack would not, I suspect, qualify as a masterpiece in the sense that word is used by grown-up critics. It might, however, be something I could happily watch twice a day for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, granting this fine hypothetical entertainment the full five stars would surely precipitate a justified volley of hate mail.
Time Out rates films out of six stars, so, contrary to what the poster might imply, the prestigious London listings magazine did not quite give No Country for Old Men its top rating. Empire magazine, for good or ill, throws stars around with abandon. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian is somewhat harder to please. The only sure way to discern the proper meanings of these little galaxies is to read the critics on a regular basis and attune yourself to their follies and biases.
In recent years, the tendency towards reducing critics’ opinions to bald integers has accelerated with the growth of two influential websites. For each new release, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic boil down the views of hundreds of film critics into one easily digestible percentage.
Different methodologies lead to some discrepancies, but it is, the sites suggest, now possible to absorb a huge mass of opinions in one swift gulp. So, what did the New Yorker, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Salon and a hundred other publications make of There Will be Blood? Metacritic called it as 92 per cent; Rotten Tomatoes gave it 91 per cent. How did Paris Hilton fare in The Hottie and the Nottie? A chilling 6 and 7 per cent, respectively.
Hooray! It is now no longer strictly necessary to read a word of any film writer’s copy. So, thanks again for bothering.