How come that we give out grades on movies in the form of a number, but not on books, theatre performances or art?
This question was raised by my local newspaper six months ago, and set the beginning for an interesting experience. Taking the consequences of the development, where the boundaries between “arts” and “entertainment” are dissolving, they decided to give the same treatment to all kinds of cultural performances, regardless of genre and popularity.
For one month they put grades on every single review published on a 1-5 scale. Books, art expositions, concerts with the local choirs – every review was summarised by a number. When the testing period was over they reversed it and removed the grades from everything, including their film reviews.
Governed by traditions
What I realized during those experiments was how much we’re governed by traditions. It felt just weird to see grades on paintings, and I missed the grades on movies, feeling lost as I tried to figure out what movie they really recommended me to pick. While you previously only had to throw a glance at the overview of “what’s on the movies this week” to see what was supposed to be masterpieces and what you really should avoid, there was no way to easily tell now what the reviewers really thought about the movies. It was just a mess and felt like a bit of a cop-out. I was used to get some guidance.
And I wasn’t the only one to react this way. After a thorough evaluation, including a couple of panel discussions with readers, they decided to go back to the old ways, at least for the time being. Arbitrary or not, this is how we want it. But you could read between the lines that the editor wasn’t entirely satisfied. And if I would believe her, we can expect the grading to be phased out over the next ten years, as the media landscape is changing and it becomes less and less clear exactly what constitutes a “novel” or a “movie” or a “record. This will change the way we write and review it, and eventually those numbers will feel obsolete. And maybe she’s right, even though I think ten years sounds as a fairly short time for it to happen.
Pros and cons of rating
The practice of rating is constantly up for discussions among people like me, who like to think and write about movies.
Some argue that it’s just a distraction that takes away the focus from the nuanced discussion that a thorough review can provide. It over-simplifies, it dumbs down and it also risks alienating potential readers. “How dare he give that brilliant movie such a low grade, he must be an idiot that is not worth reading.”
Others again think it’s helpful since it clarifies how the writer feels about the movie. Is it a good one or not? Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell from the article. Many of us – this goes for me too – have a tendency to write extensively about details that we don’t particularly like, even in cases when we actually love the movie as a whole.
And then there’s the issue of what rating scale you should use. I’ve seen everything from four steps to ten. Some writers use numbers, while others prefer set descriptive words ranging from “crap” to “masterpiece”.
So, where do I stand? Well, as someone might have noticed, I do rate the movies I write about, and I use a traditional 1-5, since I’m used to it every since I was a school girl. However, I agree on that it’s a tad clumsy, lacking nuances, so sometimes I cheat, using 0,5 steps in between, as a way to mark that this grade is far up on the scale and that it almost made it to the next one.
Why do I bother? Why don’t I listen to the pretty good arguments I’ve heard against it? I would say it’s mostly a matter of habit.
I don’t have any ambition to help potential readers with some kind of “consumer information”. The posts I’ve put in the category “reviews” aren’t really reviews the way I think about them, but rather some kind of personal reflections which use the latest movie I’ve seen as a starting point, but could go in any direction.
I think the rating hast o do with the way I process and digest a movie. Somehow the fact that I have to make up my mind about a grade and take a decision about it forces me to clarify my thoughts and feelings about a movie. I have to take a standpoint and justify it.
I wouldn’t rule out that there will be a point in the future, when I too will behold the light and realize that grades are of the evil and skip them altogether. But for now being I’ve decided to use them.