Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The generosity ends now

I've become an old softie of late.

By "old" I mean I just started the six-month countdown to turning 40. And by "softie" I mean that I feel like a jerk if I give any movie less than three stars.

This is where Danny Boyle's Trance comes in. But more on that in a minute.

Star ratings were something I never used to worry about at all. I made no habit of generating them on my own. The only way I really officially recorded some kind of quantifiable reaction to the movies I saw was giving them either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, a judgment I recorded in a column on the Excel spreadsheet where I track all the movies I've ever seen. There were certainly some movies that caused me to agonize over this choice, but at least it was only a 50/50 decision.

Since starting to use Letterboxd a little over a year ago, though, I've been thinking of movies in terms of star ratings a lot more. I was primarily drawn to the site because it would allow me to easily record the dates of the movies I saw, making this effectively a "cloud backup" of all the other documents I keep related to the movies I watch. (I can reconstruct all my other lists as long as I have a way of determining which movies I've seen since my last successful backup, and this gives me that.)

Another irresistible element of the site is giving the movies star ratings. It's not that I don't resist this element on other sites, like IMDB and Netflix, but that something about the Letterboxd interface encourages me to use it here. So use it I do. And unfortunately, a side effect of that is that as I'm watching a movie, I keep a running dialogue with myself about what its star rating should be. It's a distraction I wish I didn't have, though I suspect this afflicts anyone who reviews movies professionally to a greater or lesser extent.

Another side effect is that I've had to sync the two judgments I'm making, the thumbs up/thumbs down and the star rating. That means I need to choose an objective standard for the lowest star rating that can earn a thumbs up from me.

This is the hard part. Letterboxd uses a scale of .5 stars to 5 stars -- I suppose you could give a movie zero stars, but it would look like you simply forget to enter the star rating at all. So I've chosen three stars as that logical midpoint. Three stars out of five is a movie I like somewhat, whereas 2.5 and lower is something I dislike more than I like.

The system seemed to make a certain amount of sense. It gave an equal number of star ratings to "good" movies (3, 3.5, 4, 4.5 and 5) as to "bad" movies (.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5). Seems fair, right?

Except the thumbs up/thumbs down part of it is screwing with my head. Can I really give a thumbs down to a movie that does some things right? I'm comfortable giving that movie a 2.5 stars, but I'm not that comfortable giving it a thumbs down. It seems too harsh, too absolute. Yet I do fundamentally believe in the determinations I've made about which star ratings should go to which movies. Three is my minimum for a movie that earns more praise from me than scorn.

Now it's just a matter of recognizing when I'm scorning a movie more than praising it.

When I walked out of the theater after watching Danny Boyle's Trance last night, I had decided it was worth three stars and a very mild thumbs up. When my viewing companion asked me what I thought of it, I said that I liked it more than I didn't like it. "Really?" he said. "It was alright ..." He trailed off, indicating the "but."

And yes, what about that "but"?

The next 15 minutes were spent discussing things we didn't like about Trance. I will spare you those discussions, since you probably haven't seen it.

The point is, when you get out of a movie and your first instinct is to pick apart the things that didn't work, how is that a "thumbs up"?

It occurs to me my problem is this: If I can't give a movie my recommendation, it feels the same as saying it's worthless. Which is ridiculous. Ever heard of a noble failure? I apparently haven't.

Trance is the definition of a noble failure. It means to be a jumble, but it's more of a jumble than it means to be. It means to contain surprises, but some of the surprises just don't work. It means to have a distinctive visual scheme, but sometimes that scheme gave me a headache.

So yeah, a noble failure.

A 2.5-star noble failure.

What I need to get over is the idea that I am somehow damning these filmmakers to hell if I give them anything less than three stars. Even if they worked really hard and made a lot of interesting narrative choices, it can still not work. And if a movie doesn't work, the best it can be is 2.5 stars ... right?

My "good try" approach to star ratings has left me with an unfortunate imbalance on Letterboxd. I've got tons and tons of movies with 3 or 3.5 stars, and because I'm giving those out too freely, that lowers the standard for 4 or 4.5, because I want to distinguish those movies from the 3-star dreck. The imbalance leaves very few movies with 2.5 stars and lower. Especially neglected are the .5, 1 and 1.5 star ratings. Give out those, and you're basically saying the filmmaker is not only an untalented hack, but a bad person.

So, how to restore balance?

The first step is to stop awarding participation ribbons to people who made unsuccessful movies. Just because Danny Boyle is coming off two genuinely great films (Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours), it doesn't mean he's incapable of failure. And just as I would call a spade a spade, I need to start calling a failure a failure.

The generosity ends ... now.


The Taxi Driver said...

Sounds like quite the mental tug of war you're going through here. I guess the question you need to ask yourself is what you're trying to achieve with the ratings. If it's to tell people what they should be seeing than you have to be honest and grade every film on an individual basis. If it's to voice your opinion and add some meaningful debate to the conversation, then the stars are kind of irrelevant.

So at the end of all this, Trance is...not good?

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the comment, TD! Trance is ... sort of not good. It might be sort of good. But I think it's more sort of not good. ;-)