26 April 2005

Rating system

In the past, I've praised Roger Ebert's policy of comparing movies to their ambitions, rather than to some kind of absolute scale. I learn that he has explained this explicitly in the course of Shaolin Soccer, "poster boy for my theory of the star rating system."

Every month or so, I get an anguished letter from a reader wanting to know how I could possibly have been so ignorant as to award three stars to, say, Hidalgo while dismissing, say, Dogville with two stars. This disparity between my approval of kitsch and my rejection of angst reveals me, of course, as a superficial moron who will do anything to suck up to my readers.

What these correspondents do not grasp is that to suck up to my demanding readers, I would do better to praise Dogville. It takes more nerve to praise pop entertainment; it's easy and safe to deliver pious praise of turgid deep thinking. It's true, I loved Anaconda and did not think The United States of Leland worked, but does that mean I drool at the keyboard and prefer man-eating snakes to suburban despair?

Not at all. What it means is that the star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman (1978) is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then Leland clocks in at about two.

Shaolin Soccer, by the way, gets three stars.

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