First thing we do, let’s kill all the critics

I’m finding critics so hard to take. And I was one. This Romenekso letter from Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer typifies the snotty, isolated, egotistical, haughty uselessness of them. She writes condemning star ratings for movies (though she gives them herself):

In 10 years of reviewing films, I never found a single colleague who considered stars (or 1-10 scales, or boxes of popcorn or whatever grading gimmick) to be anything but an abomination. They are worse than meaningless; they are dishonest.

The very fact these “grades” exist suggest to readers that there is some sort of objective standard by which any and all critics rate all movies. This ludicrous notion is so easily absorbed that even journalism professionals carp about “the critics” in the same way Fox News commentators carp about “the media” — as if there were a single, monolithic entity following some secret, authoritarian rule.

Even worse, ratings suggest that they convey information about the movies themselves. They don’t. At best they are no more than a crude shorthand for how much one particular critic liked or disliked the films. Four-star or one-star, ratings tell you nothing about why critics liked or disliked a film, or what they liked or disliked about it, or what qualities they value in film in general — the kind of information that lets readers judge a critic’s opinion on how it compares to their personal tastes.

Oh, ferchrissakes! She must think her audience — whatever there is of it — is a bunch of idiots who can’t figure out that stars are shorthand for the opinion of one person, the critic.

I started grading TV shows — which later became the critical conceit of Entertainment Weekly — when I faced a huge pile of new series one fall and wanted some way to help readers through it without having to plough through all my blather (though, this being at People, there wasn’t much of it). Fellow critics complained: ‘But they’ll read just the grades, not the reviews.’ And I said: ‘So? If they don’t want to read the review — if they really don’t care about a grade C Tony Danza show — they shouldn’t have to. They’re busy people.’ But McGurk wants to force her readers to read all her prose. This is why I say the critic is in danger of extinction.

  • Instead of the 4=great, 3=good, 2=fair, 1=poor scale, the British film magazine Sight & Sound used to use a scale that went something like this:

    0 stars= average, needn’t bother with it really
    1 star= something of interest
    2 stars= one of the better films of this year
    3 stars= quite remarkable
    4 stars= masterpiece for the ages

    By making the scale mainly cover gradations of goodness, it dismissed the run of the mill as exactly that and concentrated on the higher end of the art. I’ve always thought there was something to be said for that emphasis on the films worth paying attention to, versus calibrating the precise degree to which a movie that sucks sucks.

  • I think giving a film one or zero stars says a lot, without any words having to be wasted.

    Grades and stars aren’t just a matter of convenience. It’s a matter of how one wishes to communicate, beyond the word count.

  • Mumblix Grumph

    I learned long ago how to decode our local critic’s movie rating method.

    The more gay or inter-racial love scenes, the more stars it got.

    Anti-Republican themes were also good for a few stars.

    I think his ideal movie would be watching Ronald Reagan getting slapped by Castro while Rosie O’Donnell and Margaret Cho slow danced at the Moulan Rouge.

  • George Allen

    Mumblix is right, the liberal infatuation with gay inter-racial sex is an abomination.

  • Mark

    While not a hard and fast rule, over the years I’ve generally found the less stars given by the MSM reviewers, the more I’d like the film.

    Though I don’t think of them as MSM, “The New Republic’s” Chris Orr is an exception and does good reviews of new release DVDs.

  • I have movie critics watch movies for me so I don’t have to. I also have a machine watch TV for me (VCR) so I don’t have to do that either. As long as the critic or VCR has watched it I’m satisfied.

    Both these inventions save me a lot of time which I use to read books (and post on blogs!).

    Seriously Jeff, critics are just part of the promotion PR blitz. Everyone knows this and acts accordingly. It’s not like they were telling us about WMD’s in Iraq or anything.

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  • Except that she’s right. Ratings tell the reader nothing except whether the critic liked the movie. And knowing whether the critic liked the movie is useful only if the reader has some feel for what sort of movies the critic likes. And that feel can be gained only by reading what the critic has to say.

  • David Crisp makes a really good point about her argument; I think her argument defeats role as critic in some way, as she doesn’t give herself another avenue of speaking, but her arrogance doesn’t make me despite critics generally.

    I love Pajiba, a site that’s fun to disagree and agree with, and not afraid to show how their learning influenced their opinions.

    That’s the thing critics can show, that all the rest of us can learn from. They can demonstrate that there’s more than just argument behind speech or conversation. They can demonstrate that if you see such-and-such a film, or know this or that art movement, your way of seeing things is different, maybe even informed, and maybe even better.

    All opinions are not created equal.

  • Old Grouch

    The unspoken assumption in McGurk’s letter is that reading a review is a one-shot deal which makes no reference to past experience. That’s silly: Readers (especially regular newspaper readers who read reviews by the paper’s regular critic) aren’t a blank slates. They’ve already read reviews– and acted on recommendations– by the particular reviewer. So they can be expected to have a handle on how closely the reviewer’s judgement is likely to match their own.

    Take the stars, add the byline, factor in past experience, and bingo, they have a good quick assessment of how much they’ll like the film. Then they can go on to read the review– if they believe it will be worth their time.

  • Old Grouch – you’re right: to what degree is McGurk insisting on something more than being read? You’ve already said regular readers take her seriously; is there something about criticism that leads her to believe she is never being taken seriously?

    I think Mr. Jarvis found that “something,” which drove McGurk’s article, deeply offensive, and if that is the case, I agree.

  • Jeff: You can’t officially use the past tense. You’re still a critic, just not with regard to movies/television. And, let’s face it…at times you can be a bit hard to take as well.

  • Brooklyn,
    Well, then, so can critics of critics, eh? ;-)

  • Do you mean me? How can I be hard to take when you’ve never heard of me before?

  • Lou Reed said it best in the greatest live album of all-time, “Take No Prisoners”.

    He goes off into this great rant about John Rockwell and Robert Cristgau and includes this gem:

    “Can you imagine working for an Fing year and you get a B+ from some A-hole in the Village Voice?”