One of the certain vulnerabilities in writing weekly about movies is pointed up by the number of my conversations that are initiated by someone, coming from my blind-side, declaring I am insane, wrong, or mentally strained. Which puts me in the corner to begin with, shuffling through the previous week’s sins, and asking myself — So, what could it be this time? The provocation which triggered the opening blast is usually nothing I cannot shrug off or squirm out of, given the chance. This chance is usually not given, of course. But the need for it — or for some sort of drawn-out volleying between the reader and the reviewer — is plain enough. The need is almost blinding, for example, in the light of a letter-to-the-editor, a couple of issues ago, which questions whether there is any actor or actress I enjoy more than Barbra Streisand. Replace "enjoy" with "endure" perhaps, and the road to understanding lies just around the corner.
The accusation that I simply don’t like any movies, replayed in that same letter, has been a favorite since I first nested in these pages. It has been a favorite with me as much as with the posse on the trail: What can they imagine is the force that pushes me into attending nearly every movie that comes to town? — a sense of duty? orders from above? a hunger for hurt? (The act of reading, I have to remind myself from time to time, has its special difficulties — like high velocities and quick, blurred impressions — and requires considerable assistance.) Distressingly, this favorite accusation has not been forever chased over the horizon by the installment of stars-and-spots symbols to rate the movies. Worse, these pert symbols seem to have opened additional holes and fissures for readers to stumble into. Two questions have sprung up, over and over — What do these star-and-spotty things mean? and, a bolder one, How can you stoop so low as to evaluate movies with inarticulate blobs?
Clearly, I have gotten tired of hearing these nags sooner than others have gotten tired of repeating them. They have often come up, and I have often pooh-poohed them: and if this week I am willing to turn and face them, it is for no reason more special or more timely than the temporary unavailability of movies that command more attention than the pleasant-enough Law and Disorder, Longest Yard, Dracula, and Airport 1975.
The how-can-you-stoop questions is the more engaging because it usually comes from people who regard movie analysis as too grave and too subtle and too multifaceted a matter to be reduced from intensive blab to mere bobs. And I would not disagree with that. (In the presence of piety, I typically wilt.) They could, and some do, push further and claim that a movie is too multifaceted to be done justice in a capsule review, fifty or one hundred words long. I would not disagree with that either. But I would put in that these are points scored easily and from out of harm’s way.
Space is the practical concern pressing on all sides of this column; and in the allotted space of a thousand words and an early-morning deadline, possibilities are cut down and out. A stars-and-spots rating should be judged on the possibilities on a pinhead.
The premise that there is no way, and no point, to distinguish between movies in such a manner is a pure-in-heart luxury that can be nurtured best from the sidelines of the battlefield. Anyone who has actually engaged in watching The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, Deep Throat II, Wonder Women, and The Groove Tube will probably not find it difficult or undignified to make distinctions between that bunch and Law and Disorder or The Gambler. Most people make precisely such distinctions without bothering to check up on their preferences ("I bet that movie is junk; let’s stay here and tune in Columbo"). To make preferences between movies, sight unseen, is the highest purity, certainly.
A star-and-spot rating — as I understand it, and as its pragmatic inventor, whoever he was, must have understood it — is not, and does not pretend to be, a respectable treatment of a movie; standing on its own, it can only suggest roughly what the tenor would be of a respectable treatment. In these pages, a rating does not stand on its own, though; it is an attachment. It is like a gesture — a shrug, a wave-off, a wide-eye, a wag of the head — in accompaniment of speech. And like the gesture, it could be regarded in isolation and derided for not saying terribly much — and true enough. But it asks only to be taken as a clue, a clarification, a punctuation, a touch-up, nothing much.
If, to some, the practice of dispensing ratings appears to be dogmatic, highhanded, coercive, and peremptory, they are looking at it from an angle unknown to me. First: it is not my inclination to think of movies in terms of stars-and-spots, and it is not for my sake that I do it. It was only, some six months after tending to this job, from beneath a mountain of reader’s moans, saying that my preferences were impossible to discern from the capsule reviews, that I took up the practice. It was taken up in hopes of providing a few handles and foothold and guiderails with the reviews. Those who feel, huffily, that they do not need such supports are invited to kindly overlook them altogether, for they are the last things on my mind, and the least. Second: the four-star rating system is obviously not a vulgarization of movie criticism that I have concocted in my own sullied mind. In employing it I am following the high-above footfalls of such heavyweights as, to name a few, the entire crew from early Cahiers du Cinema, including Andre Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Georges Sadoul, and Alexandre Astruc, and the crew from Sight and Sound, including Tom Milne, Penelope Houston, John Russell Taylor, and individuals like Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Parker Tyler, Dwight Macdonald. None of whom apparently felt cheapened intolerably by playing rating games. And third, a strictly personal alibi: since a primary purpose for writing this column seems to me the jeopardy to be realized from it, the stars-and-spots system, even at a cost of oversimplification, assures a severe degree of blunt, stationary self-exposure; and at the same time, since I am neither very serious nor possessive about this system, its use can serve as a sort of chastener.