Among people who know me just well enough to speak to, and not well enough to care whether we ever speak again, the most frequently and I suspect ghoulishly asked question over the years has to do with the Letters to the Editor. "Do they bother you?" My stock answer is, or begins, "Only when they misstate what I've said." As often as that happens, I could as well give a shorter answer. Three letters in length.
And among the assorted misstatements, misreadings, misunderstandings, etc., the most frequent (and gruesome) would have to do with the star ratings, more formally known as the goddamned star ratings. I have spoken of this in print before, but I realize it must now be going on twenty years, and I do not intend to speak of it again for a similar span of time. So pay attention.
Different people use the same words differently. To some, "interesting" in application to a piece of entertainment is faint praise, something less than "entertaining," something nearer to "peculiar," spinach, castor oil. To others, it means what it says, interesting, absorbing, stimulating, even better than "entertaining." To some, "cute" constitutes the highest of praise, less intimidating and more approachable than "beautiful," friendly, cuddly, irresistible. To others, it sounds positively repellent, cloying, icky-poo. Henry James cherished "portentous" and all that it stood for; some can't see it without hearing "ponderous" and "pretentious" in their mind's ear. (Some, let's face it, don't know what words mean.) "Glum," "gloomy," and "depressing," as properties of a work of art, are in some eyes insufficiently distinguishable from "foul," "noxious," and "nauseating." (There will always be people who are better advised to stick to the shallow end of the pool.) To me, it would be an impoverished art form that did not have the capacity and the permission to be occasionally and purposefully glum, gloomy, or depressing. The context is everything.
I can still recall, maybe because the incident still irks me, that I once attached the word "pseudodocumentary" to a film by Agnes Varda, supposing this to be a perfectly neutral and descriptive term for a fiction film dressed up in documentary trappings. But one correspondent, possibly the sort who cannot type out "intellectual" without preceding it with a "pseudo," went off the rails at the sight of that prefix and never looked back to notice that I quite liked the movie. Someone more recently missed the point of what I was saying about Smoke because he was under the misapprehension that "droll" was a nasty word. Looking it up in the dictionary had not caused him to get the point; it caused him to write a letter explaining to me that "droll" was a nice word. Examples, had I been making notes, would be endless. Often I am left to think what I would prefer never to have to think: that I would get in so much less hot water if only people knew how to read better. And please be assured that I have entertained, albeit not as often, the opposite thought: that I would get in cooler water if only I knew how to write better.
The meanings, the definitions, of nonverbal shorthand symbols are inevitably even less precise, whether they be stars and half-stars or thumbs or reels of film or, in the case of the Video Hound's Golden Movie Retriever, dog bones. (I have just come back from the film festival in Toronto, where the daily Sun bestows a weather forecaster's sun symbols on movies — perhaps in lieu of half-stars a cloud or two could be added for nuance — and the weekly Now hands out capital N's, so that a highly recommended movie comes off on the page as a snippet of tantric chant.) Even more than with words, the context here is everything. When I was touring France, I soon figured out that I would be very comfortable at a three-star hotel (as ordained by the Ministère de la Jeunesse, des Sports et des Loisirs, Direction du Tourisme), would have nothing to worry about at a two-star, would be wise to steer clear of a one-star, would have no real need of a four-star. The Michelin travel guides rate tourist attractions on a compressed scale of one-to-three stars ("interesting," "worth a detour," "worth the trip"). Triple-A travel guides, although they apportion numerous black diamonds to hotels and restaurants, limit themselves to a single star for a tourist attraction of special merit. And movie critics, whatever their chosen symbol, do not all count alike either. Are three dog bones the exact equal of three suns? Do two thumbs up "and wiggling" amount to four stars?
The Los Angeles Times, a bit like the AAA books, awards a single star to "films considered especially noteworthy" in its Sunday Calendar listings. But a single star in the San Diego Union-Tribune explicitly translates as "poor" on a scale of one-to-four stars ("poor," "mixed," "worthy," "excellent"), with half-star intermediate steps, plus an additional canine profile (signifying "dog") to make additional room for fine distinctions at the bottom end of the spectrum. (Dog lovers can be forgiven for their confusion.) The tattered copy of Steven Scheuer's Movies on TV on my bookshelf spells out a verbal equivalent for each of the half-star steps on the ascent to four stars: "abysmal," "bad," "poor," "fair," "pretty good," "good," "very good," "excellent." The rival Leonard Maltin volume likewise advances in half-star steps, beginning from a deeper base of "BOMB," but provides no verbal elaboration.
The market, as a few minutes at Super Crown will bear out, is now glutted with copycat publications, not even counting such products of the Thumper's Mother mentality ("If you can't say something nice...") as 365 Four-Star Videos You (Probably) Haven't Seen and The Entertainment Weekly Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made. The Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Movies and Videos, put out by people whose business it is to rent you videos, offers "unbiased ratings you can spot at a glance," on a scale expanded to five stars but with no explanatory text to match. Roger Ebert's Video Companion stakes out the widest range possible in four measly stars: "a great film," "a good film," "fair," "poor," the bottom two classes apparently undeserving of even being called "films." The aforementioned Golden Movie Retriever, whose extensive appendices make it much the most desirable of these books, coughs up considerably more detailed accountings of its rationing of dog bones, but at the same time considerably more restrictive. (Are a "good story" and "fine acting" invariably prerequisites of a three-bone meal? Are abstract and documentary films forever to be denied such rewards?) Halliwell's Film Guide accompanies its four-star system with the wordiest elucidation of all, but even before I waded into it I could detect on any given page that the policy therein comes the closest thus far to my own. A star from Halliwell is worth more than a star from Ebert. Context, as always, is everything.