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Halliwell, however, was never an influence. In my softer- headed years, the deepest impressions made on me in this area were two. The British film magazine Sight and Sound, to which I began a subscription as a sophomore in high school, sprinkled its accolades at that time according to the following curt criterion: "Films of special interest to Sight and Sound readers are denoted by one, two, three or four stars." (Very like Halliwell. Is it a British thing? Reserve? Understatement?) Samples: Lawrence of Arabia, two stars; Tom Jones, one star; Cleopatra, no stars. And the French Cahiers du Cinéma, wellspring of the "auteur theory," to which I gained access in my college library, broke down the meanings of its four stars and black blot, as far as my high- school French would take me, as follows: "not to be bothered about" (blot), "to be seen if absolutely necessary" (one star), "to be seen" (two stars), "to be seen absolutely" (three stars), "masterpiece" (four stars). I also, in that library, used to leaf through a German film magazine -- though I could comprehend little more than der and das and the photographs of naked European actresses -- which went all the way to five stars, particularly for spaghetti Westerns. Obviously a highbrow magazine.

Some people nowadays might need to be told that that was a very different era in movies. Nineteen Sixty-Three, to pick a year almost at random, marked the appearance, somewhere on the globe, of (alphabetically) An Actor's Revenge, Barren Lives, The Big City, The Birds, Bye Bye Birdie, Contempt, 8-1/2, The Exterminating Angel, The Fire Within, The Haunting, High and Low, Hud, In the French Style, Irma La Douce, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Judex, Kiss of the Vampire, Knife in the Water, The Leopard, Life Upside Down, Muriel, The Nutty Professor, Scorpio Rising, The Silence, Sparrows Can't Sing, among others. In retrospect, and with comprehensive worldwide vision (some of those — An Actor's Revenge, Barren Lives, The Big City, for openers -- did not cross over U.S. borders for some years), it would be possible for me to put together an annual Ten Best list not just with a full ten movies on it (annus mirabilis!), but ten five-star movies. My individual favorite Kurosawa, my favorite Buñuel, my favorite Bergman, my favorite Hitchcock, my favorite Malle -- and none of them my favorite movie of their common year. (8-1/2 could not make the cut.) Such a list, I'll go further, would stand as a fairly respectable all-time Ten Best.

It was in that sort of climate that I cultivated the notion that a two-star rating was a bit more cordial than the back of a hand. And anyone who has failed to grasp that fundamental fact either has not read me with adequate care or cannot read. (If only people knew how....) Very recently a correspondent did what I have never seen fit to do, and proposed a one-word summation of a one-star rating: "terrible." Where would he have gotten that idea? Are the reviews of one-star movies studded with "terrible" and its synonyms? If so, show me the evidence. The key, or what passes for one, speaks of "antipathies" solely in connection with the black spot. "Priorities," it says, "are indicated by one to five stars." (Thank you, Sight and Sound.) The same correspondent properly traces the origins of the black spot, or rather the origins of its name, to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, though he nonetheless persists like so many others in calling it a black dot. I admit it isn't very big, but it's bigger than a period, for heaven's sake, bigger than the pinprick above an i. And it's described in plain black and white as a spot. What would be the use, with a reader like that, of a more explicit key? (If only people knew how....)

Fortunately for my sagging spirits, along came another correspondent who had been following me in these pages since I was in graduate school, or soon after, and who knew perfectly well what the stars meant: gradations of approbation, levels of enthusiasm, loose groupings with plenty of vertical space within each one. (Hence, no need of half-stars. There are manifestly more than four or six or sixty degrees of artistic value; there are as many as there are artworks.) This correspondent had noticed and wondered about a seeming decline of late in the number of three-star and four-star ratings. Yes, well, I have noticed that, too. And wondered about it. The same writer did not mention, if she remembered, that when I began in the Reader I made use of no ratings whatever. But that didn't win me any friends, either. It was as if I actually had expected people to read. I crumpled. I capitulated. I conformed. Up, as Evelyn Waugh's Mr. Salter might say, to a point. A little later I added a possible fifth star to the original maximum of four, with the foolishly optimistic idea of creating more room for fine distinctions at the top end of the spectrum. Even then it was a different era in movies, but it had already started to become more and more like now.

Of course the angle of attack to which I have always felt vulnerable is not that I give out stars too grudgingly, but that I give out any at all. Dr. Johnson didn't give out stars. Coleridge didn't. Ruskin didn't. Closer to home, Pauline Kael, James Agee, Manny Farber didn't. To use such shorthand is no doubt to succumb to the popularizing effects of a popular art form. Even today you do not catch serious book reviewers using it.

My ready comeback to the anticipated attack could only be the feeble one that if the likes of André Bazin, Georges Sadoul, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, et al., were willing to stoop to those depths in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, who am I to be fastidious? Star ratings are just another tool of expression, the crudest, the roughest, the most primitive sort of tool, almost a gestural tool, a triumphantly clenched fist, a nod, a waggle of the hand, a shrug, a pinched nose. As such they afford the crudest and roughest measuring device by which the critic himself can keep track, and his reader can keep track of him keeping track, of the unstable state of the art.

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Comments

lallaw April 20, 2009 @ 3:13 p.m.

Duncan: That was one long snore...but hey thanks for the English lesson and the tour de France! If you truly want to defend yourself, and have it be read, then hire an editor. Two thumbs down, one "dot," or whatever....

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