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.
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.
This apologia will surely hold no ice and cut no water (and nor would I want it to) with the sort of quote-reader- unquote who finds the movies-are-better-than-ever slogan to be as fresh today as on the morn it was minted, and who fears that the adjective "great" will grow rusty if it does not receive a workout weekly, and who would feel that life were a big fat waste of time if it did not continually approximate the rapture depicted in soft-drink ads. Some of the ranters and railers against me carry on as if it were part of their birthright to be alive during a Golden Age and as if the number of laurels and bouquets strewn in their moviegoing paths were decreed by God to be ever-increasing. I'm here to say -- and I hope I do not sound too much like a Bob Dole-ful Bridge to the Past -- that that's not my sense of the case. The case, you must pardon my bedside manner, looks to me pretty grave; but the nerves of the pacers in the waiting room might be a little calmed if they would understand that two stars are a form of gentle encouragement and one star no death sentence. Just doing my bit to hold down hyperbole.