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Filmwell: To Thumb or Not to Thumb?

I’ve been meaning to call attention to a new link on the sidebar for a few weeks now, and this is a good opportunity to do so. Check out Filmwell, a new collaborative film site featuring contributions from many of the people whose sites I already have linked. The first thing you’ll note is that their subtitle is a question: “Is this a film blog?” As near as I can tell, the short answer is “sort of.” But the answer is not important. What is important is that you will find all sorts of great essays on a variety of fascinating subjects posted regularly, as well as reviews of movies that are well off the beaten track. They have a lot of great stuff already, including the essay that I’m linking to here: A three-star rant about thumbs.

Jeffrey Overstreet rather eloquently questions the usefulness, and even the advisability, of film critics submitting to the universal practice of summing up a film by “grading” it on any sort of limited scale at the head of a review. I think he makes a fantastic case here, but I also think he might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater a bit. I have certainly seen Roger Ebert question and deride his very limited 4-star rating system, and the “thumbs up/thumbs down” model is even worse. However, within certain contexts I think that trying to communicate how well you liked a film within some sort of system is worthwhile. I definitely find the numbers generated by sites like “Rotten Tomatoes” useful as a consensus opinion of “experts” which only rarely leads me astray.

I also like the idea of “grading” movies, which is one of the reasons I have a 100-point scale to work with. I rate movies based on a few different things, assigning up to 50 points based on my opinion of the film’s quality and success at achieving what it sets out to achieve, and 50 points based on how much I enjoyed or appreciated it personally. When I come up with the resulting percentage, I generally find that the range it falls in (D+, B-, A, etc.) tends to fit my opinion of the film’s quality and enjoyability reasonably well. Nevertheless, there are definitely shortcomings to this system. For instance, my ratings are ultimately most useful to me and to people who share my tastes. And, as Jeffrey rightly points out, slapping a number on something at the outset is kind of an invitation to the reader to take that as your opinion and move on to something else. Why read the review when I know what you think already?

In any case, this post continues to challenge me, as other such pieces have in the past, to constantly be looking for eloquent, informative ways to express in prose what I think and feel about a movie and why. It’s a reminder that I can always use, and if more people would try to think past the “loved it/hated it” approach to film, I’m sure our appreciation of (and dialogue about) the movies would be enriched immeasurably:

Many thanks to the film critics who have drawn me in with thoughtful analysis, with imaginative prose, and with insight that shows they really took the time to think things through. Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Steven Greydanus, Doug Cummings, Ron Reed, Michael Sicinski, Matt Zoller Seitz, to name just a few, not to mention the contributors here at Filmwell. I’ve learned as much from movie reviewers as I have from filmmakers. I’ve learned about paying attention, about plot and character development and color and commerce. I’ve found new lenses through which to understand films that frustrated or befuddled me. And I’ve had some of my most fundamental convictions about art, life, politics, and even faith challenged by things I’ve read in considerations of artists as varied as Kieslowski, Tarantino, Spielberg, Jarmusch, Ozu, Kubrick, and Miyazaki.

I also greatly appreciate those who write with a humility that suggests their perspective is their own… and thus limited, personal, and inseparable from their own experiences, preferences, and passions. Ater all, despite what you’ll read in many reviews, no one person has the authority to describe a film with words like “Most” or “Best” or “Classic.”

Oh, how critics love superlatives. I think I’m developing an allergy. I look back at certain reviews from the ’90s and I get sick to my stomach at the shows of arrogance — particularly because I wrote those reviews. “The best film of the year so far.” Who has the authority to say such a thing? Who has already seen all of the films this year has to offer? Who ever will see them all, and be able to make such a pronouncement?

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~ by Jared on May 4, 2009.

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