This Column is Not Yet Rated

- July 26, 2011

"...just exactly why do critics feel it necessary to add a thumbs-up, **1/2, or B+ rating to their reviews?.."

So there I am posting movie reviews on Video Library's Facebook page, and I notice I'm not adding stars or grades or any symbolic assessment to my opinions.

I ask myself, "Self, just exactly why do critics feel it necessary to add a thumbs-up, **1/2, or B+ rating to their reviews? Shouldn't the tone of the writing indicate approval or its lack?"

Self answers, "It's because people now receive 300 times more data per day than they did in 1960. We must filter and choose. The thumb is the critic's shortcut to help consumers decide whether to spend their money on a movie, book, game, download, whatever."

Fine. Seems to me, though, if the review is short, as mine are, readers should be able to discern my take for themselves.

Nevertheless, even in digest form, this reduction of considered valuation to a single icon is the hallmark of criticism today.

It has long been thus.

Using the city newspaper format of the starred movie review, Leonard Maltin in 1969 adopted this common press usage for his first paperback Movie Guide. His incremental system, still in use, runs from BOMB (the equivalent of *) to ****, with half-stops between stars, allowing for seven appraisal choices.

In 1986, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert brought this journalistic approach to TV with their 30-minute rundown of the week's new releases. Knowing the typical viewer's attention span, they finalized each commentary with a thumb up or down, reprising their decisions at the end of the show.

(Ebert, by the way, owns the copyright to the thumb. As he's not on the tube any more, neither is his digit. His critiques in print, however, are starred.)

Though the Variety and Hollywood Reporter industry trades don't utilize these accoutrements, the leading pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly certainly does, and in even greater detail.

Their editorial approach, be it movie, video, music, book, game, gizmo, or theater, is to assign a letter grade, like in school. The EW system ranges from A+ to F, offering 13 options. I've not yet seen an F-, but never say never.

Over the years, many schools have abandoned letter grades in favor of the simple Pass/Fail. Far less judgmental than the old way, and a lot more democratic-looking on transcripts, P/F gets the job done, and succinctly.

Accordingly, this column is now done. I'm giving it a P-minus.