Between Reviews: To See Or Not To See

Posted on September 4, 2010



Forget someone else’s star ratings. The function of movie guides is to inform you who’s in a film and what it’s about, so that you can decide for yourself.

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SEP 5, 2010 – SITTING ON MY DESK IS A NEW REINCARNATION of an old, old friend – Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide. The blurb says it all: “More than 17,000 entries. Including 300+ new entries. More than 12,000 DVD and 13,000 video listings.” The back cover carries a rave from The New York Times Book Review (“The go-to choice for both film geeks and casual couch potatoes”) and a slightly more pedantic thumbs-up from Roger Ebert’s Video Companion (“I recommend Leonard Maltin’s guide, which has become standard”). The first version of the guide I saw was in my local library, a couple of streets from home. In those days, 1987-88 I think, summer vacations meant a lot of reading in the afternoons, and when I saw this doorstop of a book promising to enlighten me (if only in capsule form) about every single movie ever made, I couldn’t help slipping it under my shirt and scurrying away.

I suppose that’s how you know you’re going to end up, however tangentially, in a career related to films – when a windfall like this flashes in front of your eyes and you just have to have it, right there, right then, for fear that another customer might come along and snatch it away before you can run home and examine your pocket money situation and see if there’s enough to cover this rather expensive volume. I subsequently read it all, from Aaron Loves Angela through Zulu Dawn. In those pre-Internet days, getting information about Hollywood and other foreign films meant a long trek to the USIS or British Council libraries, or perhaps a roadside vendor of old books might have an unexpected diamond amidst his coals. But here, right in my own two hands, was this treasure trove. We were inseparable that summer, Maltin and I.

My film reviewing faculties were still inchoate then, so I treated Maltin’s verdicts as commandments. Back then, as opposed to now, I thought film critics were Olympian gods who decreed whether you had good taste or not, so more often than not, I’d look up my favourite films and see how Maltin had dealt with them. I recall two particular examples – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which I’d seen on the VCR of a distant relative I’d sucked up to just because of that VCR) and The Goonies. Desert-island classics, right? Maltin should have awarded an automatic four stars, right? (His ratings range from four stars to BOMB, the latter for bottom-of-the-barrel movies.) Wrong! Temple of Doom (“headache-inducing prequel”) got a mere two stars and The Goonies (“exceptionally noisy, aimed squarely at kids”) fared only marginally better, with two-and-a-half stars. That was it. The man had spoken. I had no taste.

Today, I have to say that my knowledge of several obscure films comes from Maltin’s guide. Much later, when I faced a row of DVDs at a library, for instance, I’d instantly be drawn to what I wanted to see because of what I remembered from Maltin’s descriptions. That’s the real function of a guide such as this one, not to validate taste but to provide a synopsis of films so you know whether to watch them or not – not because he said it’s worth watching but because you felt, despite his ultimate rating, that the synopsis intrigued you. The stars, ultimately, are useless, meaningless. They’re also terribly misleading, as I’ve discovered from my own experience. I’d have awarded a rom-com a three-star rating and a serious drama a two-star rating, and readers will think that, in my estimation, the rom-com is better than the drama. And that is so not the case. All this means is that this particular rom-com is better than a rom-com that got two stars, and that this particular drama is not as good as the other one that got three stars.

You cannot compare within genres based on stars. You cannot predict your own liking of a film based on someone else’s star ratings. You cannot foresee box-office performance based on stars (well, the human kind maybe). Why, then, do we persist with star ratings? I suppose it’s a remnant of years of movie evaluation, when people thought the business of a film critic was to tell us whether to go and watch a film or preferably stay in and look at paint dry. Maltin’s guide – and others of this ilk – has a valuable function to perform but it’s not whether you should or shouldn’t watch a movie. Get an idea of what the film is about, who’s in it, what awards it won, what controversies it stirred up, how long it runs, whether it’s in Cinemascope or Super 35 – but make the decision (to watch) on your own. In this era of Google and IMDb, it’s difficult to see why someone would depend on a mammoth, wrist-unfriendly paperback such as this one, but it does make a hell of a blunt weapon to bring down on the skull of anyone who thinks The Goonies doesn’t deserve four stars.

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