A Five-Star Diatribe

Such-and-such movie got 57% on Rotten Tomatoes!

Really? It got a 7.1 on Metacritic.” 

One of my biggest pet peeves about reading entertainment reviews is the employment of the five-star rating system (and its many cousins such as the score out of 100, and A-B-C grade). Some argue that such a system allows readers to quickly gauge if a movie is worth their time without having to read through the entire article. Other times, the individual opinions by critics are averaged so that the reader can get an idea of the general consensus. 

Unfortunately, the fact that a movie is rated 23% or 2.3 or C- tells the potential movie-goer absolutely nothing about whether or not they will like the movie. (Thus producing a crowd of angry consumers commenting that the critics must be crazy or stupid because such-and-such movie was completely awesome/horrible). 

thumbs-up1In exchange for its simplified convenience, the number scale sacrifices meaning by obscuring the subjectivity of the ratings. Movie reviews are completely useless unless you know the theoretical stance of the critic (Do they care about… the acting? how realistic it is? representations of women? What is their own social/religious/political background?). No writer or critic is objective or innocent in this respect. If the critic is judging the movie with standards that are not in line with your own, then their numeric rating says nothing about how much you will appreciate said film. By turning an expression of taste into numbers, language is undermined and meaning subverted. 

The five-star rating system makes the faulty assumption that a person’s perspectives on a book or movie can be characterized as  an objective degree of excellence. Most importantly, it assumes that taste is the same for any audience. It fails to consider either sociohistorical context or individual response. 

thumbs-downBut numeric rating systems are only the tip of the problematic iceberg of reviews. The truth is our society places too much value on emotional appreciation, reader response, the pleasure principle, or whatever else you want to call it. People assume that their emotional reaction to a literary work is equivalent to how “good” the work is (i.e. its literary value). Too often I hear students talk about how much they dislike the novels they read in lit class, wondering “Why are we reading this? It’s so boring/bad/lame/hard.” Unfortunately, their aesthetic “judgment” of a text is based on a visceral reaction rather than intellectual analysis.

Perhaps my beef with those silly stars is that they are a gauge of society’s Id-driven pleasure principle rather than an actual examination of aesthetics. Anyone and everyone can write an amateur review and talk about what they liked or disliked, but I am wholly uninterested in that kind of instinctual subjectivity. Reviews push prescriptive agendas of taste; criticism, on the other hand, speaks of technique and device, interpretation and meaning. 

(This is not to say that I hate all reviewers. Some are actually able to get past individual response (or assumed audience response) and I’m quite fond of New Yorker reviews – which happen to be sans stars. :))

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Confessions of a Theatre Usher

Before the Grammar Nazis come after me, I’d like to absolve myself by saying that I like to spell certain words the British way – i.e. theatre, realise, grey, etc. – It’s my thing, deal with it.

Also, I’d like to draw your attention to my new banner :] (I love MS paint!), which I am quite proud of since I usually get someone to do this type of thing for me. See if you can recognize any of the pictures! Finally, given the frequency that I hope to be attending performances/lectures/readings this year, I’ve added a new category “Stage Spy” for my reviews/thoughts on the events that I go to so be sure to check it out sometime if you want to see what’s new on the LA cultural/literary/intellectual scene.

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Royce HallToday I ushered for UCLA Live for the first time and it was definitely a great start for the season. I love wearing nice high heels and looking “like a lawyer” (although I will have to wait till next time to get my bow tie). I always find it so much fun to dress up and look formal/professional; it makes me feel all grown-up and smart (I silently grieve the extension of the Casual Friday to all five weekdays on the West Coast).

Anyways, one interesting observation I made through the course of today was how people’s manners seem to change based on who they’re dealing with.

Earlier in the day I did some tabling/flyering for Aleph (the UCLA Undergraduate Research Journal for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences – GET PUBLISHED! *not so subtle plug*); passing out flyers, by the way, is probably one of the top five most depressing campus activities to engage in. I’d stand by a walkway, looking as friendly and harmless as possible, and yet people would see the flyers in my hands and veer off their original course (i.e. go to the other side of the street) just to avoid talking to me. As you extend your flyer out, most people will just shake their heads and walk on, but I’ve found that people wearing sunglasses are the worst. They hide behind their stunna shades, feeling empowered, fabulous, and anonymous enough to breeze past people like they don’t exist.

Maybe I just got rejected too many times in a one-hour flyering shift, but when I ushered tonight I was struck by how polite the patrons were. Almost every person who walked through the “center left” doors said “Thank you” when I handed them a program and several smiled or asked how I was. Yes, these are basic pleasantries and perhaps the theatre-going crowd is simply better behaved than the typical college student rushing to class, but the stark contrast just seemed so strange to me.

I realise that etiquette is often seen as an artifice, especially in modern times, but I still believe that it serves an important purpose in social interactions. I never understood how people could be so rude to one another (i.e. cutting in line, swearing, road rage), even if they found the other person to be an inconvenience. Shouldn’t a person with true manners treat everyone equally with the respect that they deserve? Or does etiquette inherently contain different rules for different “classes” of people? More importantly, do manners and etiquette even matter in this modern society of Casual Monday-thru-Friday’s, a tell-all tabloid world that blurs (or eliminates) the line between our private and public selves?

Ok, end of long tangent! I’m actually blogging to gloat about the highlight of my week: ushering for meeting John Updike!

John UpdikeI, Sophia Literaria, was in the same room with a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (I’m actually pretty sure this is the first time this has happened… unless I unknowingly met one during the LA Festival of Books last year).

Sadly, I must confess that I haven’t read any of his novels (although after his talk, I’ve placed The Witches of Eastwick on my list of Books To Read). I know Updike mainly from his vast body of work in The New Yorker, but even without reading his longer pieces of writing, I found myself fascinated by his take on the creative process and the influences of age on his literary perspective. Plus, he was very funny/witty/(dare I say cute?) in that wonderful eccentric grandfather sort of way that always delights me.

I think the thing that struck me the most during the talk was Updike’s rule of publishing a book a year. Updike is an extremely productive writer, who comes out with short stories, reviews, poetry, and novels at an almost insane pace, especially given the length of his career. His body of work is seriously large enough to fill its own bookshelf. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this pace compromises the quality of his writing, if he could be even greater if he had the patience and tranquility to stick to one idea at a time. Updike spoke of great admiration for writers like Saul Bellow who don’t mind “not seeing his name in print” for long periods of time. I almost sense an insecurity in Updike’s admission that he feels antsy when he doesn’t see his work in the public eye for a while.

The Widows of EastwickAnd yet this is not a complete reading of Updike’s motivations for his frenetic pace. I think Updike takes his position as a prominent literary figure seriously and pushes to remain in the public eye in part because he wants to affect change and influence opinion in a world that is increasingly dismissive of writers and literature as a whole. As Updike pointed out, the position of the writer in society has greatly diminished since the times of the Great Depression onward. I feel like most people these days see fiction the same way they see the movies – as a simple form of entertainment. We don’t see our poet laureates as “prophets” or “oracles of truth” anymore. We dismiss the greatest authors of the Western canon as inferior to Rowling and Meyer simply because they are “hard to read”. We dive into racy plotlines instead of immersing ourselves in language that is beautifully wrought; because we’ve abandoned good writing for quick summer reads and trashy paperbacks, good writing has abandoned us.

However, old-fashioned writers like Updike, who still writes the first drafts to his novels by hand, continue to bravely cling to the idea that maybe they can still make a ripple in the social consciousness, despite Harry Potter, fanfiction, and blogs (*pleads guilty*).