Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Way We Rate the Things We Do

A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.
Alfred Hitchcock

I've been writing reviews on a blog for awhile now, and I've always had a "bottom line" approach to them. Every review does, to one degree or another, no matter how idiosyncratically (maybe that should be "idiosyn-critically") they disguise it. There's always some short-hand way of distilling the work--the sweat and blood and talents of those who make films or put up the money for them. And entertainment editors bend over backwards to find an interesting way to award those ratings, each one with some arbitrary value of mythical importance. Stars, popcorn bags, smiley faces, reels of film--if it's associated with movies it can be used as the currency on which a film is judged. How many of these little pictograms constitutes a classic? 5 stars? Too much like a restaurant or hotel review for me, plus for a film, five is not enough. Ten stars? That's about right. Then, of course, you can low-ball it the way those Romans, Siskel, Ebert and Roeper do with the decidedly unchristian "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down." Not a lot of wiggle-room there. It's either good or bad, black and white (even in Technicolor), even if they occasionally hedge their bets with the limp "thumb somewhat up."

For me, it comes down to economics: How much is this movie worth? Not in terms of the creative accounting Hollywood is known for, but in the most important coin of the realm there is: Yours. How much of your hard-earned money should you be expected to shell out for this disaster? A lot, or not?

So, there are five basic categories, all extremely practical--all with one-on-one corolaries to the real world--no having to fudge whether 6 out of 10 stars constitutes a full-price evening ticket or a cheaper matinee. We take the guess-work out of it.

These are my completely unobjective, biased (though one has to admit, realistic) categories for films:

1) Full-Ticket Price. The cost of a first-run evening show. The movie is worth seeing in a theater for whatever reason, even at full price.

2) Matinee Not worth a full-price ticket, but still worth seeing on the big screen, but save some of your money because it's no Citizen Kane.

3) Rental For whatever reason, pick it up on your own terms, in your own home. Not worth making an appointment or going out of your way.

4) Cable-watcher Less than Net-flix, because cable gives you more options for viewing. Don't schedule your life around this film, in fact, there are probably better options channel-surfing. If it's a distraction, and it just happens to collide with your eye-balls, this is it.

5) A Waste of Film (or video--don't get technical!) Don't waste your life along with it. There's nothing to get from this film, and the only thing the makers got was another notch on their resume/imdb site.

Now, the rationale: There are four factors (well, 4 1/2) that combine to make these ratings. Bear with me. This was distilled from a ten page treatise on film "worth" that ultimately wasn't worth it to repeat (or even type).

1) Blatant Con$umeri$m

How much entertainment does the movie provide for YOUR dollar? Pirates of the Caribbean is a big entertainment that provides a lot of swashle for your buck. Is it worth seeing in a theater? Hell, yeah? I don't care how big your home-screen is, you won't get the same visceral thrill as seiing it in a theater--where it is meant to be seen and heard (Don't even start with me about your ipod). Is POTC a classic? Nope. History will be the ultimate judge, but I don't think so. I'd call it a matinee.

Is it worth going to see How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days at the Cinerama? Nope. The Simpsons Movie? Nope. You may looooove these movies, but it's not worth seeing them in the theater. It's just not. Stretching them to 80 feet across will not improve them one bit.

So, am I saying that it all comes down to the movie's budget? No. X-3 was one of the most expensive movies ever made, but I'd say it's only worth a rental. By contrast, American Graffiti was one of the cheapest, yet deserves to be seen on the big screen. It's not the money spent (or sometimes sunk) on a movie that matters. It's what's done with it, and whether that's reflected on the screen.

2) The Shock of the New

There are new ideas and new ways to present those ideas cropping up all the time. It's much better to see it in a hive-environment, like a theater, than it is isolated at home. The film-makers intend their movies to be seen as a group experience (well, that's the hope, anyway!), a shared experience. Comedies work better this way, as do horror films. It's just another case to be made in the economic equation of the choice of venue for seeing a particular film.

3) The Devil's in the Details

With movies swooshing over your corneas at 24 frames per second (30 for video), there's a lot to take in, but here are two aspects of it:

a) Creativity: Film-making has a lots of arts imbedded in it (writng, photography, writing, acting, composing), but two main communicative tools:* Montage (how things are put together), and Mise en Scène (what's in the frame to see--basically photography). It's the intricacy of the latter concept that pays off in theater-viewing, whether it's the burning ships of Starship Troopers or the isolated figures in a landscape of The Searchers. On the other hand, the blurred CGI swoops of Spiderman III are as indecipherable on your home system as in the theater.

b) Technology: A bit tough to explain, but I'll give an example. Despite the protestations of some anal-retentives, there has been a move of late to improve the special effects of older films (I'm thinking specifically of the first "Star Wars" films and the "Star Trek" television series). Both underwent extensive re-vamps owing to the improved capacities of digital effects, and the way older "matte" effects were exposed in higher resolution formats, ie. "Star Trek's" shuttle-craft always had moving blocks of emulsion surrounding them, from the comparatively sloppy "travelling matte" effects techniques of the 1960's. It looked bad on late model tv's. It would look even worse with the advent of HD, and plasma-screens. So, efforts were made to fix them, as Lucas had scrapped the "travelling matte" shots of the early "Star Wars" films, for the cleaner CGI shots of the "Special Editions." The intricacy with how films are now made make more of a case for theater-viewing a bit, but again fast-paced effects (see a. above) often negate that advantage. And non-effects films like Lawrence of Arabia, or There Will Be Blood, benefit from a theater experience for the sheer scope that a more intimate viewing situation would not provide.**

4) The Big Picture (or not)

What's the intent of the film-maker? They all want their films to be seen "wide," of course, by a mass audience. For them, that's the economic best case. But not all films need that large canvas to tell the story. Do the films of Wes Anderson need the big-screen? Or Judd Apatow? Or Nora Ephron? Or Quentin Tarentino (Kill Bill, maybe, but not Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown.)?

It's an odd equation. Spectacle versus content. Quality versus worth. And how you view things at home are just as important a factor.

What is a movie worth to you? It's personal, but there can be consensus. I can only offer my opinion where your dollar and time should go, and that's my focus and my ultimate goal for this site.

* Thank you, "Cahiers du Cinema" School of Criticism. You may think Jerry Lewis is a genius ("He's a very funny man!"), but for those concepts, and your bucking-the-trend appreciation of Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, we salute you. Thanks for all those films, too. (Now about that "putting all your eggs in one basket" auteur theory...)
** I have a friend who, after years of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on video, finally saw it on the big-screen. "Th-there were people in those windows!" he said. Yes, there always was. You just couldn't see them on your 36" Sony.   "People in the windows" is an important part of 2001: A Space Odyssey: You have to see the little ants in their out-sized constructions to give them their due as a species.

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