Monday, April 15, 2013

Starry-eyed cinema

I don’t exactly know when, but it looks pretty possible that this malignant trend emerged in the mid-eighties. It was Disney-ABC’s At The Movies programme where Gene Siskel and the recently deceased Roger Ebert used to wax and whine eloquently against newly released movies. This being television, they had to encapsulate the movie for which they devised a format that would later destroy the world of movie criticism forever: giving thumbs up, which spawned the Frankenstein’s monster called star ratings.

Rating any form of art on the count of one to five is lazy journalism. Even those who resisted this fell prey to it and that’s why almost every publication in the world has more stars on its pages than the entire solar system together. Barring New Yorker, NYT and a few other publications, all of Western journalism is busy lifting its two thumbs and, if it could, the toes also. In India, only Mint doesn’t do that and neither does this newspaper, which publishes movie reviews intermittently.

My primary grouse with this star rating system is that it kills any scope for a public discourse. These days I meet friends and ask them how that particular movie is and most of them would be like “I would give it three out of five stars”. I don’t blame them if they are reducing cinema to an Ursa Minor because that’s how this beast called movie reviewing seems to function.

That’s why I didn’t join the online mourning of Ebert because unbeknownst to him he killed the art of movie criticism. His predecessors like Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, the Cahiers du Cinema magazine et al championed good, bad and trashy cinema equally by making cogent arguments for and against them. Ebert distilled all of that into a hitchhiking sign language. In every sense of the word, do people even ‘read’ the reviews anymore? Every time I pick up an Anthony Lane review I automatically grow two horns at the end of the piece. His self-effacing, handsome, insightful prose is not to be missed for the garbage called Rotten Tomatoes or an IMDB Rating.

Hindu’s Bhardwaj Rangan ploughs a lonely furrow in India where he tries to make movie criticism as vital as national politics (which in a thinking world it should be) but I wonder if one swallow can make a summer.

When the erstwhile NY Press movie reviewer Armond White railed (for very very good reasons) against most of the popular and money making movies, which would alter their 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes he was yanked from the site. And this man was the New York Film Critics Circle President. This kind of obsession for pip-squeak clean consensus is not good for cinema. If the all-encompassing Internet behaves like a deranged dictator where a voice of dissent could condemn it to a gulag, probably the star-rating needs a relook.


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