I first came across the set-up of attaching star ratings to film reviews in Steven H Scheuer's Movies on TV Guide, which used to be published annually in competition with Leonard Maltin's similar and still-running "Movie Guide". Back then, I began keeping lists of films I'd seen and jotting down notes about them (OK, I was a weird kid, but those notes still come in handy) and I started making my own star ratings.
I still keep notes on every film I see but stopped adding stars years ago and only reluctantly go along with the various commissioning editors who need them from me. I think star ratings are for people too busy to read or stupid to understand the actual review.
The job of a film reviewer is not to agree with an illusionary average filmgoer but to describe a movie in such a way that it is recommended to those who'll enjoy it and not to those who won't. I personally think "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is a good (****!) movie, but I know that many people will find it absolutely unwatchable, and I'm sure my enthusiastic review of the picture will still give them a sense that they'd hate it.
Everyone has personal tastes - to a member of The Sid James Appreciation Society, "Carry on up the Khyber" is a better film than "Lawrence of Arabia". There is a critical consensus that "Citizen Kane" is a good film and "Attack of the Giant Leeches" isn't, but I own both movies on DVD and in certain moods I'll reach for the swamp mutant picture (* in most guides) rather than the masterpiece.
It might make more sense to grade pictures on how interesting rather than how good they are, but even that can't be pinned down to a definite grading. Pretending that it is possible to put every film in its place with a rating is absurd and futile, and will always lead to inconsistencies.
Star ratings are comforting and appealing, and I understand my initial list-making obsessive's attraction to them as symptoms of a mind-set Nick Hornby has made a career of celebrating and critiquing. But they're a substitute for thought, insight, debate, and even consumer advice, and we can well do without them.
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