Monday, November 17, 2008
Thumb and thumber
One of the casualties of the original At The Movies was the end of the thumb-based rating system, which was denied to the new show by the copyright holders, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's widow . Since then, we have been stuck with a number of other options, most popularly the 4- or 5-star ratings as well as lesser known systems such as the San Francisco Chronicle's "Little Man", and even a tomato-based rating system.
Behold, the return of the thumb--not as a replacement of the stars but in addition to them on Ebert's Web site next to the list of movies in theaters and new on DVD (but not new reviews of the week). And yet, I am left dissatisfied. The great benefit of the Siskel & Ebert thumb-based rating system was its utter lack ambiguity. Of course, that is also a draw back, but it really defined what was great about the old show--two guys who were highly educated and with refined tastes breaking it down for the masses on a very basic level. We wanted their learned and insightful opinions but without any academic gushing about Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Post-Modern this and that. Do you recommend it or not? Is the thumb up or down?
This new system provides one or two thumbs, both (if there are two) pointing in the same direction. What does this mean? I'll break it down:
= 3.5 to 4 stars
= 3 stars
= 2.5 stars
= 2 stars and down
This is based on a quick look at some of the "thumbed" reviews, but unless somebody can find an example that differs from this, I think it is accurate. That means zero to 2 stars get the same rating. Of course, part of the fun at this level is discerning the difference between a 1.5 star movie and a 0.5 star movie, not to mention zero stars. That is always a shock--man, he REALLY hated, hated, hated, hated, hated that movie, he couldn't even spare a star.
First problem--by tradition, Ebert has only one thumb, not two. I remember getting annoyed with people in the past who would say "I give it two thumbs up!" You can't do that--you can only give one thumb, and the other thumb is provided by another person. If Ebert and Siskel each only get one thumb, then so do you. That is what makes it meaningful--two thumbs up means that two discerning critics liked it, not that one person really liked it. Either Siskel or Ebert could be wrong--the split vote would tell us that. But it is quite rare that they were both wrong. If you disagreed with two thumbs pointing in the same direction, then it is probably you who were mistaken.
Second problem: the star-to-thumb conversion is algorithmic. That means you can program a computer to do it. Not HAL 9000 or the WOPR with a fancy artificial intelligence system, but any fool with a Commodore 64 and a 50 page book on programming. You don't even need to calculate the conversion, just create a static list the program can use to look up the conversion. That's even less complicated than converting Fahrenheit to Celsius, a classic beginners programming problem.
Sorry to get all computer geek, but here is where this is important--this conversion was not done by a critic (read Ebert or his editor Emerson) but "calculated"--or converted--by a script on the Web server. This isn't a new review like the "Great Movies" feature--which is excellent. Some Web programmer was just told to have the page serve up thumbs in replace of stars. The reader gets no value added to the review--in fact less, since we now don't know exactly how good or bad two thumbs up or down are.
The thumbs add nothing to the review and are an unnecessary distraction for two reasons. First, for now the thumbs are difficult to read. Look up and down the list of "thumbed" movies on Ebert's page and you will see that the thumbs are so small that you really have to stop and look at what direction the thumb is pointing. Compared to stars, where more are simply better PERIOD, it requires us to do more work to figure out what it means, when all the real work was done by the critic (Ebert) when he designated the stars in the first place.
Second, I still believe that 4-stars is the best rating system, better even than 5-stars, which I get confused by because I am always trying to convert it back to the 4-star system. I know the difference between a 3, 3.5, and 4-star movie in a 4-star system. I have no idea what the difference is between a 3, 3.5, 4 and 4.5 star movie in a 5-star system. But this is probably because I have read Ebert's reviews far more extensively and have done so for far longer than I have read any other critic, so maybe it is just my problem.
So what is this all about? I suspect it is a copyright thing. Maybe Ebert had to use thumbs in order to avoid losing the copyright. More likely, it seemed like an opportunity--if only Ebert is allowed to use the thumbs, why not use them? At the moment, it seems random and poorly executed. It doesn't add anything to what is already a great site and a relatively unambiguous rating system (in spite of the problems of any numerical rating system). And I don't see them advertising "RogerEbert.com: the only movie review site that uses a thumb-based rating system!"
Don't get me wrong--Ebert is still the best in my book. Always will be. It will take another critic 20 years of brilliant and prolific writing to even threaten to replace him. But this computer-generated thumb system looks like a confusing step backwards to me.