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The Craft Opinion Brewery (T.C.O.B.) #4 by Leonidas Michael


WHAT’S IN A FILM RATING?

…barley, hops and water

Last Friday, I was on my way from Noordhoek back to Cape Town. Recalling just in time how difficult it is to get onto the Ou Kaapse Weg from that road, I turned right into Hou Moed Avenue. My intention was to get to the traffic lights on the other side of the Sun Valley Mall and join the highway there. A second flash of inspiration reminded me of the Long Beach Brewery that’s located in the industrial park on Hou Moed. By then, an hour more or less didn't really matter to me.

It was a muggy spring day, the better part of which I’d spent in the car. Once inside the brewery, the cool air, fragrant with hops, and the gleam of beer vats in the dim light had a calming effect on me. And as well as an evident abundance of beer, there was no shortage of good conversation.

Some others who happened to be out in the South Peninsula that Friday seemed to have had a similar inspiration to mine. We sat around a trestle counter, some of us on old wooden stools, some on piles of sacks filled with malt. Through the window was a view of the vlei on the other side of the road. The rushes were absolutely motionless. Overhead the sky was fuzzy blue. Somewhere in the distance the waves were breaking on Long Beach.

One of the topics of conversation was the rather perplexing notion held by some South Africans, that intimidation, harassment, assault, arson, robbery and murder are justifiable as long as the victims come from the far side of the country’s borders. And there was much debate around whether this notion ought to be called “xenophobia” or “afrophobia”*.

As time went by, however, we began to feel our aptitude for getting our heads around the problem diminish. So, with typical Cape Town deference, we conceded that there were people better able than ourselves to deliver satisfactory solutions and the conversation turned to the subject of beer. Possibly, the brewer influenced the flow of our thoughts by giving us a taster of one of his products called Deep Water. It’s a Porter: a crisper variation of the stout.

Then, someone in the company raised his half empty cup and announced with conviction, “That’s a nine out of ten!” The rating provoked a small debate. I, along with others, agreed that the beer under scrutiny was good (though if you’re driving don’t drink more than one or you risk ending up in deep water). But did it deserve to be rated nine out of ten? Why not eight or, indeed, ten out of ten? And what exactly did these values mean?

Though a beer lover, I did not consider myself expert enough to insist on my opinion and so stayed on the margin of the debate. But that’s when it occurred to me that one might pose a similar question about film ratings. What do they mean, if indeed they have a meaning?

In my opinion, the question is best approached by examining the people who produce the film ratings, that is, the critics. Now it’s true that these days everyone is a critic, so the diversity of this group is quite bewildering. Nonetheless, I assert that two salient characteristics are common to them. First, the belief in the superiority of their opinion. Second, the ambition that other people – as many as possible – believe in the superiority of their opinion.

As in all things, there are exceptions. There are critics who do not care what other people think of their opinion. They’re somewhat like those political experts who have all the solutions to the country’s problems somewhere up their sleeves yet never stand for election. That their opinion will never have a real effect on society makes them no less eager to keep on expressing it. No one invests confidence in them, but that doesn’t bother them. They’re quite content in the belief that their opinion is superior.

But what is a superior opinion? We all know how difficult it is to convince other people that our personal opinion is better than theirs, even when there’s tangible evidence at hand. When it’s a matter of something as abstract as the aesthetic appreciation of a film, convincing others that we know better should be impossible.

The critic has found not one but two ways around the problem. First, he might convince a great many people that his personal opinion is superior by pandering to mass opinion – rather, I should say prejudice. Or he might contrive to be paid by the people or organisations that have a vested interest in spreading his opinion, for example, film distributors. Nothing proves superiority quite like a fat bank account.

Now, a paradox arises in that an opinion produced in the ways just described, far from being superior, is corrupt and vulgar. So, on the opposite end of the spectrum occupied by critics contented solely by their own belief in the superiority of their opinion, you find those who are satisfied just as long as everyone else believes their opinion is superior. They are somewhat reminiscent of rabble-rousing or venal politicians who are comfortable with their immorality as long as their personal following or wealth is expanding.

These two types of critics, as I said before, are exceptions. Most of them place themselves somewhere in between the two extremes. They try to avoid solipsism. They try as much as possible to be sincere. And, if their survival should depend on producing opinions that serve a vested interest, they stop short of the most outrageous untruths or drop a hint here and there that all things are relative. Evidently, there are parallels between film criticism and the tacking, chicanery and word-juggling that we find in politics. So if you’ve ever read a film review and wondered whether there’s a motive behind all the bombast, erudition or platitude, your suspicion is quite justified.

But the critic, remember, would like very much for you to believe that that bombast, erudition or platitude (or sometimes a combination of all three – reviews can be quite artful) constitutes a superior opinion. And here is where the RATING comes into play.

By presenting a rating at the end of his review, the critic creates the semblance of a logical conclusion. With a numerical value between one and ten, a quantity of stars – usually countable on one hand – or a percentile, all the preceding bombast, erudition, platitude or artful combination of the three becomes by implication a mathematical calculation. Implied: if we can’t follow it, our education must be at fault.

And on the subject of education, anyone who has learnt to read has probably also endured at least ten years of his being rated. Grades, marks out of ten, out of a hundred, A-s, B-s, C-s, stars, kudos, Noddy badges, Brownie points… whatever name they go by, we have a habit of taking them seriously because throughout our formative years they were a real indication of whether we were getting ahead or being left behind. And because they were handed down to us from someone in authority, we got into the habit of respecting them. The critic knows and exploits it.

Numbers also have an authority of their own. I’m tempted to call it magic. For whether understood or not, they imbue whatever is near them with an aura of rationality. We’ve all noticed how much more convincing a politician sounds when he backs his social theorising with statistics. Admittedly, that’s a mere parlour trick compared to proving that something as vapid as the aesthetic evaluation of a film is rational. Nonetheless, critics everywhere continue to have remarkable success in this pursuit. That nearly all of them make use of numerical or numerically quantifiable ratings cannot therefore be by chance.

In brief, what I’m trying to say, is that film ratings are a gimmick. Though that’s not necessarily bad. As with politicians, there are good ratings and there are bad ratings. For example, those given by the critic known as Spling are good. He produces them by means of the “Splingometer”, a rating device that uses a 10-point calibration system. It measures to a truly extraordinary degree of accuracy. I swear by it. In fact, I very often dispense with spending time and money on going to the cinema by taking a few minutes to absorb the relevant Splingometer-rating and concomitant opinions. By occasion, I’ve found it convenient pass them off as my own to the less educationally advantaged.

Perhaps you are beginning to wonder whether there’s a motive behind this column… a touch of venality behind the bombast, erudition and platitude that characterise the opinions of this reader of other peoples’ opinions? You may well be justified… So the moral of the story is, if you want to know how good or bad a film is, go and watch it yourself.

Long Beach Brewery was forged by two guys with a passion to create crisp, refreshing handmade craft beers with the finest ingredients. The brewery is named after the famous Cape Town surf and horse-riding destination and situated in Cape Town's beautiful, Noordhoek valley. Their craft beer selection includes: Bomb Shell, a Belgium style Blonde ale, Green Room, an Indian pale ale or Deep Water, their dark ale and stout Porter. They say only a surfer knows the feeling... Long Beach Brewery's aim is to make it possible for everyone to "know the feeling". Buy Now

* A very serious matter. T.C.O.B. is aware that life is not just about films and hedonism. However, we feel that this is not the right place to discuss it in a manner commensurate to its seriousness.