Consistency as a Hobgoblin

May 05, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Generally speaking, consistency is a desirable quality in a film critic. It's how individuals use reviews to determine the likelihood of liking or disliking a movie. If a reader doesn't have a barometer for a critic, it's impossible to tell how well his/her opinions will mesh with the reader's. On the other hand, when the critic is a known quantity, it becomes easier to make a comparison. It's not necessary to regularly agree with a critic for a review to be valuable; it's merely necessary to understand where the similarities and differences lie. This is the reason I always preface a discussion of my "star" ratings with the following qualifier: "Recommended/Not Recommended/etc. for someone whose preferences closely match my own." That's why the meaningfulness of a star or numerical rating is highly subjective. It's the review text where the valuable information is to be found.

If a critic is inconsistent, he or she may still have value as a writer, but his/her ability to function as a recommender is compromised. Roger Ebert is an excellent scribe and his understanding of film is arguably without peer, but his recent trend of doling out four-star ratings to films he would likely have been harsher to ten years ago makes it difficult to trust his reviews with respect to recommendations. A decade ago, my views correlated strongly with Roger's. Now, we disagree more often than we agree. Have I changed? Perhaps - I have moved twice, married, and grown more cynical since I was 30. But Roger's recent and ongoing health issues have more likely given him a deeper appreciation of life and a sense of mortality. (This is speculation, of course.) So it's understandable if his perspectives and priorities have shifted. He has become more forgiving. But this makes comparing Roger Ebert 2008 to Roger Ebert 1990 a difficult and puzzling task. On the other hand, there are many critics I agreed or disagreed with in 1998 that I still agree or disagree with at about the same rate.

Going forward, let me concentrate on myself rather than speculating about Roger. I would estimate my consistency rate at about 98%. That means that 98% of the time when I watch a movie a second time, I have the same opinion of it as when I first watched it. So, while my feelings don't often change, they do change. Apply that 98% to 3500 movies and there are about 70 reviews where the star rating would shift one way or the other by about 0.5 star. In some ways, it's amazing that I feel the same way about so many titles I saw when I was 25 as I do about them at 40. Certainly, the same would not be true of the prior 15-year span. My tastes at 25 did not match those when I was 10. (Favorite movie at 25: Patton. Favorite movie at 10: Star Wars.)

As a general rule, I do not re-write reviews or re-rate movies even when I know my opinion has changed. There's value in the review representing a "snapshot" of my opinion at the time I write it. I can recall having changed three reviews after their publication (although there may be one or two more that I don't remember): Casablanca ("upgraded" from 3.5 to 4.0 stars), Crash ("upgraded" from 2.5 to 3.0 stars), and 3-Iron (rating unchanged but significant changes to the write-up). I have long toyed with the idea of authoring new reviews of select movies I have previously written about; it would be interesting to see whether I notice the same things. This project has ended up on the back-burner but may at some time end up as a regular feature.

I am aware of the titles over the years for which I have diverged the most widely from the consensus. Heat and The Sixth Sense top the list of movies about which I was considerably less enthusiastic than many of those who read this site. I have revisited both more than once in the privacy of my home theater and my opinion remains the same. Maybe I'm just stubborn. On the other hand, I admit disagreeing slightly with three of my six Star Wars reviews - I would knock a half star from Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones. I'm also not as bullish about Forrest Gump as I once was, but my enthusiasm has increased for The Story of Qui Ju. Twister would no longer get three stars but The Mummy might.

The importance of consistency in a film critic is largely a function of what one believes the primary responsibility of such a person to be. This opens up the argument about whether a critic should be "scholarly" or "popular." I think there's room for both types - one to provide broader views about a wide number of movies and the other to explore the dry corners for a select audience that chooses to delve deeply into the nuances of cinema. Consistency is one of the most important characteristics for one who would define himself as belonging in the former category. It is easily trumped by knowledge and experience for those who set themselves up as members of the latter. Scholarly and Popular critics both employ the same tools - film theory and opinion - but they weigh them differently and there is some tension between the two groups as a result. (Scholarly critics belittle Popular critics as having anorexic critical facilities. Popular critics call Scholarly critics elitist and out-of-touch.)

Do film critics change their opinions over the years? Probably more than they're willing to admit. Age changes everyone. That's why so many 20-year old liberal Democrats are conservative Republicans by the time they turn 60. It would be a fascinating project to examine ten critics by having them re-review a few movies today that they initially reviewed during the 1980s (without allowing them to re-read what they once wrote) and see what changes emerge. Ultimately, such a study would be an examination of consistency in all its forms: consistency of style, consistency of opinion, and consistency of film knowledge. My sense is that the critics who are regarded the most highly will be the ones whose 2008 re-reviews track their 1980s original reviews closely. (I'm sure there's a book or a doctoral dissertation in here somewhere.)