The #9 Ratings System

Movie ratings systems tend to come in two basic types: those based on ten and others that are based on four or five.

I find that four or five numbered ratings systems are too truncated for my purposes. It doesn't matter what device or gimmick you use to display them on your show, blog or column (and many do) -- usually stars, but you can also find tickets, monkeys, boobs, bloody axes, ad nauseam -- the point is that, for me, there is just not enough room to operate. The drop from four-star excellence to merely good is just too steep, without any notches in between each star to find footholds for films that might have almost made it to the top (or to hang on for dear life above the dreaded bottom).

The other standby for ratings (used most famously on the Internet Movie Database) is the #10 system, but I find that slightly too long. The problem with the system is that it lacks a center, where absolutely average films can go to retire in their absolutely average lack of splendor. Since it would seem natural that the bulk of movies produced throughout the world would end up in such a category, why not offer one in a ratings system?

There are variations in these systems that actually come close to achieving this. Roger Ebert has two systems. He goes with a #2 system on his show: the famous "thumbs up or thumbs down," which he was brilliant in copyrighting (too bad the Romans didn't think of that). But in his column, Ebert resorts to a four-star system, which is actually a #7 system once you count his 1/2 ratings. Sometimes, his system will stretch to a #8, since he will rarely but occasionally give a film with which he finds absolute disgust no rating at all.

The four stars with 1/2 ratings technique is also employed in many movie ratings guide books, such as Leonard Maltin's annual edition. Maltin's ratings leap at the bottom of his system from 1-1/2 stars to BOMB, giving him a #7 system. I would assume that an absolute BOMB would have zero stars, and if he added a 1 and then a lowly 1/2 rating before he drops the BOMB. If he wasn't so eager to disparage films he dislikes, Maltin Milk-Balls would have ended up with a #9 system. Which brings us to my way of doing things...

When I began The Cinema 4 Pylon on 2005, and really started to pay closer attention to the ratings I was dropping on the Internet Movie Database site (I had been using it to monitor my video collection for several years), I chose to ignore the #10 on the ratings line for each movie on IMDb, and began to rate films with a system based on nine. Using nine as a base allowed my ratings to have a true center -- five -- and allowed an equal number of steps up or down from that center, with enough room for subtleties in determining a film's excellence or quality for me to quit whining about everybody else's ratings systems.

The list, broken into three sections:

9: Classic
8: Excellent
7: Very Good
6: Good (Above Average)

5: Average

4: Bad (Below Average)
3: Very Bad
2: Bordering on Nauseous
1: Excruciatingly Awful

The center of this list is just that: it centers everything that goes on in the system. My assumption is that the bulk of films that are released are not actually good or bad, but simply average. Average films for a populace that accepts mediocrity as a critical vanguard. It is where Chris Columbus films go to die. It is where 18-kids-in-the-house and sloppy dog family movies can rest in pieces for all I care. And it is where the bulk of Katharine Heigl's and Kate Hudson's careers can gather dust for all eternity (except for Almost Famous).

The worst place that a film can land on this list is not at #1, "Excruciatingly Awful" No, it is being relegated to the middle of this list, the merely "Average" slot, for my next assumption is that if a film is actually bad, then there must be a certain level of interest in it. Not so with the average films; to me, the worst cinematic crime that a filmmaker can perpetrate on his audience is lulling them into numbing acceptance of bland materials. Hey, Hamlet, are you drilling for oil? No? Then why don't you stop boring us?

That leaves four slots up and four slots down; up for excellence, down for putrescence. On the low end of the scale, it might shock you to find out that a certain, ill-renowned "Bad Film" does not reside at the bottom of my ratings well. The truth of the matter is that Plan 9 From Outer Space is not the "Worst Film of All Time". Ed Wood possessed a rebellious, though possibly unknowing, ingenuity in getting his oddball, bottom of the heap pictures produced. They were absolutely haphazardly made, often on the fly, and it is the sheer drive which he possessed to create his poverty row affairs that makes him infinitely more interesting than many far more talented directors. To make a transvestite film like Glen or Glenda in the early 1950s (and with buffaloes and Bela Lugosi to boot!) -- we are talking John Waters-level chutzpah in a far less permissive decade. No, neither film rates a "1" on my list; I actually rate them each at 4, which has come to represent "bad movies which still maintain the highest level of interest." Rest assured, Wood's would-be epics are both very bad films when placed against what passes for even average, but they are quite endearing in their relentless naïveté, and the dialogue (especially the monologues) that Wood places in the mouths of his characters are jaw-dropping when taken into one's ear. There are far worse films to have to endure, such as Manos: Hands of Fate (I fully agree with MST3K's assessment) or most of the soulless crap product slapped onto the tube by SyFy Channel, who should have their genre license revoked by this point. One thing you cannot say about Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda: they are not soulless. Nor are they boring at all.

As for the good ratings slots, they are easy to figure out, but I must say that I have an awfully hard time letting a film make the jump to "Classic" status. Even films generally considered to be classics will often get short shrift at my hands, for I feel that they are automatically granted this status without true reflection or a return visitation. However, you can also deeply appreciate a film as a pure work of art without truly loving it. You can recognize the sheer beauty or admire the director's intentions, ranking it highly as art, without ranking it higher than other films that you appreciate more, even if those reasons may not seem as elevated as the ones for the first film.

Alternately, many films that I number amongst my personal favorites do not end up in that hallowed "Classic" category. I adore Harryhausen's The Valley of Gwangi to a nearly incomprehensible degree, and yet even I admit it is merely a fun, science-fiction/western dinosaur flick with remarkable special effects, plagued by some stiff acting and uninteresting lead characters. However much I love it, and have since I was a child, I would never get it near a #9 placement on my ratings system. (While it has a 6 overall on IMDb, I gave it a 7, chiefly for those amazing Dynamation effects sequences.)

Even after over a decade of working with this system, I am still working out some of the details of the list, and am still undergoing the slow and monotonous renovation of my ratings on IMDB to fit its parameters. Anytime I see a picture anew, I reevaluate my rating to make sure that it is properly placed. 

That is a big thing to remember: you can always reevaluate your opinion on a film. Just because you liked a film at one point in your life does not mean that you will continue to like it. You are not always the same person. People mature, and with that maturity can come a change in attitude, politics, and opinion. There are even films that I loved or hated in a theatre within the last few years of which I have altered my opinion (usually slightly) upon a return to the material.

[Editor's note: This is a rewritten, updated and greatly expanded version of a piece I posted on The Cinema 4 Pylon in 2005. Last updated on 2/5/2016.]


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