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Stars and Asteroids

ART TIMES July / August 2007

PREMIERE MAGAZINE’S ANNUAL film critic’s survey of 2006’s most noteworthy films came out this March at the same time there have been reports of a suspicious looking asteroid wandering somewhere above us. I am reminded that the previous year’s survey was published along with warnings that the coming hurricane season would up the odds of Long Island being washed out to sea from its customary 60% to an 80%. I’m not saying there is a connection — it’s just something to think about, OK? At any rate, it seems that once again the critics from the New Yorker, the New York Times and Art Times have been ignored. I had suggested once before, as I recall, that Mayor Bloomberg look into this outrage but I guess he didn’t do anything about it. Maybe a pending natural disaster disturbs sound reasoning; I mean, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s critic makes the list of the ‘nation’s top critics’ and what kind of sense does that make, I ask you? Fort Worth is someplace in Texas, I’m told — do they even have theaters? Roger Ebert was left out, too — something funny is going on, all right.

Well, I don’t want to dwell on the shortcomings of the 2006 survey. Distributing little stars, black or white, is tricky business and fifteen critics (so-called) ranking one-hundred films from the best to worst by doling out little stars can, in its own way, be as fraught with peril as predicting the path of an asteroid or a killer hurricane. Actually, one-hundred-sixteen films went into the survey; ties were grouped under a single ranking. Now given that each critic may award up to four little black stars per film plus a single white star for a really vile film, that’s — let’s see — right, four-hundred-eighty little black, one-hundred-sixteen white and all together — let’s see — wow! five-hundred little stars at the disposal of each and every critic for one-hundred-sixteen films. And for any single film, the fifteen critics, could, mind you, award a maximum of sixty little black stars or a calamitous fifteen little white stars.

I know this starts to sound like something from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy; nonetheless, the mathematics is mind-boggling and it’s no wonder that lesser critics can be overwhelmed by the responsibility of handling over a half-million little stars and completely lose control of their senses. For example, “The Queen”, ranked number one in the survey, pulled a nearly perfect score of fifty-eight black stars; “Pan’s Labyrinth” earned a most satisfying fifty-four; ranked number five, though, are three films including “The Departed”, each scoring fifty points for the tie. There you have it, you see, reckless indulgence in black stars or as it is technically known in cinema as ‘insoucieux de etoile’. The opposite psychological aberration, ‘grand peur de etoile’, or fear of black stars was in startling evidence when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram sent its film critic to only eighty-seven films during the year and he didn’t like forty-eight of them one bit nor was he much taken with “Labyrinth” or “The Departed” either. In fairness, this may be due to the absence of theaters in Fort Worth and the annoyance of having to travel to Dallas or San Antonio to find one. This does leave the Fort Worth Star-Telegram with three-hundred-six left over little black stars and ninety-one white. With a surplus like that they might retire the film critic and let the office boy randomly dispense stars for the next few years. The Texas critic seemed pretty unhappy with his job, anyhow. Running a close second in disgruntledness is the critic for USA Today who skipped out on eleven films, finding eight hateful, and refusing, in a pique to recommend thirty-five — still, this was better than his record of the previous year when he rejected forty-five films.

In looking over the survey one may be tempted to ask how it is that fourteen critics wouldn’t advise their worst enemy see “All the King’s Men” yet the lone critic from Los Angeles hands out a three-star highly recommended? Is this some strange California thing? Did he feel sorry for Sean Penn? Was it the asteroid? The answer to this riddle is, I think that the Los Angeles critic is probably a ‘film reviewer’ or, as we critics like to say, a critic manqué. Reviewers assume you haven’t seen the film yet; all you want is a little guidance so you’re not in the market for any profound critical analysis — neither is the reviewer, for that matter. Since he figures the majority of film goers don’t have PhD’s in film studies and any film — if it’s loud, fast and has healthy slugs of sex and violence — will please them, he will recommend just about anything. Reviewers are well known to have enormous reserves of little black stars. Of course, this isn’t how we do things at the New Yorker, or the New York Times, or Art Times — and we don’t rely on little black and white stars, thank you.

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