Many times in life I find myself in an argument that cannot be settled, not because myself and the person I am debating with cannot understand each other’s points, but because ultimately we disagree on basic terminology. Because of this I find myself compelled to discuss the issue today in explaining my war on the use of the word ‘good’ and the actual meaning of a C grade as it applies to media.
Like many people when I see my friends after having been out to the movies I get asked a question, you know the one, some variation on ‘Was it good?’. That question always gives me pause, because to me that could be asking one of three things:
Was it objectively well made?
Did you enjoy it?
Do you think I would enjoy it?
The answer to each of these questions is different for different reasons and usually I, in turn, end up answering all of them, however things get more difficult if the person has already seen the film. As I explained before in my Why So Serious post, a lot of people take issue when someone points out flaws in a movie as reasons they did not like it and can take it a bit personally. I phrase it this way because most people, in my experience, don’t get particularly bothered when you simply say you don’t like something, but if you give reasons then it tends to seem like an attack on their enjoyment of that thing. Almost like a callout; ‘Oh, you didn’t notice X? What a simpleton you must be to have enjoyed a movie with that flaw.’ (I don’t want to make a straw man argument here, this is just how my criticisms seem to come across to a lot of people I talk to.) The aftermath is usually a debate over whether the flaw that is indisputably there is relevant or not. Not every plot hole and flaw can completely derail a film, however it is a blemish and enough of them combined equal a lowering of my internal score of a movie or show.
Think along the lines of a Spanish test, you need to answer the questions correctly in this other language, however there are certain words that need to be used in certain cases for the sentences to be grammatically correct. There are accents that must be placed for the spelling of the word to be legitimate. Sure you can make a mistake and still be understood, however each mistake detracts from the overall grade. After a while, if enough of them are made, the teacher has no choice but to fail the student because there are too many things wrong. Likewise there may be another student who made many of the same mistakes, though nowhere near as frequently and managed a passing grade, while yet another makes only one or two spelling and grammatical errors letting them keep their lead on the honor roll. (Then there is the student who is writing in Greek and doing it wrong at that, that’s what I think of for movies like The Room and Birdemic.) Though even this example is only valid for films in the same genre because all movies cannot be graded the same way, I will not be as harsh on a poorly formed romance in an action movie as I will in an actual romantic film, they carry two separate weights.
That example is how I get stuck in a loop when debating film and television with those who watched the same thing. What tends to happen is that I argue a plot hole in one movie as breaking the film where I would deem the same mistake acceptable in another movie and find myself chasing my tail in trying to explain why it was fine, yet still a mistake, in one instance but not acceptable in another. When all is said and done usually I can safely establish that there were mistakes, however when it comes time to grade the piece of media we hit an impasse. Regardless of the scale most media to me struggle to hit a 5 out of 10 and because of how math works it tends to be equated to a regular grading system, meaning that I gave it a 50% which is a fail. The misconception is in the comparison of these two things and what they mean, for me a 5 out of 10 score is average, it’s in the middle not high or low, it’s a pass, it’s the bare minimum to get by, it’s fine. So is a C grade which it equates to, however in both cases it comes across as a negative, the reality is reflects the state of most media.
Most film and television is fine, it does not break the barriers or push social conceptions, it isn’t using techniques or styles that challenge the norm, they are just media. Media with a beginning, middle and end, rising action and denouements, they have all the parts necessary to tell a story. Regardless of how much more someone likes movie A over movie B most times both films are about the same in terms of quality, they make the same spelling mistakes, as it were, to call back to the earlier example. In that, when a movie makes mistakes, when there are leaps of logic and unexplained elements, the overall grade is hurt, however as long as none of these mistakes are detrimental to the overall purpose of the film it will usually be able to sit comfortably at average.
The inherent sentiment behind the traditional grading system is where I feel the dissonance lies, an A means a solid grasp of the material and a B means there were a few mistakes, but overall the student understands while a C is looked at as the student technically passed, but it is clear they don’t really understand. In the eyes of a traditional grade scale as applied to film and television an A is seen as average, the directors and writers had a solid grasp on the content, a B means they messed up a few plot points and a C means that the script is barely held together. The same conversion happens when grading on a 1 to 10 scale where the percentage equivalent is ascribed and the letter grade that stands for gets attached, bringing all the aforementioned assumptions with it. In reality the scale should be looked at completely differently when it comes to media.
A 5 or a C or whatever you wish to call your median grade should be the norm, it should carry the B grade sentiment. The middle of the chart should mean that the person understood what they were doing and executed it competently, there may have been mistakes, but in the end it was acceptable as a comprehensible piece of media. The advance up the scale should indicate to what degree this film or show exceeds expectations and styles on the norm, it should show in steps how solid and groundbreaking the work is. Inversely everything on the lower end of that median should be the degree to which it failed to meet even the basic expectation of simple storytelling and filmography.
This same issue extends to the word ‘good’ which I take issue with every time I have to utter it, because the English language is so versatile the word good can technically mean a lot of things. It can mean exceptional, average or, when said in a certain tone, bad. When someone performs, or gives a speech people will often say that person ‘Did good,’ which really means they did okay and didn’t make any mistakes. Some people say it to mean that they did above average and that every other performance they saw was poor in comparison. This elusive meaning holds all the same weird, ambiguity issues that the C and out of 10 ratings have except it is even vaguer. So when someone asks me if a movie was ‘good’ I tend to freeze and think for a long time before sighing and answering the three questions they just asked one at a once as best I can.
Here one might ask, ‘Alright, so you wrote all this to shift the grading scale… why? Why not just match your scale to everyone else’s?’ The answer is I used to, but then when more and more painfully average films came out it meant that there were dozens of A’s floating around and then when something exceptional and different would come out where did it fit on the scale? A+? S rank? Some other made up place? And what about things that weren’t as good as that one, but were better than the others? Even if I switched to reviewing movies on a numerical scale there is so little room for all the degrees of quality that exist between the best films and average ones so I felt the need shift the scale. In any case, no matter what scale was used, the concept of what the median grade should be viewed as is a notion that needs to be challenged.
For future reference I personally reserve the 10 or A+ spot for films that go above and beyond, but touch me personally. Though I feel every ranking before it is, my top spot isn’t objective because I believe at a point a movie can be technically perfect; it made no mistakes in writing or execution, however it simply does nothing for me on a personal level. The highest those get from me is a 9 or an A grade, which bafflingly upsets a few people, but that’s how it is.
Despite writing this I know that my war on good and the C grade will never end.