Thursday, September 05, 2013

Rating Fallacies

After watching the French movie AMOUR, I gave it a rating of 4 on Netflix. It’s a quiet yet stunning drama about the way a retired couple’s life disintegrates after a stroke disables the wife. It held me completely riveted, but I would never watch it again. The emotionally crushing effect is augmented by the claustrophobic dimness of the set in many scenes and the complete absence of background music. If you fall into the age range of the characters or have close relatives in that phase of life, you’ll probably find this movie as powerful as I did; just be prepared to be depressed.

Anyway, Netflix will probably respond to the 4 rating (unusually high for me; I give most movies a 3) by recommending a batch of other depressing foreign films for my viewing pleasure. In general, I have little interest in depressing foreign films or, in fact, any hyper-realistic drama or fiction. The high rating results from the selection process that leads me to rent very few such movies. I wouldn’t watch one unless I had good reason to believe (from reviews or word of mouth) that it was outstanding. So of course the ratings will be skewed high.

In my favorite genres, however—fantasy, horror, and light science fiction—I rent lots of movies. I judge them more stringently, partly because I know those genres better and partly because of course a larger sample group will include fewer brilliant standouts. Therefore, my ratings aren’t a reliable guide to my tastes, because on the whole I’ve given fewer high scores to movies in my favorite categories than to those in my least favorite, paradoxical as that track record might sound.

Now, I won’t say Netflix’s algorithms are totally off base. Its recommendations in fantasy, SF, and animation make sense. However, the rows labeled “Dark romantic British dramas based on books” and “Emotional period pieces based on classic literature” range all over the place in their relevance to my tastes. Not to mention the miscellaneous grouping classified as “Critically acclaimed movies”—a category that includes both AMOUR and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS boggles the mind.

Amazon recommendations sometimes show similar weirdness. They know what books I’ve liked in the past, but they have no way of knowing WHY I bought a particular book. For example, I'm a devoted fan of S. M. Stirling's Emberverse series (DIES THE FIRE and its sequels.) Some equally fervent fans of that universe love the military strategy and battle scenes, which I skim over to get back to what I consider the essence of the story, while others dislike the neo-pagan culture of one of the story's societies and the overall rebirth of magic, which are my favorite aspects of Stirling's post-apocalyptic world. Supposedly readers will eventually be able to fine-tune their responses in such a way that the online store’s computer mind will target their likes and dislikes with unerring accuracy.

On the other hand, sometimes those recommendations do lead me to a book or movie I enjoy and might never have noticed otherwise.

In case you’d like to find out more about the film AMOUR, Suzy McKee Charnas has written an in-depth review of it. (Spoilers included. Reading this review is what inspired me to watch the movie, since I don’t mind being “spoiled.”)

Suzy Says

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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