Against Evaluative Criticism: A Personal Manifesto

[Evaluation is] practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies. – Manny Farber, Film Comment v. 13, n. 3, May-June 1977, pp. 36-45; 54-60

When I first started getting seriously into film as a teenager, the thought of talking about film without an element of evaluation would’ve been unthinkable for me. How could I show any level of discernment or critical acumen without rendering judgement on what I was watching? In college, I took a film criticism class that suggested a set of three basic questions to ask of any work: What is this film doing? How well is it doing it? And is it worth doing? At the time, I favored question 2 – how well a film did what it did was certainly the most important thing to cover, because that’s what told you whether it was good or not. Whether it’s worth doing? Eh, leave that to the ideological critics. What is it doing? That’s a preliminary question, meant only to provide a baseline of understanding before you can go evaluate the heck out of the thing.

My thinking has changed rather radically over the past few years, and at this point in my life, I find that evaluative criticism holds less and less interest for me. I stepped back from actively reviewing films a couple of years ago, except for festivals and the infrequent press screening where I felt compelled to submit reviews. I’ve never been a big fan of reviews, to be honest – I don’t read them unless I’ve seen the movie, and if I have seen the movie, I’d prefer to read more in-depth criticism. This is a long-standing preference, and I just finally got to wondering why was I spending time writing in a form I didn’t like to read.

This all came to a head and I started theorizing my way through my current position on evaluation back in January, when Matt Brown posted about the film Time After Time on his Tumblr blog, and one comment he made stood out to me.

Quibbles about a movie being “good” or not I can live with. (I really can. If you haven’t deduced anything else from the last year’s worth of Watched entries, clearly, you should have deduced that. “Good” is such a trivial element of whether or not I’m interested in a film.) Time After Time is still something I am relentlessly happy to have in my life.

That got my gears turning, because Matt’s not even talking about enjoying Time After Time BECAUSE it’s bad, in the Troll 2 so-bad-its-good kind of way. He eventually wrote a follow-up article on his Twitch column Destroy All Monsters that focused more on his dislike of mediocrity and preference for glorious messes rather than overproduced mediocre films. I don’t disagree with that, but it’s a different direction than my thoughts have been going. I find myself becoming disillusioned with thinking in categories of “good” and “bad” at all. If, as Matt says, “‘good’ is such a trivial element of whether or not I’m interested in a film,” then why even bother discussing it? Why not focus instead on elements I find less trivial?

Following Matt’s argument for glorious messes that he personally enjoys more than well-produced mediocrity, it might sound like I’ve dismissed the ostensibly objective “good vs bad” binary in favor of a more subjective “like vs dislike” one, but really, I’m talking about eschewing both binaries, and in fact, preferring not to really discuss or formulate any evaluation at all, whether objective or subjective. Is that sufficiently radical for a manifesto?

By this point in my life, I’ve had over 25 years to figure out how to choose movies I’m going to like. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I generally enjoy most movies anyway, but not having any obligation to review them, I have the freedom to choose more carefully, and I can get through a year pretty easily now without ever seeing something I really dislike. This means that while I do like some things more than others, it’s often a pretty small range of positive valuations we’re talking about, which makes evaluation basically useless. Why quibble over whether something is a three and half or four star film? It’s much more interesting and informative to talk about specific things in the movie – not to buttress my overall opinion of the film, but simply because I find them interesting.

I’ve been contrasting weekly reviewing to in-depth criticism for years now, though I never really considered the evaluative angle before. My shorthand has always been that reviewing is for people who haven’t seen the film (“is this worth my money”), while criticism is for people who HAVE seen the film (“what does this mean”). I still hold that view, and I prefer reading criticism. I’d rather find out more about a film I’ve seen than hear opinions about one I haven’t. If I read about a film I haven’t seen, I want to hear about something I haven’t heard of and why I should watch it. Of course, the best critics can make even regular reviews worth reading because of their writing. But in those cases, I’m still not reading for the evaluation, but because I like the writing style.

In general, I want to know what you thought of it, yes. I want to know what moved you, what excited you, what interested you, what amused you, what captivated you, what intrigued you, what it conjured up in you. I do not really care whether you thought it was good or not.

This really hews closer to an academic approach to film, which allows for analytical criticism that isn’t necessarily evaluative. Formal critics can analyze the blocking of a scene to show how filmmakers use space and movement through space to convey meaning. That analysis can, of course, be turned to an evaluative end, but it tends to be more focused – some approaches to blocking are effective at conveying information and emotion while others aren’t (hence, the first is “better” filmmaking), but that doesn’t preclude the poorly blocked film from having other qualities that might overcome that, like incredible acting. Saying that one film has better blocking isn’t necessarily rendering a judgment on the film as a whole – in many ways, it doesn’t matter at all whether the film is good or not for it to be interesting to this kind of analytical approach.

I’m drawn to formal criticism myself, but of course this can be applied to other approaches. You can look at the ideological and sociological import of a film and its message regardless of whether it’s “good,” and you’re not bound to dismiss or laud the movie based on your conclusions. You can study auteurism just as well and often better by looking a filmmaker’s lesser-regarded works than their highly rated ones, and doing so often brings up fascinating tidbits that you might not’ve found if you were focused on whether it was good or not. Really, this comes down to interestingness.

It used to be that if someone asked what I thought of a movie and I said “it was interesting,” it was shorthand for me trying to say something about a film I didn’t feel much for either way. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was just “interesting.” Now if you hear me say something is “interesting,” that’s the highest praise. Because who cares how well-made something is if it’s not interesting, and who cares how poorly something is made, as long as it’s interesting? This carries through not only to what I want to watch, but what I most like to read and write as well, though I admit breaking the habit of evaluation isn’t always easy.

On the other side of the coin from academic criticism is just watching for enjoyment without putting much thought into it, and to be honest, I’m kind of okay with that, too. There are many ways to interact with film, and while I often enjoy digging into details, I also enjoy just letting movies wash over me and enjoying them in the moment. Maybe this is a failure of critical acumen, and that bothers me on some level, but I have also really come to believe that evaluation isn’t the be-all and end-all of either film watching or criticism. I admittedly have more freedom than some writers, but I’ve said for years that perhaps the best use of a critic’s time and energy in a culture of increasing irrelevance is championing their favorites rather than giving press to whatever’s big. This is only an extension of that, talking about the interesting films (and the interesting things in them) and ignoring the others. If I don’t like a film or find it interesting on any level, I’m unlikely to write about it at all.

Unfortunately, I’m not currently writing the kind of in-depth criticism that I’d like to be, because I don’t currently have a lot of time to do the requisite research and thinking. But you’ll notice that even when I have written things this year beyond my link roundup posts, they haven’t really been reviews. They’ve been focused on things I find interesting in the films, things that delighted me, things that intrigued me, and not on evaluation. I’ve stopped giving star ratings, both here and on Letterboxd. I still rank things on Flickchart, but I don’t put much credence in the rankings except as a very broad scale of personal taste (i.e., something ranked at 200 I like better than something ranked at 2000, but not meaningfully more than something ranked at 400.) This manifesto against evaluation is primarily a way of thinking for me right now, but I hope to make it more visible in my writing as I have more time to devote to it. It’s also a theory in progress that I’m still working on to putting into practice. I’ve been musing on this pretty seriously for the better part of a year now (heavily influenced no doubt by declaring this a Year of Positivity), and I’m not sure my thinking and practice have quite finished evolving.