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.

  • Well said! This is one of the main reasons I’ve never seriously considered doing ratings on my site. I think of a movie like Under the Skin, which I found intriguing but can’t say that I “liked” it in the basic sense. I do ratings on Letterboxd, but they often end up in the 3, 3.5, or 4-star range. That doesn’t really mean that much because my reactions can vary widely depending on the movie. I really just do that as much as a record for me personally rather than any type of endorsement.

    • I used to give ratings almost religiously, but I’ve gradually stopped. Not rating things on Letterboxd is relatively new (May or June of this year), and it’s actually still difficult to me, but I figured if I was going to go all manifesto with this notion, I should go all the way. On Letterboxd, it’s had the effect of encouraging me at least put down a few lines about what struck me about the film even if I don’t have time/energy to write a lot of analysis of it. I think that’s better than just leaving a rating and moving on, which is what I used to do quite often. And yeah, probably a good 80% of my ratings are 3-4.5 – that little ratings distribution chart on my profile really shows how few films I rate outside that range.

      I don’t actually know that I’ll give up rating forever, especially on sites like Letterboxd; I’m trying that level of dedication for a year or so. Right now I’m kind of liking it, though, so we’ll see.

      Your example of Under the Skin is great, too – I mean, I haven’t seen the film yet, but that exact thing is why actually writing about what’s in a film and how it struck you is better than trying to come to a conclusion, even sometimes about whether you liked it or not. Holy Motors is in this category for me – I was hugely intrigued by parts of it, put off by other parts, and a year or two later, I still have no idea whether I even liked it or not, let alone whether it’s good or not.

      • It’s a challenge too because we all rate on different scales. Some people like almost everything, while others need to really feel a personal connection. That’s why aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes mean so little. I rarely use them beyond a curiosity.

        • Very true! I think using rating scales becomes a crutch for both writer and reader, and they’re very prone to misinterpretation. Plus, even the same writer can use a subjectively different scale for different things – how do you rate a really fun but unambitious b-movie and a solid and ambitious prestige picture that doesn’t quite hit all the buttons on the same five or ten star rating scale? It’s really hard.

  • This is amazing work.

    “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, exactly.

    All this makes me wonder if the rush to pronounce judgment isn’t rooted, somehow, in personal insecurity and a need to establish credibility for the discussion to follow: “I, like you dear reader, thought White House Down was an atrocious piece of filmmaking – so now let me discuss what it has to say about liberal politics in Obama’s America.” Just a thought… which I will do more thinking on.

    Thanks for this!!

    • Thanks, Matt!

      I think it’s rooted in insecurity even if it isn’t followed by some other type of discussion. As we were talking about on Twitter, I think a lot of identity development is centered, for a while at least, on our opinions and tastes, so we have a need to come to and defend firm conclusions, because that’s part of how we define who we are. That’s one reason why we get so many battles raged between “xyz is the best thing ever” vs. “the worst thing ever.” The final evaluation (and what that position says about you as a person) becomes the important thing, not the film itself. Of course, in today’s internet age of clickbaiting and page views, not only having a strong opinion, but having one FIRST is seen as quite important, which leaves very little time for the kind of reflection and analysis I would like to see more of in criticism.

      Even when I did write reviews, I could rarely do it immediately; it’d often be at least a few days or a couple of weeks before I could get my thoughts corralled and on paper. People who can do weekly reviewing quickly and thoughtfully blow my mind – it’s not a skill I have. That said, I think the tendency on the internet is to do it quickly, even if “thoughtfully” gets left behind.

  • I’ve followed along with you through various discussions as all this has evolved over the last several months, but it’s still interesting to see it codified this way all in one place. (See what I did there?)

    On the matter of ratings, I largely agree with you about their irrelevance but I still use them in my Letterboxd diary not so much for myself but, if I’m being honest, as bait for potential readers who may want to know why I’ve conferred a conspicuously different number of stars on a film than they did.

    As you know, I’ve reached the point where I process just about everything on a personal level. Not so much “I liked/disliked this”, though, as to denote the context I which I watched the film (“couldn’t sleep”, “with friends”, etc.) and any visceral reactions provoked by it. That’s simply my writing style, though; I believe that the more personal something is, the more accessible it becomes. This is why I’m drawn to memoirs over fiction when it comes time to pick something to read.

    But, as you know, I’m also critically-minded and in the last year or so I’ve become increasingly conscientious of applying that eye toward film. My training is in history, rather than film, but I’m slowly learning to adapt. You may recall, for instance, discussing my observations about the cinematography in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In truth, I was rather flattered that you found my commentary insightful.

    Though I like to think of us as pals, we’re certainly not peers when it comes to film. I don’t expect to ever be locked in step with you, but I have appreciated learning from you so far. I’ve tried to move more into this realm of how/why a film works myself, though of course it’s going a lot more slowly for me for the aforementioned reasons.

    tl;dr:

    Your apprentice, I gratefully become.

    • That convo you and I had (partially quoted above) about How Green Was My Valley was something of a milestone in the formulation of this piece, actually. I’ve touched on it other times, but that was one of the discussions that really helped me conceptualize what I was trying to do. So, thanks for that!

      I think your personal approach is more than valid! I ended up concentrating on an academic approach partially because I really am drawn to it, but also because it’s easier to defend as an analytical way to approach criticism without being evaluative.

      • I confess, I got a small kick out of seeing that embedded tweet. I remember that discussion, and how you articulated then that your thoughts on the matter were both evolving and coming into clearer focus.

        The academic approach is admittedly not my personal stylistic preference as a writer, but as a reader, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn toward that kind of film discussion. It seems only fitting I should try to write some. “Circle of Life” and all that, you know.

        This month, I’m focusing once again on The Criterion Collection. One aspect I appreciate about this viewing challenge is the readily accessible essays republished on Criterion.com that were originally included with DVD booklets. This is a great resource for those of us who are accessing the collection via Hulu rather than optical disc. Last year, I made a conscious effort to read all the essays that related to my viewing selections, in part to gain insight before formulating my own reactions, but also to study those writers’ approaches to dissecting and discussing film. I hope to absorb something from them, just as I continue to believe I’m absorbing stuff from you.

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  • Sorry it took me this long but I wanted to have the time and be in the right mindset to read your piece. I really like what you wrote. Though I didn’t focus this much on evaluation in my article, I did mention it because I too think about it quite often. It’s a really tough subject, and I’m not sure there’s a right answer to it, but I mostly agree with what you said.

    I rate movies/books based on my enjoyment, as I think pure objectivity is simply not possible to achieve, and I don’t like pretending. Of course then I ask myself why would people care if I liked it or not, and that’s when I once again agree that in-depth criticism is the goal. Some time ago I started having this… question in my mind every time I was thinking about writing a “review”. I asked myself if I had a different, interesting, constructive point of view, that would contribute to the debate and possibly engage readers in starting a conversation. In all these years of blogging I might’ve had it ten times, if that many. It’s not easy, and sometimes it paralyses me and I won’t write for weeks. But I do believe that’s what we should aim for, at least once in a while. Not everything needs to be in-depth or serious, but then we shouldn’t pretend like it is, you know?

    This actually reminds me of an episode of The Good Wife that I watched recently, where the judge wanted the lawyers to say “in my opinion” every time they argued something. The matter of a film being “good” or “bad” is, for me, a matter of opinion, and nothing more.

    And we can say “okay, so everyone’s just expressing their own opinions, nothing wrong with that”, which is true but… if it isn’t purely objective, then the writer needs to take responsibility for what he writes. But this is taking the conversation to a different subject, perhaps closer to what I said in my post. What I believe, in short and on this particular point, is that a lot people are in need of a “humility bath”, as we say in portuguese.

    Anyway, in the end we write the way we want, and people will read what they want, and that will determine the kind of society we live in. But these are discussions that are definitely worth having, so thank you for this article.

    • First off, I’m sorry in return that it took me this long to respond to your thoughtful comment.

      Second, I love the phrase humility bath! We should start using that in English :)

      I think a lot of where this post started was similar to your post – I was tired of seeing people being overly negative in their criticism, which often strikes me (especially in internet criticism) not as thoughtfully probing the qualities of the film, but setting oneself up as superior to it. That’s where my “year of positivity” came in (I linked to that post near the bottom above), but I struggled with how to mesh that desire to be positive with a commitment to thoughtfulness and not just superficiality.

      Embracing a criticism without evaluation seemed the logical next step. I certainly don’t expect everyone to do this; I don’t even know if I can keep it up forever! Your focus on opinions is a far more common, reasonable, and less radical approach to take, and still a good corrective for the more corrosive voices in internet criticism.

  • David Conrad

    Right off the bat I’m in diametric disagreement with something. This quote — “[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” — illustrates very well why I couldn’t have gone to a film school. This is the kind of crap historians pull, too. I absolutely do want to know whether a historian thinks a particular historical action was good or bad, and the most professional of them don’t want to give you that information. It’s both the start point and the end point, and the rest of criticism is explaining why you like or dislike what you like or 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.” — Useless for whom? It’s true that after a while, most new movies you seek out are likely to fall into 3-star range because you’re filtering out the bad stuff and have already seen most of the great stuff within your niches. But remembering how well you liked it seems useful to me. Not as useful as knowing *why* you gave it the evaluation, but still useful (you can’t take that next step without it.)

    “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 agree completely, and this is why even mainstream reviews should probably forget about spoiler concerns unless they come out in advance of the film. I only read about a movie after I’ve seen it, and in a review I do want to read something more in-depth than a traditonal review. I want to write something more in-depth, too. But I don’t see this as exclusive from an evaluation, and I think without an evaluation it’s a pretty meaningless academic exercise. (“Meaningless for whom?” an academic might ask. Touche, hypothetical academic! It’s all meaningful, then.)

    “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.” — Agreed, but I want, nay demand, the evaluation of the critic. It seems like common decency. It’s a way of humanizing the whole process, and if we don’t want robots to take over film criticism, we’d better proudly do it.

    “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 seems, with all due respect, pedantic and semantic. It’s certainly reasonable to ask people to elaborate on why they thought it was a positive or a negative or a mixed experience, but why should they tiptoe around the generalized summation?

    “This really hews closer to an academic approach to film” — You don’t say! ;)

    “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)…” — A technique can only be known to be “better” or worse (i.e. good or bad) at conveying information and emotion by evaluating its reception. Now, of course, some people may dislike a movie that successfully made them feel bad, or they may like a movie that was a messy disaster formally. In those cases, good and bad can be particularly misleading evaluations. But in most cases even a narrow, formalistic evaluation of technique is not as separable from the supposedly-banal “good or bad” question as this sentence suggests. Instead, the technique is probed to find out *why* it came across as a good or a bad work of art. The appraisers on Antiques Roadshow understand this well. The piece has value because it is desirable, and it is desirable because it is well-made or effective at conveying an idea or emotion. But on the planet Vulcan, being well-made would not lead to increased desirability for a work of art, because there is no such thing as desire on Vulcan. The evaluation, the receipt, is a crucial component without which the craft could not have been honed. Filmmakers didn’t create emotion, after all; viewers, through their reactions, taught filmmakers how to access emotion.

    “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.” — Agreed, but see above. “Better blocking” is better because of how it is perceived, and “better blocking” might change when tastes change. You’re never able to get away from taste.

    “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.” — Agreed. One should not watch only good movies. If one did that, one would probably not even really understand good movies.

    “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?” — Agreed. I sometimes say things are interesting but not good, or vice versa. Certainly I’m in the camp that best and favorite are different things, so it’s no surprise I’d agree with this.

    • David Conrad

      I should add that some historians, particularly those interested in policy, agree with me that historians need to get off the fence. :)

    • “Useless for whom?” – Useless for me. The hierarchy among things I like (which is most films I see) is meaningless. Right now the top film on my loosely ranked Letterboxd list of films I saw in 2015 is Stranger on the Third Floor, and the reason it’s up there is because I was so enamored with the dream sequence and the bits with Peter Lorre. I don’t know that I really liked the movie AS A WHOLE more than everything else I saw this year. It’s the drive to give an overall rating the I’m rebelling against.

      My point is I’d rather talk about the elements I liked (which, yes, is to some degree evaluative) and not try to tally all those element into a single judgement that’s somehow supposed to apply to the entire film. “Well, I liked the dream sequence 5 stars, but the courtroom scene is only 2 stars, and the acting is kind of like 2.5 stars, but the cinematography is 5 stars, so I guess that’s like 3.75 stars overall.” Except that’s not really representative. Some sites I’ve seen do break everything into elements like that (well, not individual scenes, but like acting, cinematography, story, etc.), but how stressful that would be!

      Really, the underlying assumption is that if I’m writing about it, it’s good. Otherwise, I wouldn’t care about it enough to bother. So therefore, there’s no need to discuss whether it’s good or not, hence no need to foreground evaluation. That could never work if writing reviews, because working reviewers have to review things they don’t like. That’s a luxury I have, and I intend to exercise it.

      • Note: I am not always successful at exercising it, as evaluation is pretty ingrained.

      • David Conrad

        Tallying components would be stressful indeed… now I’m wondering how exactly I arrive at star ratings, because believe it or not I don’t have a system for it! But that’s a problem for a more evaluation-centric thread. :)