Evaluative Essay Assignment


The Basics:


Observe and interview a subject.  2.5-3.5 typed pages (7-12 paragraphs).  Consider an original title that reflects your topic.




I am asking you to watch the film Il Postino and write a movie review about it.


Once we watch the film, I will ask you to go home and draft a review of it.  Then, when you get back to class, I will ask you to write another review of the same film in class.  That might seem redundant, but I ask you to do so because I want you to be conscious of what it means to argue in an evaluative way.  I hope that you will find very different things to say about the film as you evaluate it in two different ways.


After you have written two complete drafts of your evaluations, I will give you a choice of which one you would like to revise.  This is the only major essay assignment of the semester for which we will not have a formal workshop session.  We will spend a lot of time in class discussing what makes an evaluation effective, and I hope you will feel you have the tools to approach and revise your own work.


Appropriate topics: 


We will discuss in detail what evaluation is, but I hope you will begin to think about the theory that the most crucial element in deciding whether something is ‘good’ is to decide just what it is.  You and I may have very different reactions to something we see (or hear, or buy, or eat), but that is often because we were expecting different things.  You may think McDonald’s is great; I may think it’s awful.  It is great, if you want fast food without any hassle.  It is awful if you want to eat a healthy meal in comfortable surroundings with a choice of interesting and unusual menu items.  Once we decide on the category within which we are making an evaluation (as a ‘fast-food restaurant’ or as a ‘fine-dining restaurant,’ for example), then the rest of what we have to say merely supports our thesis.


When you evaluate a film, you do so with a range of expectations.  Titanic, to pick one example, is not a funny movie; it is, therefore, a bad comedy.  Calling it ‘bad’, in that sense, however, tells us very little.  There are other categories of film ¾ love story, Hollywood epic, high-tech, cruise ship disaster, Irish-music soundtrack ¾ within which your evaluation might tell us more.  I argue that the category you choose tells us more than your thumbs up/thumbs down determination does. 


One friend of mine watches “hat films” and evaluates movies, in part, on the quality of that hats the different characters wear.  She can talk about whether a movie is well-directed, whether the actors are good, and whether the story holds her interest.  At the same time, though, she can evaluate a movie for the way it presents hats.


Along such lines, my favorite one-line film evaluation is of the cult film, Shakes the Clown, which someone once evaluated as, “... the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown films.”  By defining such a narrow category, the reviewer tells us more about the film than if he or she had declared it was a “masterpiece” or “brilliant.”  In that one line, he or she tells us how to think about the film, and the rest of the evaluation just falls into place as a result.


As you evaluate Il Postino, be sure that you have a clear thesis.  Within your first paragraph, talk about the category within which you will make your evaluation, and imply whether you feel favorably or negatively about it.


Some pitfalls:


Be flexible.  It’s easy to let your immediate reaction to a film become the only reaction you let yourself have.  If you were in the mood to laugh at a comedy, you often cannot forgive a movie that turns out to be serious.  There is nothing wrong with a review that condemns a movie for being too serious.  As you write a second review, however, consider another way you might think of the movie that puts less emphasis on humor and, perhaps, allows you to appreciate other elements of the film.


Be open-minded.  Il Postino does have sub-titles.  It talks about poetry.  It has a lot of elements that a lot of people, Americans in particular, might dislike at first.  Give the film a chance.  The first test of anything is whether you like it or don’t like it.  There are important second tests, however.  Once you walk out of the room, chew on the film a while and see what you can find.


Deal with the whole film.  As you make your case, consider elements of the film that don’t fit into your thesis.  Try to recognize the range of possible reactions to what you’ve seen.  You’ll make your own response more persuasive, and you’ll probably end up with a richer sense of the film.


Features of the best essays:


The best evaluations suggest new ways for a reader to appreciate something that he or she has already seen.  I know Il Postino well, but I hope that I will discover fresh things about it through the way you approach it.


As a generic assignment, this essay asks you to recognize the nature of the argument you are making when you declare something good or bad.  I hope that you will show a general understanding of what makes an evaluation successful at the same time as you challenge yourself (and me) with a new sense of this specific film.