The Movie Review as a Claim-of-Value Essay

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This blog was originally posted on February 13th, 2015.

Because my son Jonathan is a film scholar, I am probably even more aware than most that this is awards season. The Academy Awards ceremony each year is for our household what the Super Bowl is for others. Jonathan recently posted on Facebook that in his lifetime he has seen 2,502 movies. The fact that he knows that speaks volumes about his obsession, along with the fact that he was watching classic silent movies before he could read the subtitles. I came naturally to use the movie review as a means of teaching the claim of value, but my approach can be adapted to other types of evaluative writing as well.

First, I ask my students to bring in or upload examples of movie reviews that are essay length. My goal is to let my students discover the conventions of the genre. I put them into groups to share the reviews and ask them to come up with a list of rules for writing movie reviews. An example would be that one never gives away the ending. More useful is the observation that a good review is focused—it has a point more specific than that the movie is good or bad. After the group work, we work as a class to come up with a master list of rules, and I ask them to share some of the best examples of claims that they discovered. They can use the list of rules as they write their own reviews and can model claims for their own writing on the best examples we have discovered.

Second, I find it useful to check students’ claims before they write their essays so that I can head off problems such as claims that are too broad or that are not actually claims of value.

Third, I have them write their review for a specific publication. It makes a difference if a review would appear in Parents magazine rather than Rolling Stone. They can adapt their content and their language to their audience, and I can evaluate their writing accordingly.

Through this process I am trying to teach them an important point about all evaluative writing—that a work of art, or anything else, is evaluated according to a set of standards.  Readers are not going to agree with a review if they do not agree with the standards the writer uses to judge it. It is widely believed that the Academy Awards are slanted to the perspective of “old white guys” because of the make-up of the organization. They are more conservative, for example, than professional critics, who err on the side of rewarding risk taking. Whatever the audience, whatever the standards being used to judge a work of art, it is ultimately the responsibility of the reviewer to build a convincing case, using specific references to the work, that it meets or does not meet a clearly established set of standards.

[Photo source: Loren Javier, "Academy Award..."]

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.