Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: What is a classic movie?

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: What is a classic movie?-attachment0

Earlier this week I happened upon someone on a message board who was all bent out of shape about the upcoming remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. The reason for his bentness was that the original is, he said, “a classic.” It had never even briefly occurred to me that I’d hear this film referred to as a “classic.” But why not? It hadn’t been more than a few days earlier that I’d seen Sex and the Single Girl described in terms of a classic, which, in my mind, is about on par with calling 1970 Chevy Vega a classic. Let’s face it, some things become classics. Other things simply become old.

The use of the term “classic” threatens to render the word meaningless—from both ends of the spectrum. There’s not just the “it’s old so it must be a classic” school of thought, but the critical puffery that wants to proclaim a movie that was released last week a classic. (Destined to become a classic is a more realistic assessment—and even that’s going out on a limb.) To this end, we’ve been besieged by movies bearing the critical designation “an instant classic.” A what? Is this made by General Foods? Add water, stir, chill for two hours. Serve with artificial dairy whipped topping. Mm. Mm. Phooey.

I’ve been making (officially, at least) Ten Best lists since 2001, and even just looking at my number one films from 2001-2008, there’s not a title I’d tag as a bonafide classic at this point. There are some that I’d say stand a very good chance of being classics for one reason or another. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) seems a good bet. The same is true for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)—and maybe Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007). I feel pretty strongly that Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) comes under the “destined to become a classic” heading. Otherwise, I’m taking a wait and see stance on Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction (2002), Tim Burton’s Big Fish, David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004), and Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005).

Looking at those titles, they all seem to stand a better chance of either cult classic status, or as retaining importance as part of the larger filmography of an important filmmaker. Then again, I’m really only guessing. I’ve got Rules of Attraction pegged for possible cult classic, but it’s just as likely that some fired-up cineaste 50 years from now will watch it by accident (or in the search for revisionism) and proclaim it “the greatest film of the first half of the 21st century” and start the ball rolling for full-on classic status. Think it couldn’t happen? Just remember there was a time when Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was considered a virtually unreleasable embarassment, when Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933) lost the Marx Brothers their Paramount contract, and when James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was just another monster movie.

Being quick to call a film a classic may get you quoted in a newspaper ad or on a DVD box (let’s be honest here, that’s exactly what a lot of critics are aiming for), but it’s also apt to look pretty silly on down the line. Just glance back over the past few years at some the titles that were considered really hot items. I’m sure it depends to some degree on the circles you move in, but I don’t know a single person who’s still jazzed over In the Bedroom (2001), Lost in Translation (2003) or Sideways (2004). When they first appeared, however, you might have thought the whole face of cinema had been changed forever. OK, so I picked three celebrated titles that I didn’t personally care for. I’ll bring myself into the picture by noting my own enthusiasm for Far from Heaven (2002) when it first appeared on the scene—and my total lack of desire to ever see it again now. Similarly, I gave high marks to Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things (2003) when it came out, but it’s largely evaporated from my mind at this point.

My take is that a movie should have proved its actual staying power before someone slaps classic on it—I’d say 20 years at a bare minimum. This weeds out a lot of the momentary enthusiasm choices. I remember when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004) first appeared and wasn’t merely being called a classic, but was being hailed as one of the “great” films. This puts forth the idea of a list of “the great movies” that would run something like—Intolerance, The Gold Rush, The Battleship Potemkin, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Seventh Seal, Lawrence of Arabia, Spider-Man 2. Surely, I cannot be the only person who finds that more than a little silly.

The whole concept of classics is convoluted and prone to more than a little subjectivity—and trends. If you put it in auterist terms, it has a wholly different meaning. In broad strokes, for instance, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is the film of his that is most likely to crop up as a pretty much uncontested classic. Placed inside his oeuvre, however, its greatest significance is that it brought Sternberg together with Marlene Dietrich. Later pairings—Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934)—are much better movies. A case could even be made for Dishonored (1931) and Blonde Venus (1932) as surperior, while any real understanding of Sternberg is impossible without factoring in The Devil Is a Woman (1935)—a film that’s not especially good on its own merits. So why The Blue Angel?

Part of the reason probably lies in our (American) sense of cultural inferiority, i.e. The Blue Angel gains extra points for being in German. (An English-language version was made simultaneously, but is rarely shown and considered inferior.) That Sternberg’s previous films were Hollywood products is swept aside, it seems. But there’s more—it’s a film that boasts an iconic character and a great deal of iconic imagery. You don’t have to be that much of a hardcore cinephile to see the title The Blue Angel and have it conjure up Dietrich’s Lola Lola (so sexy they named her twice) and the indelible image of her in a top hat and sexy outfit perched on a chair on a tacky stage singing “I’m Naughty Little Lola” or “Falling in Love Again.” This after all was exactly the image of decadent Germany that Luchino Visconti went for in The Damned (1969) with Helmut Berger’s drag scene. Identification was immediate.

In the broadest terms, classics are probably defined by that ability—for the title to conjure up an immediate sense of the movie. Think about it. If you see the title The Battleship Potemkin (1925), there’s an instant conjuring of the Odessa Steps sequence. If you see Gone with the Wind (1939), there’s a rush of images, scenes, characters and dialogue (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies,” etc.). With Casablanca (1942) the same is true. You can add Citizen Kane (“Rosebud”), Dracula (“I am Dracula”), Frankenstein (“It’s alive!”), All About Eve (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”), etc. Can anyone see the title The Seventh Seal (1957) and not immediately envision Death playing chess with Antonius Block? Hell, you don’t even have to seen the movie to do that. These things have all become part of our cultural DNA.

The trick to this kind of classic is that it’s immaterial whether or not you actually like the movies in question. In some cases, it’s immaterial whether or not the movies themselves are all that good. While I enjoy Casablanca, I can see the argument that the movie’s a bit of a mess with characters popping in and out at random. (There’s certainly too little Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, even if what there is of them is “cherce.”) But there are all those terrific little moments, those great lines, and, hokey as it sounds, the scene where Paul Henreid has the nightclub orchestra drown out the Germans with a rendition of “La Marseillaise” still has the power to work an audience. The point, however, is that these are movies that almost have to be known in order to understand the bigger—and often richer—picture of film.

This is the sort of thing that can only develop over time. It’s simply not immediate. In other words, there isn’t any such thing as a instant classic—no matter how great the movie might seem in the first rush of enthusiasm. You don’t know how that enthusiasm will hold up. And you don’t know what will happen in the meantime. Neither film is a favorite of mine, but both The Wizard of Oz (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) weren’t thought much of when they were new. Constant exposure (even overexposure) on TV changed that over the years.

Maybe the problem comes down to the whole idea of classic. A few weeks ago saw the original Friday the 13th (1980) being called a classic. OK, it meets my 20-plus year criterion. It’s also a fairly lousy movie. Stranger still, the title evokes what? Why, the image of machete-wielding Jason Voorhees in a hockey mask—at least in the public consciousness. Here’s the catch: That evoked image has nothing whatever to do with the film. It doesn’t even exist until Friday the 13th 3-D (1982). (And most people just find it odd that the most famous line “from” Casablanca—“Play it again, Sam”—is nowhere to be found in the movie.) But the question remains—is it a classic? In the broadest sense, I’m very much afraid it is—for better or worse. You might hate the movie and the series it spawned, but you have to acknowledge it and know of it to understand the evolution of the horror genre. Whether or not, this means you actually have to see the thing is another matter. Certainly, there’s no burning need to revisit it every so often!

One thing that’s much harder to factor is too personal to work out on any even quasi-objective basis. For me, no film is a personal classic unless it can generate the same—or even greater—feeling it did originally. If a movie can make me laugh at the same jokes, excite me as filmmaking, stimulate me intellectually or move me to tears on the 20th viewing the same as it did on the first, then that movie’s doing something very right. There aren’t too many people out there who would deny Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) its classic status (recently, no less a figure than Martin Scorsese placed Lester’s contribution to film on the same plane as that of Jean-Luc Godard). I ran the film for a small audience within the past month. Not only did it all work as well as it ever did, but the patina of age has actually improved it. It looks as fresh as ever, yet it also captures a moment in time. No one could have guessed that in 1964. The passage of 45 years is another matter. It’s called perspective.

In the end, a classic may be said to be whatever you want it to be, but it helps to have some kind of overall frame of reference to work from. That—and our innate love of lists and desire to organize—is really the only value in trying to establish a list of classic movies. That that list is by necessity somewhat fluid and therefore imperfect is a separate matter. It’s not simply that tastes change, it’s also a matter of availability. There are far more movies out there that can be seen than were around 40 years ago. Titles that were once obscure—or even thought lost—are now no further from you than a trip to a good video store, a late night ordering binge on Amazon, or a Netflix queue. That’s bound to impact things—and well it ought to. But it’s as well to remember that there was some reason for those old standard choices, and to check them out if only to understand why.

 

 

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

15 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: What is a classic movie?

  1. Interesting article, and as I have been recently compiling my favorite films of the decade, not many I would classify as a “classic.”

    For this decade I would add LET THE RIGHT ONE IN on this list. I strongly feel that once it hits on dvd (March 10th), it is going to build a sizable following.

    It is rewarding owning a video store and seeing a lost classic once again find a newer audience. A good example of this would be the Lindsay Anderson films with Malcolm McDowell: IF and O LUCKY MAN! Both were released two years ago, and are still always renting out. Like you said, there are thousands of films to be discovered, and I myself am discovering them every week.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I have been recently compiling my favorite films of the decade, not many I would classify as a “classic.”

    If we live long enough, we might find out otherwise. Sometimes I think that the deck is actually stacked against modern film because it’s too conscious of its status as an art form. So many movies that are deemed classics now were made by folks who never even briefly considered that anyone would be watching those films years later. I think there were some advantages to that. I don’t happen to like it very much myself, but W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) was on TCM while I was working on this column. Now, the film is considered a kind of classic, but its genesis is about as far from art as can be imagined — at least supposedly. The story goes that it was pitched to the studio thus — “Jeanette MacDonald’s a whore, Clark Gable’s her pimp, Spencer Tracy’s a priest and they all get caught up in the f***ing San Francisco earthquake.” If nothing else, it’s succinct.

    For this decade I would add LET THE RIGHT ONE IN on this list. I strongly feel that once it hits on dvd (March 10th), it is going to build a sizable following.

    Considering I’ve yet to meet anyone who wasn’t pretty blown away by it, I’d say there’s a good chance.

    It is rewarding owning a video store and seeing a lost classic once again find a newer audience. A good example of this would be the Lindsay Anderson films with Malcolm McDowell: IF and O LUCKY MAN! Both were released two years ago, and are still always renting out.

    That’s encouraging to hear. It wasn’t that long ago when World Cinema wanted to run O Lucky Man!, and I had to borrow my daughter’s laserdisc to burn them a copy.

    Like you said, there are thousands of films to be discovered, and I myself am discovering them every week.

    Have you made it through the Murnau/Borzage box set?

  3. That’s encouraging to hear. It wasn’t that long ago when World Cinema wanted to run O Lucky Man!, and I had to borrow my daughter’s laserdisc to burn them a copy.

    We have Mr. McDowell to thank for O LUCKY MAN on dvd. Warner Brothers wanted his commentary track for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and he agreed only if they released O LUCKY MAN as well. It’s out of print, but I found a used copy of BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, which is the third in this loose trilogy. I haven’t seen it yet but plan to this weekend.

    Have you made it through the Murnau/Borzage box set?

    I made it through all of the silent films. If there is one criticism I have, and this is only a tiny tiny criticism, is that Borzage’s films can be overly romantic… bordering on sappy.

    I’ll never make my money back on this set, but people are starting to rent it and I feel that my store is more than a business. I want to make sure that great films are available to Asheville. We’re coming up on twenty thousand titles, so hopefully we’re doing a good job!

  4. Ken Hanke

    I found a used copy of BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, which is the third in this loose trilogy. I haven’t seen it yet but plan to this weekend.

    Be prepared for a degree of disappointment. It’s worthy, but not up to the other two.

    I made it through all of the silent films. If there is one criticism I have, and this is only a tiny tiny criticism, is that Borzage’s films can be overly romantic… bordering on sappy.

    Yes, but that’s kind of like complaining that a Ken Russell picture is too over the top or a John Waters film is disgusting. You’ll find the talkies a letdown. When they were shooting the documentary we got to They Had to See Paris and asked me if I had anything to say. I said, not really. It’s a clunky early talkie, less interesting than many and not even a particularly good Will Rogers comedy. Liliom, on the other hand, is fascinating, but requires you to look at some aspects in terms of what it tries to do more than what it actually accomplishes. The whole business with the trains — which are an invention of the film and have nothing to do with the source play — is a great idea. The model work…well, that’s another matter.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I’ll never make my money back on this set, but people are starting to rent it and I feel that my store is more than a business. I want to make sure that great films are available to Asheville. We’re coming up on twenty thousand titles, so hopefully we’re doing a good job!

    I hit submit before I remarked on this. I’d call 20,000 titles pretty darn respectable. (I happened to notice the other night that the MPAA is up to 44,000-something certificate numbers, that’s starting, I assume, in 1934 [The Scarlet Empress bears "No. 16" on it].) It’s even more respectable when you realize how you’re at the mercy of the studios as concerns product. Speaking of which, there’s a pretty tantalizing set of pre-code Paramounts coming out soon.

  6. Speaking of which, there’s a pretty tantalizing set of pre-code Paramounts coming out soon.

    Yep. It’s been ordered! The Forbidden Hollywood series does well.

  7. Brian

    Is Ken Russell’s The Devils a classic. I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made, but I don’t feel comfortable putting it along side Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, etc. It’s too irreverent, almost anti-classic, like punk rock. You don’t hear punk rock on classic rock stations. However, I would feel perfectly comfortable calling Russell’s Women in Love a classic. I think the word “classic” is seperate from the actual quality of the film.

  8. Tonberry

    “What is a classic movie?” An answer to that question could generate an infinite amount of answers, from what is world wide acclaimed a ‘classic,’ to cult classic, to a directors classic, to a personal classic.

    For example, “Laura” is a considered a film noir classic, it stars Vincent Price who is considered a classic actor known for his love of playing villains, Price starred in “Edward Scissorhands” which is shy of meeting your twenty year plus criterion yet I would consider it a Tim Burton classic, Johnny Depp who starred in that Burton movie, also starred in the cult classic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” along side Benicio Del Toro, who starred in “21 Grams,” a personal classic for me.

    That’ s just tip of the iceberg, but you said it best about perspective and a classic is whatever it means to you the viewer. In the end, I agree with you, that a real classic has to have staying power and continue to move you after the 20th time. I watched “Fellowship of the Ring” for the umpteenth time the other day, and it still moves me. Destined to be a classic for sure, and the best term to describe a great movie of today, instead of “instant classic!”

    As for “Spider-Man 2?” I’m sure that’s destined to be a classic as well, at least for it’s genre (like “Friday the 13th.”) I believe the first “Spider-Man” is far more important, as that movie opened up the super hero genre to a much wider audience. It didn’t just bring in the fanboys and the teenage to mid-twenties audience (X-Men), it brought in a lot of families. Sadly, Spidey 3 really hurt the respect for 2, giving “The Dark Knight” the “Best Super Hero movie ever–as voted by the majority” crown. Like it or not, I’m pretty darn sure that “The Dark Knight” will be destined for classic status, though the Heath Ledger fad has died, and “The Dark Knight” is getting a lot more criticism than it initially had at its release. (It’s now number 6 on imdb’s ‘fanboy’ top 250 movie list!….like you care, lol)

    Only time will tell, and it’s still too early. Nice thought provoking article by the way.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Is Ken Russell’s The Devils a classic. I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made, but I don’t feel comfortable putting it along side Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, etc. It’s too irreverent, almost anti-classic, like punk rock. You don’t hear punk rock on classic rock stations. However, I would feel perfectly comfortable calling Russell’s Women in Love a classic. I think the word “classic” is seperate from the actual quality of the film.

    Tricky question, I suppose. At the same time, it’s probably just as uncomfortable putting Potemkin and The Seventh Seal next to the classics you name. What’s interesting about the two examples you cite is that they’re both devoid of a clear directorial signature, they’re both signed by the same director, and neither is generally referred to as “Victor Fleming’s.” Of course, we know that they’re both corporate made movies and that more than a couple directors had a hand in them. It’s on record that King Vidor directed the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” number in Wizard and that George Cukor directed the scene where Scarlet shoots the Yankee soldier in GWTW. Maybe that sort of thing enters into it.

    Personally, I have no trouble calling The Devils a classic, but it — like a lot of Russell’s work — is not readily available and is unknown to modern audiences. It probably needs rediscovery at this point — as do The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, etc. This gets back to the idea of classics as titles that immediately conjure up images common to a large number of people. In that sense, classic and greatness have very little connection.

  10. Ken Hanke

    For example, “Laura” is a considered a film noir classic, it stars Vincent Price who is considered a classic actor known for his love of playing villains, Price starred in “Edward Scissorhands” which is shy of meeting your twenty year plus criterion yet I would consider it a Tim Burton classic, Johnny Depp who starred in that Burton movie, also starred in the cult classic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” along side Benicio Del Toro, who starred in “21 Grams,” a personal classic for me.

    Okay, you win the award for most convoluted reasoning of the day! And yet it actually kind of hangs together — even if it’s a large stretch to say that Laura stars Vincent Price, and I’d be open to debating the actual cult classic status of Fear and Loathing, which has its adherents based on Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson, but not much outside that.

    I watched “Fellowship of the Ring” for the umpteenth time the other day, and it still moves me. Destined to be a classic for sure, and the best term to describe a great movie of today, instead of “instant classic!”

    Now, there’s a film that’s in a very strange position for me — and I find it interesting that you single it out. Why? Because it’s the only of the LOTR films I have seen multiple times and I don’t see that changing. It’s also the one film in the trilogy that strikes me as truly moving, but can it be a classic and the rest of the trilogy not be?

    As for “Spider-Man 2?” I’m sure that’s destined to be a classic as well, at least for it’s genre (like “Friday the 13th.”) I believe the first “Spider-Man” is far more important, as that movie opened up the super hero genre to a much wider audience.

    Yes, and I still hold that against it. The truth is that neither film holds up for me, but that’s personal. (The third film is just plain bad.) In hindsight, it comes down to a hero who’s a whiny little dweeb and the less said about his aunt (unless it involves her demise via a steamroller), the better. I really think that’ll become more apparent as time passes. (Yes, I’m merely guessing, but I think there’s a lack of even illusory substance — see Dark Knight — here.)

    Like it or not, I’m pretty darn sure that “The Dark Knight” will be destined for classic status, though the Heath Ledger fad has died, and “The Dark Knight” is getting a lot more criticism than it initially had at its release

    Time will tell, but that last is usually the first sign of a lessening of admiration that will likely spiral. Bear in mind, that so much of the praise — and IMDb voting — comes from folks who are in a flavor of the week mindset and are constantly looking for the next big thing.

  11. Marjorie J. Birch

    re the scene in Casablanca — La Marseillaise vs Die Wacht Am Rhein (I think that’s the title of the German song … I read somewhere they couldn’t get permission to use “Horst Wessel.” Yes, a moving scene, but even more moving when once you learn that many the the extras in that scene escaped Nazi Germany with little more than their clothes and their European reputations (which did them little good in Hollywood.)

    Poor Conrad Veidt (Major Strosser). Had to leave for America for being outspokenly anti-Hitler, to be so beautifully type-cast as the most sinister, sibilant, serpentine Nazi of them all. (And dropped dead on a golf course before the movie was released.)

  12. Ken Hanke

    re the scene in Casablanca—La Marseillaise vs Die Wacht Am Rhein (I think that’s the title of the German song … I read somewhere they couldn’t get permission to use “Horst Wessel.”

    The words “Die Wacht am Rhein” certainly appear in the song. I know many accounts of the film say it’s the “Horst Wessel” song, which makes me wonder if it’s indicated in the screenplay, or if it’s a case of one person making the error and it just kept getting repeated. I could check it out, I’m sure, since people keep giving me copies of Casablanca: Script and Legend. (There must be four copies of it around here.) It’s actually kind of odd that anyone would have been concerned about permissions on a German copyright at that point in history.

  13. coursepate

    I don’t have an exact definition of what makes a movie a classic, but I tend to think a classic must meet some test of time. Instant classics should really be must sees. If the must sees remain must sees for a number of years then maybe they can be considered for classic status …. I think Classics need some sort of differentiation … popularly classic or critically classic … 2 cents — the big sleep is imho is not only a classic, but a truly great film … it doesn’t take a back seat to Casablanca, but I think popularity plays a role in how often it appears on best of lists…

  14. Ken Hanke

    I think Classics need some sort of differentiation … popularly classic or critically classic … 2 cents—the big sleep is imho is not only a classic, but a truly great film … it doesn’t take a back seat to Casablanca, but I think popularity plays a role in how often it appears on best of lists…

    Popularity — or maybe familiarity — certainly is a factor. Regardless of one’s personal stance on The Big Sleep vs. Casablanca, I’d note that it doesn’t immediately conjure anything specific or a specific line when I see the title. I can think of two Bogart titles that we haven’t batted around that do — The Maltese Falcon and To Have and Have Not. That said, you’ll probably find The Big Sleep on more serious critical lists than you will Casablanca. So you’re in good company with that assessment.

  15. irelephant

    Film critics and historians play a huge role in deciding what’s a “classic” and what’s not. Even Roger Ebert and his deplorable thumb have(oh! dare I say it) a hand in that process.

    This article could be extended to book length…Hell, there are alot of books that could be written from material in the screening room…

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