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.