Definition of the a film classic?

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Sten F, Jun 17, 2004.

  1. Sten F

    Sten F Second Unit

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    Not sure if this has ever been discussed before on Home-Teater-Forum before, but I will give it a try.

    I thought it would be interesting to know what people think entitles a movie to be called a Classic. Is it age? Is high technical standards? Is it exceptional performances?

    Basically, what do you think that makes a movie a Classic?
     
  2. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    I’ll start with setting forth one criteria that I am sure will be in dispute; but there is no such thing as an instant classic.

    I would think at the least, a classic ought to be 25 years old. No one can no know with certainty how another generation of moviegoers and critics will view any particular movie. This ought to be enough time for a film to have been considered by academics and critics, as well as determining if a revival down at the local cinema draws a crowd.
     
  3. Holadem

    Holadem Lead Actor

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    Dunno, I can tell you that The Matrix, Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs are already classics... And I am not biased, I only really like ONE of these movies.

    --
    H
     
  4. Holadem

    Holadem Lead Actor

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    I am approaching this from an influence angle.

    The Matrix has changed the face of action movies.

    Pulp Fiction, a film I don't like at all, has been hugely influencial as well.

    Silence of the Lambs, if nothing else, has created of the greatest vilains in movie history (again, I am neither fond of the film, nor of the vilain).

    Goodfellas, again another film I am not a fan of, is considered by many to be the best film of the 90's. Critical and popular acclaim for this movie isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

    It's pretty difficult for me to imagine that these movies will not be reverred 25 years from now.

    Edit: But then again, 25 years years is a loooooong time - almost as long as I've been alive [​IMG]

    --
    H
     
  5. Jim_K

    Jim_K Executive Producer

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    When a film is 20+ years in age it's a pretty safe bet to label a film a classic (if merited).

    Though by the 10+ year mark you can pretty mech tell if a film will have any lasting impact (i.e. Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, etc.)
     
  6. Ray H

    Ray H Producer

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    Don't know about the 25 years thing myself as it excludes some classic 80's films like Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, and Raging Bull.

    Definitely from the influential angle. Still, I still don't consider something like the Matrix as a classic, or at least not yet. Kinda the same way I feel about Burton's Batman. Sure it had a great popularity to it, but it doesn't FEEL classic.
     
  7. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    I'll start by saying that we're never going to get a definition here that we can agree on.

    I'll also kick in by disagreeing with Lew. While I understand the idea that time often helps put things in perspective, I think any arbitrary selection of that time is meaningless. A 25 year old film can be a classic, but a 24 year old film can't?

    Anyway, here are films from 1980 on that I would consider classics, even though none of them is 25 years old:

    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Toy Story
    Planes, Trains & Automobiles
    The Empire Strikes Back
    Toy Story 2
    Back to the Future
    E.T.
    The Princess Bride
    Blade Runner
    Return of the Jedi
    Die Hard
    L.A. Confidential
    The Terminator
    Terminator 2
    Groundhog Day
    Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
    Beauty & the Beast
    National Lampoon's Vacation
    The Blues Brothers
    Unforgiven
    Goodfellas
    The Killer
    Das Boot
    Aliens

    and others.

    Now, they may be a different kind of classic than Citizen Kane and Casablanca, which are different than The Gold Rush and The General, which are different from The Apartment and North by Northwest, but they're all classics. IMO.
     
  8. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    Just to go back and forth a bit, Holadem, I think that the terms ‘influential’ and ‘classic’ are not the same. Certainly not all films that we consider ‘classics’ are influential and there are many instances of indluential films that most certainly are not classics—at least in a ‘classic’ definition of the term. [​IMG] to cite only one example, the Ray Harryhausen creations were hugely influential, but very few would consider them classics.

    But before this degenerates into, I consider Clash of the Titians to be a classic, I’ll throw out a few trial definitions (I hate to resort to the OED at this early stage):

    a creation of the highest excellence

    of the highest class; being a model of its kind; or of having a style that is balanced, formal, objective, restrained, regular, simple, etc.

    a style that does not lose popularity over time.

    a work that does not lose (apparent) merit over time.



    Of course this is mostly an expansion on Henry’s writing. If these are reasonble definitioins, how could one possible know the fate of The Matrix? I’m not predicting, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility that this film will be relegated to a very niche status in a few years. And the same thing (though less likely) could well be said of Pulp Fiction. There is at least a reasonable chance that all of the many pop culture references will be looked at as yesterday’s garbage in another 15 years, and very probably in another 40. Then the question will be, is there enough inherent interest in the other parts of the film to sustain its place in the pantheon?

    I would suggest that some of the power of Silence of the Lambs is already starting to erode, as the theme of a weak woman asserting herself in the workplace becomes less of an issue (though it is likely that the theme of women being dominated by men won’t go away anytime soon—or later).

    In any case, even though I put out 25 years as number, my point was that enough time has to pass for a set of knowledgeable, disinterested critical persons to pass judgment on movies before a movie can truly be said to be a classic. Put another way, we look at everything today with our own cultural perspective and bias (the bias of the day) and can do little else.


    I would suggest that if you doubt this, all you need to do is consider how many ‘classics’ of the day are now lightly regarded (e.g. Around the World in Eight Days—which very certainly was out of fashion for many, many years, and interestingly now seems to be creating new interest—though critically I think it is still mostly lightly regarded (except perhaps for the score)) and some that were dismissed not long after they appeared, like It’s a Wonderful Life, are now iconic.

    So it may be that 25 years is not enough time. The number I used was meant to be conceptual, not discrete.

    Exactly my point—it is difficult to imagine—that is why it is so impossible to predict.
     
  9. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Huh? It made #4 on the AFI Top 100 without being considered a classic?
     
  10. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    I don't think the AFI lists are the be-all and end-all of what is or isn't a good or worthwhile movie, but where do you get the argument that Gone With The Wind isn't considered a classic anymore? Who doesn't describe it as a classic?
     
  11. Dennis Nicholls

    Dennis Nicholls Lead Actor

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    It has to be made in Austria between 1750 and 1800.
     
  12. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    [​IMG]

    Next is Romantic movies, I suppose.
     
  13. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    Yeah, but the problem is that even classics viewed in the dispassionate light of many years, may, after a number of other years have passed, become non-classics.

    I'm not certain that it's any less valid to say that Toy Story is a classic, though it may not be thought of that way in 100 years, than it is to say Citizen Kane is a classic, because it too may not be thought of that way in 100 years.

    The statistician in me can't help but viewing this probabilistically. I suppose a rather simple model would say that the longer one has been viewed as a classic, the longer it will take to fall out of favor as a classic (Shakespeare's probably not going anywhere soon), although the older something is, the less relevant it risks becoming, which will no doubt someday erode it's classic status.

    On the other hand, the longer a film has been around, the more 'data' you have to make an informed guess about it's classic status. In other words, there's a higher probability you'll be right if you make a prediction about the classic status of The Godfather 20 years from now, than if you try to make a prediction about the classic status of Lord of the Rings.

    Nevertheless, I don't think there's anything wrong with stating a film is a classic after a short period of time, as long as you keep in mind that it might not be viewed that way in a few years.

    Then again, sometimes classic status does weird things. Scott Joplin's music would have no-doubt been called "instant classics" by many at the turn of the (previous) century. They then faded away, but have since become part of the jazz pre-history canon, and currently considered 'classic'.

    I'll attempt to add to the definition, though quite clumsily:

    Being considered a classic is still subject to a vote. It's just that the people who get to vote aren't the average person, but rather the critic, the academic, or someone else who has special status. Of course, selection to this group is vague, but there is a sense in which an AFI list is considered more valid as a list of 'classics', than a Rolling Stone readers poll. Depending on your point of view, the S&S list is either even more valid, or somewhat less valid than the AFI. [​IMG] And even individual proclamations carry different amounts of weight. Roger Ebert calling a film a classic carries more prestige than George Kaplan calling it a classic (Lew Crippen carries somewhat less than Roger, but far more than George) [​IMG]

    Still my point is that the canon of classic films is neither static, nor is it objective. It is subject to votes by groups whose membership change over time, and whose members change their minds over time. And while many formal groups consider themselves worthy of being the ones to cast those votes, there is no set group.

    Enough rambling (for now).
     
  14. JohnVB

    JohnVB Stunt Coordinator

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    The definition of "classic" that comes to my mind (that would be related to movies) is a work that is excellent and appeals across multiple generations and periods of time. In other words, the themes don't apply to just one specific period or group. In addition a work that is recognized as being definitive in its genre would also be considered a classic.

    When I say "across multiple generattions", I don't mean that it has to appeal to 4yr olds as well as 90 yr old. What I mean is that it's something like, say, it appeals to 20 yr olds, and in another 20 years, it still appeals to 20 yr olds.

    Whadaya think?

    - bones
     
  15. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    Your post brings up some interesting thoughts (as always) George.

    Films, just like almost any art form, do fall in and out of favor—your comment as to the length of time necessary to truly be ‘classic’, citing Shakespeare is a point well made. The problem with movies is that there is no history. What is the odd 100 years worth when consider the works of a Shakespeare, a Mozart, a David or a Michelangelo. We still read King Lear, listen to Don Giovanni, look at Victory Leading the People and David. And we can well believe that 100 years from now this works will still be considered great.

    The status of Don Dellilo, John Cage, and Andy Warhol is much less certain—100 years from now (for those who don’t like those names, you can substitute other examples).

    But I do think that for something to be a classic, a new set of knowledgeable people needs to do the evaluation. Or perhaps even the same set needs enough time to reconsider.

    By the way, for me the reason the AFI is suspect, is not that they consist of a bunch of bozos, but that the lists were made for purely commercial reasons. This is not necessarily wrong, but it does help provide an understanding of some of the entries.

    I think it very instructive to look at the S&S lists over the years—first because those voting are mostly quite knowledgeable and are quite diverse (or at least in comparison to other bodies). And since there is a revote only every 10 years, there is easy even for non-statisticians to follow trends.

    My contribution to the rambling.

    Good points George.
     
  16. Jim_K

    Jim_K Executive Producer

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    So Lew what you're saying is that some elite cabal of pseudo-intellectual critics & film scholars need to tell the common folks which films deserve the status of being crowned a "Classic"?

    I shudder when I think of the possibilities.

    Thankfully it doesn't happen this way as this idea really disturbs me. [​IMG]
     
  17. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    How does it happen? Are you sure there's not a secret society of film snobs that canonizes all these works? [​IMG]

    I actually have more of a problem with the Sight & Sound list than the AFI list. While the S&S is filled with classics, it's also got a lot of films that are on there just because one guy had an idiosyncratic hard-on for a film. The AFI list is much more of a concensus list. Is Performance really a classic film? I'm sure some people think so, but I suspect that even most admirers of the film wouldn't give it 'classic' status, at least not in the classic sense of the word.

    I'm also somewhat at a loss as to how to think about 'classic' versus greatness and historical import.

    I don't like All About Eve, and think it's a downright bad movie, but I accept it's status as a 'classic'. I love Hatari, and think it's a far better film than many 'classics', but I don't think of Hatari as a classic.

    I'm also pondering what happens to classic when it moves from noun to adjective. I'm uncertain as to whether Buck Privates is a classic, but I do think it's a classic comedy.

    I think all classics that are westerns are also classic westerns, but I'm pretty sure not all classic westerns are classics. But beyond that, I'm uncertain of anything.

    It's funny, but this kind of reminds me of my son (who's 3). He'll use words and even use them correctly, but when asked for their definition, he's often uncertain and sometimes wrong. The other day he was having his toy train make big jumps and he said "that's a huge one". I asked him what huge meant, and he hesitated before saying "far". I kind of feel like that when discussing the term 'classic'. I know what it means, and use it correctly, but I'll be damned if I can actually define it any better than my son can define huge.
     
  18. ZacharyTait

    ZacharyTait Cinematographer

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    A classic to me is a movie that I couldn't bear the idea of never seeing again.

    To me, that would include among others: The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Godfather 1 and 2, American Beauty, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Casablanca.....
     
  19. Sten F

    Sten F Second Unit

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    Thanks, for all the various viewpoints.

    No doubt that age is an important factor when labelling a movie a Classic. A movie needs to stand the test of time before we know how well it holds up, which likely have to be at least 20-25 years or even more. Anything else would go as a "modern classic" or neo-classic if you like.

    Another interesting question when talking about what makes a film a Classic. Who labels a movie a Classic? The critics, the public, the media in general, or film related institutions such as AFI, AMPAS, DGA, WGA etc. etc.
     
  20. Jim_K

    Jim_K Executive Producer

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    The S&S list is no better or worse then any other list I've seen. It's certainly not the be-all & end-all that some make it out to be. There are plenty of truly great films on the list but it also has it's fair share of sh*%.
     

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