What makes a film “classic”? Is there a general definition, or is it down to personal perspective and opinion?

Some of the most iconic films of all times that we can collectively agree are “classics”.

I am recording a podcast episode this week with a friend of mine who is a big fan of “classic” films. He won’t mind me saying, but he is of an older generation to myself; so his idea of “classic” films, and indeed his exposure to the films that many people consider to be “classic” will probably be different to me.

I like the idea that the classification of “classic” is based in personal opinion, and is all down to personal exposure and timing of seeing certain films. For example, somebody born in the year 2021 might look back in fifteen years time and consider Promising Young Woman, The Father, Minari, Nomadland, Sound of Metal, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as “classics”; in the same way I consider The Lord of the Rings trilogy to be “classics”, as I was born in the mid-90’s. It’s worth thinking about what the term “classic” means and what it is relating to…

In my eyes, for a film to be “classic”, it needs to be impactful to a generation; this impact could come in different forms. For example, it could be a film that brought about important conversations surrounding topical and social issues of that particular time; Promising Young Woman certainly did this, really hammering home the message that abuse, exploitation, and lack of consent towards women and the treatment of women by men comes in many different forms; you don’t have to be physically raping, or even touching a person for it to be considered abuse- a lesson that far too many men are yet to learn, or willing to accept. Another example of an impactful film could come in the form of a particular performance. Anthony Hopkins in The Father gives one of the most breath- taking, on-screen performances I have ever seen; surely that performance will go down in the history books and be considered “classic” in years to come.

I think most people consider a film “classic” if it is either shot in black & white (and not as a stylistic choice, but because colour didn’t exist at the time), or if it is directed and made by a list of certain filmmakers; Scorcesse, Coppola, Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Scott, Welles, to name a few. Whilst I agree that the films made by these filmmakers certainly should be given the “classic” classification, I don’t believe the idea of “classic” is some elitist stamp that is only granted to a handful of filmmakers and their work. I also disagree with the idea that a film has to be made ‘pre 60’s’ in order to classify.

Let’s look at the films we can all collectively agree should be and are considered “classics”:

Probably one of the most revered film of all time, Kubrick himself said he believed it to be the best film ever made, and IMDB certainly seems to agree. Coppola’s gangster flick starring the renowned Marlon Brando, as well as a handful of Hollywood’s greatest living talent, is without doubt a masterpiece. Brando’s performance will never be forgotten, whether the famous poster of the Don is used in memes, or the title of the film used for punny restaurant names (I used to live next to a fish and chip shop called “The Codfather”, which I always found to be quite brilliant), or just general mentions and references towards the horses head in the bed; seriously, whenever I have a conversation with someone who hasn’t seen the film, the first thing they say is “Is that the one with the horses head in the bed?” Yes, yes it is.

“You talkin’ to me”- four words that could be the entire reason this film is regarded as “classic”; a quote that kids who were born 5 minutes ago are familiar with (not actually, but you get the point I’m making). Scorcesse’s iconic cinematography choices, DeNiro’s terrifying depiction of a man possessed with rage (also seen in another of his classics, Raging Bull), and the iconic mohawk all contribute towards the film’s “classic” status.

Much like Taxi Driver, the incredibly famous and terrifyingly iconic line “Here’s Johnny!” Accompanied with Nicholson’s menacing grin, peering through the hacked in door could be enough to nail this on the “classics” cork-board. The incredible one-shot of the tricycle, the twins in the hallway, the blood gushing in to the lobby, and the creepy line reading of the word “Redrum”, “Murder” in reverse, in case you didn’t know, cement its place. It’s also worth thinking about the controversy surrounding the making of the film; Kubrick’s infamously poor behaviour towards Shelly Duvall is very well documented, and led to a breakdown and withdrawal from the actress. Not to mention all the conspiracy theories about what Kubrick was trying to symbolise through certain images within the film.

I could go on and on, listing of the films of these extraordinary filmmakers, but I think I’ve got enough to work with. The point is, a “classic” film seems to be defined by a sense of significance surrounding the film. Iconic scenes, lines of dialogue, line readings and interpretations, costumes, cinematography choices, music, themes all contribute.

But, I think the most important factor that should be considered when labelling a film as “classic” should be whether or not the film is either advancing the art-form of filmmaking, or whether it is advancing a particualr idea or social topic towards the audience. The works of Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino certainly advance the form of what filmmaking is and what it can be; veering away from formulaic narrative structure, shooting style, character development, and overall look and feel, in to something incredibly original, distinctive, and memorable. What’s the first thing you think of when you mention Tarantino’s name? Guarenteed it’s his use of violence, or appaling language. How about Anderson? I bet it’s his use of symmetry, and precise camera composition and choreography. Both of these filmmakers have carved out a distinctive style for themselves that can always be linked back to them.

Films like Get Out & Us written and directed by the brilliant Jordan Peele certainly advanced the idea of telling stories through the lens of black people at the core of the stories; up until Get Out, I can’t really think of many films that had such a strong black representation within the genre. It was also one of the first times a film belonging to the horror genre was really used to make strong political statements and comment on the racial divide within the U.S, and indeed, the rest of the world; the same goes for Us- this was a direct comment on inequality and the sense of political and class divide within the country. So, do we consider these films as “classic”? Has it been long enough for them to be considered “classic”? Get Out came out in 2017, and Us came out in 2019; is there a specific period of time that needs to take place in order to make a film eligible? So often you hear people say things like “that film is going to be a classic”, or “that film is an instant classic”; so when is the point it moves from “future classic”, in to “actual classic”, and what makes a film an “instant classic”, compared to “future classic”, what sets them apart?

It would seem to me that our idea of “classic” films is constantly changing, and the rules of what makes them “classic” is always evolving and has to be judged on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to a generic ruling. It would also seem to be the case that there are varying levels of “classic” films; you’ve got your black & white classics, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, or Psycho, or Night of the Hunter, even Night of the Living Dead (which really doesn’t hold up- at all; but at the time was considered, and should still be considered the film that started the zombie branch of horror genre filmmaking). Then you’ve got your classic 70’s & 80’s, such as some of the films I’ve already mentioned (Scorcesse, Coppola, Kubrick etc…). Then your classic 90’s, “mostly starring Tom Hanks in the lead role”, romantic comedy, long-form biopic types, such as Forrest Gump, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle & Philadelphia etc… Finally, we have early two-thousand’s classics, titles such The Lord of the Rings, Bridget Jones, Freaky Friday, even the Harry Potter series could be considered, if we’re suggesting that a “classic” film is significant to a generation, or makes a social/ cultural impact on society.

Taking everything in to account, my final opinion on the matter is that “classic” is defined by both the collective, and the individual. There are a collection of famous films that everyone can agree is a classic, but there are also films that individuals will hold in high regard as classic. I would personally consider Superbad as a “classic” film, but I’m sure people of the Scorcesse generation wouldn’t give it a second thought, and disregard it, even completely write it off in some cases. In the same vein, whenever someone asks what your favourite film is, people often feel pressured to name a film that is widely considered to be critically acclaimed or talked about, like Pulp Fiction (one of my genuine favourites), or Apocalypse now; however I know plenty of people who actively hate these films, and if you were to ask them what their genuine favourite film was, they might say something like Bridesmaids, or Maid in Manhattan (I actually really like these films, but can you imagine telling Spielberg they were your favourite?) However, why should we feel embarassed or feel like we have to give a generic answer when it comes to our fcvourite films? It’s all subjective and down to personal taste and opinion. Much like food, if someone asked what your favourite food, you wouldn’t necessarily say caviar and 100-year old malt whiskey, even if this might make you seem more sophisticated and grandiose; you might just say a cheeseburger and fries from the local kebab house.

Different generations will have different ideas of what defines “classic” films; as will different cultures, religions, races, and genders. If I were to give a definitive answer, I would say the thing that ultimately defines “classic” would be something that stands out to you, something that had an impact on you culturally, or even personally. Maybe it was a film you can easily connect to a memory, or a specific time in your life, maybe it’s a film that people from your generation, race, religion, gender refer to or discuss, or perhaps it’s just a film you find yourself revisiting on a frequent basis because it makes you feel good, or it’s something you can appreciate and respect. I will be interested to see what films are considered generically “classic” in the next ten years, and how different they will be to the films we currently consider to be “classic”.

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Film Chat From My Flat

A new podcast, dedicated to chatting about all things film! Each week, I sit down, in my flat, with a guest and chat to them about the films they love.