Are all classic movies old movies? Must they be old to be classic? How old? Can a movie be a classic without being old?
Today we are putting on our tattered philosophical hats, such as they are, and rooting around in some deep semantic waters. Stay with us. There is a point to all this.
The questions — Does old equal “classic”? Does “classic” equal old?
Well right there you have fodder for several all-night discussions. And you’d still be left without answers.
We believe that while “instant” classics do occur — Francis Coppola’s The Godfather of 1972 comes to mind as a rare example. (We bet you could identify the above captionless photo, both actor and movie title, with little or no difficulty.) Nonetheless, the vast majority of movie classics have to have aged a bit (sometimes quite a bit), rattling around in your minds and esthetic psyches.
As we have often pointed out, a movie warrants the coveted “classic” designation because it weathers beautifully over years, providing visual pleasure, emotional drive and excitement to audiences over several generations.
So by that standard, yes indeed, a movie must age before being considered a classic.
Not many movies, but more than you might suspect, can meet that qualification. Often a picture is declared a “classic” by over-enthused critics the instant of its initial release. Then, when seen a decade or two later, it plays flat and dated.
An obvious example is 1969’s Easy Rider, which made Jack Nicholson a star (can you name the movie’s other two co-stars?). Hailed at the time as a low-budget ground breaker about alienated youth, Easy Rider is tough to take seriously today (despite its appealing soundtrack).
It illustrates a cardinal rule that movies closely tracking the zeitgeist of their times run the real risk of dating themselves when times change.
A movie classic must, in our view, be timeless, not necessarily timely. The actors and actresses must visually be as striking now as they were then. The plot and the acting must not seem a function of period, as when hammy, over-reaching stage-trained actors were laughed off the screen when talkies were introduced in late 1920’s.
The folks at the British journal Sight and Sound occasionally do some heavy thinking about “classics”and what makes them so. They reported that the British Film Institute’s Classics Book Series rules that a movie should be at least 10 years old to qualify.
They say: ”Each re-viewing (of a classic) offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first. Yet even when we see the film for the first time, it gives us a sense of seeing something we have seen before….The films never exhaust all they have to say. They come to us bearing an aura of previous interpretations , and trailing behind them the traces they have have left in the cultures through which they have passed.”