Whose Classics Are They, Anyway?

by on December 4th, 2014
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Most cinema fans of a certain age have had the unpleasant experience of sharing a beloved movie from yesteryear with a member of a younger generation, only to have the whippersnapper stare at the screen in boredom. It used to be that showing Psycho (1960) to a Gen-Xer would elicit a yawn, but now even showing Halloween (1977) to a contemporary high-school student will produce the same non-reaction. And while it’s true that genre pictures tend to lose their mojo faster than other types of films, the fact is that all movies change substantially over time. Or, more to the point, audiences tastes evolve so dramatically that it seems as if the movies change.

Which raises an unavoidable question: Are classics really classic? Sure, any open-minded contemporary teenager can be steered toward appreciating the aesthetic and historical importance of, say, The Birth of a Nation (1915), but will the kid actually enjoy the movie? And since motion pictures are a form of popular entertainment, do they still mean the same things when they’re no longer enjoyable to modern audiences? Put another way, when a movie becomes a museum piece, is it still a movie in the sense of being filmed entertainment?

I’m contemplating these questions in the midst of the 2011-2012 awards season, when critics and fans and professionals are making their first attempts at defining which movies from the last 12 months are worth recognizing as extraordinary achievements. While winning a major prize is not the only reason any particular movie earns longevity (box-office success and cultural impact are two other major factors), there’s no question that when casual fans refer to past decades of Hollywood cinema, one of the first stops on the journey is looking up which pictures won Oscars during a particular era. Therefore, one after-effect of any awards season is providing an indicator of which movies might become classics.

So let’s examine one movie being celebrated right now. Shame, the NC-17 drama about a sex addict, can probably be classified as the edgiest movie in the awards-season mix thanks its frank sexual content. Simply by dint of being elevated over all the other pictures that aren’t in the awards-season mix, Shame has made the first cut of earning instant-classic status. For the sake of argument, let’s say the picture ends up winning a major prize, like the Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film (for which Shame has been nominated). Extending the hypothetical, let’s say Shame emerges from the hype of awards season as a movie people are still talking about months into the future.

Shame represents one artist’s interpretation of where we, as a society, are right now in terms of our understanding of sex addiction. Despite filmmaker Steve McQueen’s protestations to the contrary, the movie is judgmental about its central character, indicating that his lifestyle of meaningless physical encounters has cut him off from the ability to feel and understand normal human emotions. Furthermore, the picture is (perhaps inadvertently) derisive about homosexuality, since the nadir of the lead character’s journey is receiving oral sex from another man and then participating in a three-way with two women. Despite its envelope-pushing nature, Shame is highly moralistic, which makes it an interesting snapshot of a time when sexual attitudes are rapidly changing.

Now let’s project ourselves 20 years into the future. The culture war being waged in America right now over issues like gay marriage will be that much further along, and if the United States’ proud history of eventual inclusiveness is any indication, the end result of the battle will be even more extensive acceptance and rights for gays here (and presumably elsewhere in the world). Furthermore, it stands to reason that we will have gleaned new and deeper insights into the mysteries of sex addiction. Thus, it’s not impossible to envision a situation in which Shame is rendered obsolete by cultural change; in other words, if society gains greater knowledge and/or sensitivity relative to the topics depicted in the picture, it will become a museum piece.

And yet right now, the film is among the two or three dozen motion pictures singled out as the best released during 2011, a contender in the instant-classic sweepstakes. So if a movie that could lose its power to provoke and shock in just two decades is in contention for classic status, doesn’t that indicate how compromised the very idea of classic status has become?

Here’s one facet of the problem: “Classic,” in the way the word is used among those chatting about movies, doesn’t really mean “classic” anymore. These days, “classic” simply means “old.” In that sense, Shame will indeed be a classic in two decades’ time, inasmuch as it will be remembered more vividly (and reviewed more often) than movies not being singled out for year-end praise at this time. It might seem historically important, but in point of fact, it will simply be old.

To see this bastardized use of the word “classic,” simply tune into any broadcast day of my favorite channel, Turner Classic Movies, and observe how indiscriminately the channel is sometimes programmed. Sandwiched between truly great older movies like The Red Shoes (1948) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) are generic vintage entertainments like The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Anderson Tapes (1971). Yes, everything from the past possesses some measure of historical interest, but is every movie from the past a classic?

Another issue is the troubling question of what “classic” status really indicates. In literature, the realm providing the closest precedent for how we rate older movies, classic status tends to indicate either great artistic achievement or, in some cases, a story that provides a window into a lost time. Thus, Mark Twain’s seminal 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn earns “classic status” on at least two levels, because in addition to being a marvelously spun yarn, it provides a prism for examining Civil War-era race relations in the American south.

Now consider those two movies mentioned at the beginning of this essay, upon which most film historians would unquestionably bestow “classic” status. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho more or less meets the first criterion since it is made with sublime skill; the notorious shower scene is still scrutinized by filmmakers and film students seeking insight into the power of film editing. Yet does the picture meet the second criterion, of providing a look into a lost time? Aside from the usual trappings of clothing and objects and such, perhaps not. The film’s insights into homicidal behavior are primitive, and the picture belongs to a sordid tradition of conflating alternative sexuality with madness; the killer, after all, dresses as his mother. More fundamentally, the movie isn’t really about much of anything except jolting the audience, so it’s not as if anyone ranks Psycho among the most substantial cinematic narratives.

So if Psycho‘s musings about the criminal mind now seem trite and if its thrills no longer thrill (in the sense that the fright scenes don’t frighten contemporary viewers), what’s left? A museum piece.

Some of the same observations could be made about John Carpenter’s Halloween, much as it pains me to criticize a canonical work by one of my favorite filmmakers. Years of crass imitators and successors have, unfortunately, diminished the novelty of the way Carpenter constructed his jolts, so viewers who have sat through several Saw sequels, for instance, are unlikely to find Halloween particularly unsettling. Furthermore, on a narrative level, Halloween is about even less than Psycho. So is Carpenter’s movie a museum piece as well?

And if both movies are museum pieces, do they have utility for anyone except film historians (and people who are already fans of the films)? Brand-new readers can return to Huckleberry Finn and still find the story just as engaging as it was in the 19th century, but brand-new viewers cannot recapture the original excitement of watching Psycho or Halloween, even though those artworks are much, much younger than Twain’s novel. Is it possible that cinematic classics just don’t have the staying power of literary classics, owing to some flaw in the DNA of the filmic form? Do the ephemeral elements of movies deteriorate just like the physical elements?

Admittedly, the examples being explored here are (intentionally) loaded ones. Psycho and Halloween were designed as thrill rides, not as probing examinations of the human condition. That’s why a romantic film addressing timeless themes, like 1942’s Casablanca, or a dramatic film investigating familial dynamics, like 1972’s The Godfather, are bound to have long shelf lives. However, the question is still relevant, because, lest we forget, the title of Twain’s novel contains the word “adventures.” Huckleberry Finn is literature, but it’s also popular entertainment. Remembering this duality explains why it’s dangerous to say that “literary” cinema lasts while “entertainment” cinema does not; like Huckleberry Finn, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is simultaneously crowd-pleasing and thought-provoking.

So if classics in any medium can be fun and intelligent at the same time, shouldn’t something like Psycho or Halloween be as suitable for “classic” designation as more serious-minded films? This rhetorical question brings us back to the central inquiry, which can be summed up this way: Is artwork still viable once it loses its power to elicit the original desired reaction? To arrive at one answer to this question, let’s remember that if a painting meant to be shocking no longer shocks, it becomes, literally, a museum piece useful primarily for studying what past societies considered shocking.

The conundrum, then, stems from we actually do with so-called cinematic classics: We broadcast them, we recommend them to friends, we show them in film-appreciation courses. In other words, we expect them to do for others what they did for us. If we grew up being frightened by Jaws (1975), we anticipate that the picture will frighten others. Eventually, that won’t happen. Just as Psycho and Halloween have lost their power over time, so too will Spielberg’s wonderful movie about a nasty shark. When that happens, will that mean Jaws isn’t a classic anymore?

Or is the bigger consideration that we might need a whole new vocabulary for discussing older movies? If we accept as a thesis that films lose their power over time, as seems to be the case, then maybe the very idea of “classics” doesn’t really suit the cinematic form. Finally, if you’re still not sure this issue is worth contemplating, try showing the 1922 vampire picture Nosferatu to a Twilight fan whose idea of a classic is New Moon. Each generation has its own favorite movies, and more and more, it seems apparent the power of those movies is tethered to the life experience of the generation itself, creating a paradigm virtually unprecedented in the history of artistic endeavor.


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