What Makes a Movie Classic?

Although it is a useful starting point, falling back on ‘personal choice’ as the sole basis for film
appreciation is not enough; certainly for members of a home movie group! We need to consider
whether it is possible to reach a general consensus as to what constitutes a move classic.
To this end,  I offer the following five points for discussion:

ONE: Structure, form. The film maker(s) must try to make good use of the medium itself, e.g. screenplay, structure, sound track, quality of acting, in order to form an integrated whole, appropriate to the film’s content and purpose.

Broken down into its constituent parts, we have things like mis-en-scene, juxtaposition of images (montage), narrative technique. Cutting and editing, use of the close-up, cutaway, reverse shot, medium shot, panorama, etc. use of sound, e.g. music, also natural sound effects, diagesis (‘sounds off’, e.g. natural sounds or  dialogue, which may contribute to the narrative structure), etc. How does the film approach the question of realism? Should a film merely mirror reality, and run the risk of being reconciled with it (e.g. the way in which a film deals with the subject of violence. Is this merely gratuitous, a means to stimulate the senses or is it forcing us to ask questions about the true nature of bourgeois society.) Whereas a marxist aesthetician would say film - certainly if it aspires to be art - cannot be reconciled with reality, since the latter is unjust, oppressive, founded on violence, including economic violence (i.e. rooted in private property relations and exchange value, starting with the extraction of surplus labour by one class from another, either by co-option, or coercion.)

Thus we should be able to arrive at an understanding of whether the film in question is an example of an art film or commercialised entertainment, or somewhere in between, i.e. serious entertainment.

The art film is mindful of the need for the imaginative use of structure (above) as a means to establish a ‘critical distance’ between itself and the real world; albeit it is not detached from it (cf. film-for-film’s sake). A film like Orson Welles’ F For Fake , (1975) despite being a documentary film, has a highly complex structure. In this sense it reflects his impulse to make a film-for-film’s sake, based on his belief that film is ‘trickery’ (cf. the magician). On the other hand, it achieves a ‘critical distance’, because it is a discourse about art, forgery and the art market. Therefore It is a good example of film as art.

TWO: Film as a social critique. This may be achieved via one genre or another, e.g. epic, drama, melodrama, satire, fable, romance, western, thriller, etc. The most ubiquitous genre, re commercialised entertainment, is the action thriller, based on fast-paced action, lashings of violence, which is constantly striving to look like the real thing, such as war, gang violence, male violence against women, and so on. But this is deceiving and also affirms reality, which is far more horrible. Therefore, a good crime thriller should be able to make us think about violent crime, i.e. that it is just is one side of the coin; while the violence of the system, backed up by state violence, constitutes the other. The French TV series, Spiral, does this very well.

THREE: A film should be able to transcend its subject matter, and therefore its own time. It becomes a beacon for the future, a standard of excellence, against which we should measure other films of the same kind. I would cite the following as  examples, Drama: Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949); Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962); Historical drama: Visconti’s Senso (1954); successful translation of book to screen: David Lean’s Great Expectations (1948); (Cf. the modern American remake, set in the Florida swamps/New York - quite good!); Comedy: Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1957); (cf. Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), both excellent!) Introspective film: Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958); feminist film: Ophil’s Madame De… (1953); Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), albeit both made by male auteurs!); comedy/political satire: the Czech Film, Closely Observed Trains (1966); that rare thing, a film about revolution: Eisenstein’s seminal Battleship Potemkin (1925) one of the greatest films ever!; Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers  (1966); Ken McMullen’s Zina (1965); equally rare, a film about the birth of a totalising theory (Psychoanalysis): Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011); romance: Malle’s Les Amants (1959), Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), but about much more besides!; Fable/surreal fantasy: the Japanese film, Woman in the Dunes (1964); Malle’s little known Black Moon (1974); western: Ford’s The Searchers (1956); etc.

FOUR: A Film must be entertaining. As Brecht said, even serious political drama has to be entertaining; otherwise it is a failure (?) But a film should not be entertaining just for its own sake; it should not just be a distraction or anaesthetic, which enables us to put up with existing reality, the mass consumerist/mass media society. In this regard Sidney Lumet’s Network  (1976) is an excellent example of an entertaining film which critiques this at the same time;  news reader, Peter Finch’s outburst is especially memorable!

FIVE: A film must have a strong individual style; cf. Auteurism. See all of the above.

For the Glasgow Home Movie Group, 2007.