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The 'C' word: Defining classic film

Does winning a few of these make a classic?
Does winning a few of these make a classic?

I managed a retail, purchase-only video store for a number of years, and I was often asked why we didn't have a "classics" section. After all, classic films were our specialty. We certainly sold them by the boatload. We prided ourselves on the fact that "we knew movies."

My short answer was always this: What is a classic film? Who defines classic? One person's classic is another person's idea of wartime torture. For every person that loves Gone With the Wind, I can find you twenty others who would rather have a colonoscopy than see a second of it. Does that reduce its status as a classic film?

Those who planned store layouts for the company apparently didn't wish to enter the debate--or more likely, had no guess where to begin--so we filed Gone With the Wind, and Casablanca, and Citizen Kane in drama. John Wayne had his own section, complete with signing, and to some that was a classics section. I would have disagreed vociferously, had anyone asked for my opinion. In fact, I would sooner have watched grass grow than sat down to watch Stagecoach. Now though, I can see the appeal of some of his work, and especially to his films with John Ford I would readily apply the C-label.

So, for the purpose of my work here and to the reviews that will follow in the coming days, here is how I define a classic film: A classic film lives on, long after the actors, writers, director, and crew have passed away. People still talk about it, are moved by it, watch it, love it. A classic film is a moving, living painting--a glimpse into a different social atmosphere, a different time, a different America--that offers, to the discerning, to the willing, a look at ourselves today. A look at what made us who we are, what brought us here. It continues to shape us as a society, as long as the film lives in our televisions, movie theaters...and our hearts.

As people, we often don't agree on the things that affect us at our deepest level. Politics, religion, art...these are humankind at its most visceral. And cinema is art, no matter what anyone says. Sure, the waters have been muddied by business and bean counting, by $20 million paychecks and opening weekend box office, but filmmaking is still making art. So as I begin to roll out my reviews for "classic" films, I look forward to debate. If you think I'm wrong, let me know how and why. If you think I'm right, I'd appreciate hearing that, too.

As to defining "classic," let's leave that one alone. It's a classic if I say so. If you disagree, you're welcome to write your own column.

I'd read it, too.

For a different take, an exhaustive list, and lots of reviews: .


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