The exact definition of the word classic stretches far and wide, to say the least. It’s a question I have asked myself more than once. What makes a classic? Is it the impact it has on your life or our culture? Is it how angry, sad, or happy it makes you the second it ends? And why are these movies considerd to be the best and others are not? The Star Ledger’s Stephen Whitty answers these questions.
Anatomy of a classic: National Film Registry list showcases some surprising choices
by Stephen Whitty
What makes a classic?
Is it a movie that transcends its time or one that captures it? A film that deals in “serious” issues, or one that “merely” entertains? A picture hailed by critics, or embraced by the public? What separates 90 minutes or so of literally moving pictures from a truly moving work of art?
It’s a question that the Library of Congress has been asking for quite a while.
Since 1985, its National Film Registry has been quietly selecting American films for preservation and inclusion in a public archive. The selections comprise features, documentaries, cartoons and shorts and have, at the rate of 25 titles a year, slowly and steadily built up to a library of more than 400 films.
It was the usual grab bag of historically important non-fiction footage (Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest, from 1910), popular favorites (Miracle on 34th Street, from 1947), and cult items deserving of a larger audience (the steamy Barbara Stanwyck drama Baby Face, from 1933). It got the usual brief media attention, and was then forgotten.
Yet the 25 choices — and the registry itself, which is quickly turning into a sort of official, paperless text on American cinema — is worthy of more consideration than that.
What sort of popular culture should we be preserving for our children, and our children’s children? What criteria do we use to judge the worth of a work of art? Does content always trump style, or can style be enough, in and of itself? Does it matter if content is politically incorrect, or currently unfashionable?
This is about more than just movies.
As usual, the judges’ choices — and they are an anonymous group, made up of Library of Congress scholars and film preservationists — invite second guessing, and a few outright questions.
Mom and Dad, for example, a famously exploitative facts-of-life film from 1944, is included as a tip of the hat to the old underground world of barnstorming showmen and “adults-only” features. But where’s the far more famous, and infamous, Reefer Madness? And while 1994’s Hoop Dreams remains an earnest documentary about the inner city, its good intentions pale next to the films of Michael Moore, whose purposely infuriating films remain ignored.
The list’s occasional attempts at populism invite just as much controversy. Fine to include director Roger Corman — but why pick the airless House of Usher over the early, energetic Little Shop of Horrors (or later, more sophisticated The Tomb of Ligeia)? And if there’s always room for beloved films — The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca both joined the list long ago — why pick the sticky-sweet Miracle on 34th Street over Meet John Doe, Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Notorious?
True, given the most basic test of permanence — is this a film that’s worth watching more than once? — many of the choices, even the newer ones, deliver. Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains one of the sharpest and least sentimental teen films ever, as well as its own 1982 yearbook of up-and-coming talent like Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Toy Story, the newest film on the list, still delights after a decade, and somewhere, tears are still being shed over the 1934 Claudette Colbert weeper, Imitation of Life.
Yet the list still provokes wonder, and encourages reflection. What films of our generation will future generations judge as representative, or relevant, or somehow emblematic of us? What movies now in movie houses will be worth preservation, 60 years on? Which of this year’s prestige pictures, already racing toward the inevitable Academy nominations, will one day seem as dusty as Oscar winners like The Greatest Show on Earth?
The registry judges are upfront about their own criteria, and quick to explain that the honor is less an aesthetic judgment than a “recognition of the film’s importance to American film and to history in general.” Yet sometimes the exact dimensions of that importance are hard to discern.
Clearly the Jeffries-Johnson fight film is here, not for any breakthrough style, but for its recording of a significant moment in American race relations; the 1920 government-produced short about assimilation, “Making of an American,” says little about filmmaking, but much about the melting pot. Other films on the larger list — which range from newsreel shots of the McKinley inauguration to home movies from a Japanese internment camp — aren’t documentaries so much as mere documents.
Looking back at the complete list reveals even more films whose importance seems defined solely by their comfortably progressive politics. Certainly Tootsie is an amusing movie, but its place here seems due more to its self-congratulatory speeches about feminism than any genuine, unforgettable wit. The Ox-Bow Incident is a fine and sober sermon about lynching — but why is this Western on the list, when far better ones, like Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, are not?
Art always ages better than relevance, and to really find a classic, I think you have to look beyond what you think a film might have been, once — or what you’d like it to be — and try to see it as it is. While the power of any film’s politics has to be acknowledged, too, it also has to be separated from its aesthetics.
The article continues here. What are your thoughts on this topic? And, most importantly, what is your favorite classic?