Not a Classic

Not a Classic

 

Well into the runtime of STAR TREK BEYOND, there’s a moment in the plot that involves the song “Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys. This moment prompts Bones to ask Spock “Is that classical music I’m hearing?”. With his trademark deadpan tone, Spock replies “Yes, doctor, I believe it is.”

The joke, of course, is obvious. The film is set in 2263 making everything we are experiencing now ancient history in the eyes of every character in this film. The point though, is apt; that time marches on. What was once modern, edgy, and visceral to listeners of my generation is now considered “old school” to the ears of a new generation of listeners…and will probably be “quaint” a generation or two after them. Perception around everything changes as the years pass, including what we already considered classic.

Which beings me to the curious goings-on with fans of Turner Classic Movies.

Two days ago, A Canadian fan of TCM launched a petition on change.org for TCM to go back to their original mission of only airing films from 1960 and before. The petition claims:

We, the viewers, feel that recently TCM has deviated from its original mission to televise films from the classic era of Hollywood (1913-1960). We watch TCM as it is the only channel that is solely dedicated to showing films from this period- however well-known or obscure. If it weren’t for TCM, it would be impossible to view many of these rare films, as many of them have not been released on DVD. In her autobiography ‘The Million Dollar Mermaid’, Esther Williams credits Ted Turner with preserving her legacy. Without TCM, she feared that future generations would not remember her. When TCM premiered in 1994, it made a commitment to honor those legacies.

This petition isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this position on “classic film”, so I don’t mean to throw the purveyors of the motion under the bus. However, I do hope to seek some clarity.

 

Not a Classic

Not a Classic

 

Let’s begin with the very definition of “classic”. The word means Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind; work of art of recognized and established value; A thing which is memorable and a very good example of its kind. Nowhere in the definition of the word is there any suggestion of era from which the subject arrived. So even as TCM has drifted from their original mission statement, have they betrayed what they set out to highlight with their programming? Is a post-1960 film like RAGING BULL not “of the highest quality”? “Of recognized and established value”? “A very good example of its kind”?

The problem is that “classic film” has never been sharply defined. More on that in a minute.

Let’s think for a moment about that line in the sand TCM originally drew when they went on-air in 1994. Keeping the programming strictly pre-1960 means that the channel could never broadcast WEST SIDE STORY, THE HUSTLER, YOJIMBO, ROSEMARY’S BABY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, BLOW-UP, DR. STRANGELOVE, MY FAIR LADY, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, VIVRE SA VIE, HIGH AND LOW, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, EASY RIDER, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, THE GREAT ESCAPE, PERSONA, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, JULES ET JIM, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, 8 1/2, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY…and that’s only the films of the sixties.

Even though all of those films would be out-of-bounds according to TCM’s original declaration, I dare anyone to point to any of these film and say “I don’t think that’s a classic, Ryan”

 

Not a Classic

Not a Classic

 

The biggest problem that faces the very notion of what should be considered classic in any art form (not just film) is that the line is forever moving. The true test of a classic is the passage of time; what seems incredible one year can often feel stale and dated just a few years after. Years bring perspective, create a legacy, and more clearly define what is simply popular and what is truly transcendent.

All of that perspective, legacy, definition? It’s continually in motion.

Were TCM to launch today, odds are they would draw the line at 1992 (assuming 24 years back is the arbitrary line for “classic film”). So what, now, are we to make of all those films released between 1960 and 1992? that is a massive swatch of film history to leave untouched. As the legacy surrounding films in that pool continues to grow, at a certain point you’d have to believe that a petition would make its way onto change.org requesting that TCM rethink their original mission and move up that line to reflect the changing attitudes of what constitutes a classic film.

After all, at this stage it’s fair to say that the current landscape of film owes just as much to names like Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Cameron, and DePalma as it does Ford, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Ozu, Fellini, Capra, and Hawkes.

However the passage of time and how it moves the goal line is only part of the problem. The bigger problem is what we call the growing tally of films gathering in no man’s land.

 

Not a Classic

Not a Classic

 

Referring to everything before 1960 as “classic film” is a little broad to say the least. Within that bracket we have silent film, early talkies, film noir, pre-code, the studio era, european neo-realism, and the beginnings of the french new wave to name but a few.

But sure, okay, if it’s easier to lump it all together as “classic film”, then bully to you.

But to quote the hit musical, what comes next?

The late 1960’s to early 1980’s is usually referred to as “New Hollywood”. Everything from EASY RIDER all the way through to HEAVEN’S GATE. Films as small as WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR? and as big as STAR WARS. All one happy family.

But, I repeat, what comes next?

There doesn’t seem to be any agreed-upon categorization of the films of the 1980’s…or 90’s…or what’s happened so far this century (itself a 16-year stretch that tends to be lumped together). Nobody calls what we’ve seen “The Corporate Era”, “The Indie Movement”, “The Post 9/11 Wave”, “The Franchise Years”. A thirty-six year stretch of film history goes unqualified, and this despite more film literacy students than any time in history. By contrast, people born in that same block of time are referred to as Generation X, Baby Busters, The MTV Generation, The Boomerang Generation, Generation Y, The Echo Generation, Millennials, Generation Z, and The New Silent Generation.

They are categorized and subcategorized to the enth degree. But our films? “Non-classics”

That swath of film history that the purist want preserved is an 80 year block (1880 – 1960). The unspoken for stretch that follows is closing in on 60 years itself. It’s difficult to argue that the beginning of that era has much in common with the end.

 

Not a Classic

Not a Classic

 

Time marches on. What one moment seems modern and edgy eventually becomes old school and quaint. One day, maybe we’ll do as good a job classifying and celebrating the last forty years as we did everything that came before.

We may believe that films of 1976, 1986, or 1996 are “modern”…but take a look at what was going on in the world at those points in time; how we interacted with each-other and what concerned us most as a people. Tell me we have not changed even a bit in the years since.

I do believe that films all the way up to 1986 have a place on channels like TCM within reason, and can easily be considered “classic films”. As long as the channel (and likewise “classic” festivals, screening series, and the like) don’t become dominated by selections that fall in that later block, then what’s wrong with broadening out the scope. If anything it adds perspective to the legacy of those earlier selections and shows their influence.

If I’m a betting man, I’d wager that TCM knows this and that’s why they started to blur that line they drew in the sand in the first place.

Sure, it would be cool to watch THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY for the sixteenth time in a year…but eventually getting to see its influence on UNFORGIVEN is an experience I believe also worthy of the classic filmgoer’s time and effort.

 

UPDATE: A reader reminded me of something this morning. TCM’s mission – declared from the start, and kept to this day – is to celebrate the history of cinema from the beginning to the current. There was no talk of a date, or what era’s were and were not “classic”. Early promotional videos even included glimpses of LOVE STORY, which is, of course, a film from 1970.

While this may cause confusion around the petition, it doesn’t change the ultimate point I hope we can all consider; that “classics” are a fluid designation, and that as time goes on we should all be open minded about what we include in the category and when.

Every generation has their “classics”, and every generations “classics” deserve a seat at the grown-ups table. I’d wager TCM agrees. (RM)

UPDATE #2: The same reader turned up a 1994 article in The New York Times detailing the launch of TCM. The article quotes TCM’s intentions – and it’s relationship to the original format of AMC – as follows:

AMC focuses almost exclusively on movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. But TCM plans to show films from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as well. Mr. Siegel said this should let the channel appeal to a “much wider demographic, not just to older people.”

Considering what became of both AMC and TCM, I think we can all agree that the passing of time changes so very much.