What makes a classic film?

I had that Amazon experience familiar to many this week, where I go to buy one cheap little item and end up ordering a whole bunch of other stuff. This week the ‘extras’ consisted of three books from the British Film Institute (BFI) series of mini-books celebrating and examining a particular film of significance from around the world and from a century of filmmaking.

I’ve been meaning to get the recent release featuring Star Wars for some time but just never got around to it. Star Wars is, of course, one of the biggest films of my childhood and one that I know inside out, so I’m intrigued to see what the BFI study comes up with in terms of new insights into the story and the production.

I should have stopped there, but then I spotted that there was also a title on Spirited Away, the Hayao Miyazaki Oscar-winning animated classic from 2001. It’s a film that I was entranced and delighted by when I saw it, but also completely confused and baffled by the story – not that it mattered, I treated the film as though it had ‘dream logic’ that didn’t need to make sense, and just went with it. I assumed that the reason it was so baffling was because it relied heavily on Japanese archetypes familiar to its home audience in just the way that Walt Disney made use of familiar characters and scenarios like the Wicked Witch, Cinderella and Pinocchio for his greatest animated films – it’s just that these Japanese equivalents are still strange and unknown to us.

So I decided to pick up that BFI book too, in the expectation that all its influences and Japanese folklore would be revealed to me. An initial cursory look at the book suggests I’ll be disappointed in that hope – it seems Japanese audiences were every bit as baffled by the story and mythology as the Westerners! But no matter, it looks a great treatise and is one of the BFI series longest entries to date, in order to accommodate the complexity of Miyazaki’s “simple children’s film”.

And just before I could get to the checkout, another BFI title ended up falling into the basket as well. This is a weirder one – it’s a study of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a sci-fi/horror film released in 1982 to “an almost unanimous critical drubbing on both sides of the Atlantic” according to the author, Anne Billson, in her introduction. It came out in the same summer as ET – The Extra-Terrestrial, which sucked up the box office oxygen and as a result “The Thing crashed and burned … Carpenter’s film couldn’t have been released at a less opportune moment.”

Billson goes on: “One of the most surprising things about The Thing is that, in the past fifteen years, it has never it has never undergone the positive critical reassessment bestowed on other fantastical films of the same era: films such as Blade Runner and The Shining,” quoting reviews of The Thing such as “Non-stop parade of slimy, repulsive special effects turns” (Leonard Maltin) and “A mindlessly macho monster mash … an ineptly plotted remake of Alien” (Time Out). How come such a film gets afforded the honour of a BFI film classic analysis issued about it?

It’s a brave film critic who in the face of the above received opinion openly admits to being “bowled over by it. I was transfixed … I have since watched this film so many times [that] I now know virtually every syllable of Lancaster’s dialogue, every last beat of Ennio Morricone’s haunting music, every conjuring trick of Carpenter’s direction. And yet I can still watch it with pleasure, its tension unimpaired by familiarity,” as Billson writes.

It’s this last bit that caught my eye, because I find it very hard to rewatch movies these days. As a kid, I’d go and see the same films (James Bond movies, Star Wars – the obvious ones) at the very least a couple of times; a film seen only once was a grave disappointment. But the last time I had any regular habit of revisiting a film more than once was probably 20 years ago. I even find it hard to rewatch an old favourite film like Star Wars, precisely because I do know every line of dialogue, every camera move, every actor’s expression. I know there are millions of people who watch Goodfellas or The Godfather or some other favourite film a couple of times every year, but it’s very rare for me now.

Even with the beloved James Bond mainstays of my youth: if I watch those these days then its invariably the ones that I didn’t see as a child and have only dim memories of, films like Dr No. In the same vein, I watched The Wizard of Oz in a brilliant new digital restoration last year, and realised I had never actually seen it properly before – only highlights or in brief isolated snatches on TV during holiday seasons. Similarly, I rewatched Blade Runner relatively recently – but that was because it was out on DVD for the first time in years and in a new (and final!) edit. I don’t think I’d seen it in 20 years, and so it was virtually a new film for me – barely remembered.

So what does make a ‘rewatchable’ film? Do they have to be brilliant classics like Citizen Kane, Casablanca or The Godfather? Or actually, are the “comfort” films we embrace something different almost by definition from the “best”, classic films that we admire? Are loved, rewatched films more like guilty pleasures than films with wide critical claim – exactly as The Thing is to Anne Billson?

To put it another way – if I were ever to write something like a BFI Film Classics entry, what would it be on? A stone-cold acknowledged classic, or a guilty pleasure, or simply a film that gives me endless rewatch pleasure? I came up with some candidates.

There’s Die Hard, a 1987 film that I absolutely adored at the time. Watched now it looks like a cliché of 1980s and 90s action films, but that’s because it invented most of those clichés and practically created the genre all by itself – and yet despite its many, many imitators its still head and shoulders one of the most intelligent and best-executed of them all. I watched the DVD with the director’s audio commentary a few years back, and it became clear just how much thought and sub-text there is even to a “simple” action blockbuster.

Or how about Monsters, Inc.? Most people will probably agree on the genius of Pixar, but the choice of this film over Finding Nemo or Toy Story or WALL-E might cause some dissension. But for me, Monsters, Inc. just has the single best and most clever concept in a film that I’ve ever seen, and it’s flawlessly executed with style and verve and some brilliant characters. It’s clever, it has real pathos, but it never forgets to be a full-on blast of complete fun from start to finish. There’s no finer animated film in my book, CGI or hand drawn.

Or how about going completely off the beaten track and suggesting Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Derided as “the slow motion picture”, it’s horribly flawed and yet a film I can watch again and again for all its glacial pacing (I wrote a review of ST:TMP last November when I saw it again on DVD.) In fact I see that’s on Channel 4 tonight, a rare network TV outing for a pretty unloved film, and I might have to make a point of watching it to lend it moral support and to stop it feeling too lonely in the audience ratings …

And I’m simply amazed that the BFI haven’t produced an edition focusing on Fight Club, a film that surely cries out for serious study if anything does. This is a fascinatingly divisive movie, a true “Marmite” test of opinion: eminent movie critics are as apt to call it a one-star work of unmitigated trash as they are to designate it a five-star all-time modern classic – with little ground in between. I remember the first time I watched it, utterly nonplussed and not really enjoying it, finding it a mess and all over the place – until the Big Reveal completely sucker-punched me and made me re-evaluate everything I thought I’d been watching. If memory serves I had to go back and see it again the very next day, and I saw a totally different film. If there is cinematic Rorschach, then this is one of the very finest exemplars. (And if you think it’s a film about people just beating each other to a pulp, you’re mistaken. I can’t stand films about boxing and to this day can’t watch Rocky or even Raging Bull, so if I find this film compelling then it’s definitely not about fighting, whatever the title.)

A few others that I might have considered include 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Third Man but there are BFI books about both these films already, as well as plenty of other tomes of analyses; or the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films that I waxed lyrical about only the other week. Alongside those would be the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and 40s – the great classic versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and The Mummy. And then there are the Bond films that I know inside and out, and pretty much all of Alfred Hitchcock’s canon of utterly brilliant work. But again, there are plenty of studies of all these films packed onto groaning bookshelves already; I should know, I’ve bought plenty of them!

These, and many others; and I suspect that a stream of posts about them is heading right to this blog in coming weeks and months. You are warned!

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