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The Classic Syndrome

This year's TCM Classic Film Festival will feature, among other things, a Q&A with actor Michael Douglas, following a screening of his 1979 film The China Syndrome. Also scheduled are interviews with the casts of Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and Best In Show (2000). Now, I haven't seen Kentucky Fried Movie, but China Syndrome and Best In Show are fine films. But are they classics? Eh...

The Oxford English dictionary defines 'classic' as "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind." The phrase "period of time" is meaningless. It can be stretched to mean anywhere from five years to fifty. The three films mentioned in regards to the TCM festival range from 17 to 40 years in age. 17 years seems, at least to my mind, a tad too recent to consider classic status, though 40 years would seem to be long enough ago.

What constitutes a 'classic film' is something that's likely always going to be up for debate. In truth, TCM has often shown movies from the 1930s and '40s that would seem to fit the surface-level definition of classic (they're old, they're in black & white, and they feature some famous Hollywood actors and actresses). And yet, many of those movies aren't really classics. They may be perfectly watchable films, but certainly not classic material. And some, dare I say it, are really rather dire.

Meanwhile, TCM recently aired a 1975 detective noir thriller starring Gene Hackman, and I had an inner debate about whether it was really a classic movie. My questioning of its credentials was set into motion before the first credit rolled. It was from the '70s, had people who looked like your typical shaggy '70s folks, and was in color. How could this movie be a classic? Of course, Roger Ebert considered it to be one of the great movies, so there you go.
So, what establishes a movie as classic? For me, it's a combination of quality and time. The quality part is obvious, if a tad subjective. The time element is perhaps more debatable. For me, the 1990s are the cut-off point. Nothing beyond that decade can currently be considered a classic, no matter how good it is. This would allow for films like Saving Private Ryan, The Usual Suspects and Jurassic Park to make the cut (as they should), but not Mulholland Drive, Brokeback Mountain and Memento. I am fine with that.
Of course, you, dear reader, may have completely different thoughts on what a classic movie is. Heck, Rogue One may already be a classic for you. And that's fine, I suppose. The issue of how much time has to pass before a film can be crowned a 'classic' is up to the individual. For me, growing up in the '80s when VHS came on the scene, watching Alfred Hitchcock movies from the '50s that my parents rented felt like watching old films. Now, a kid watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Princess Bride, or Amadeus likely feels the same. So it goes.


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