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Six Aspects of Highly Effective Movie Classics

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Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle outlines six factors in cinema that propel a great movie to classic status after the test of time.

Doing what I do, I often try to project myself into the future and imagine what, of our current movies, will be of value to later generations… Looking at the films that do last, that achieve classic status, I’ve observed six tendencies:

1) Great movies were often topical when they were new, or in response to something going on in the world at the time. (This can include costume dramas that were, nonetheless, in response to something.)

2) Great movies usually embody timeless human values, things that mean the same today as they did 50 years ago and as they will 50 years from now.

3) Great movies often contain a great performance.

4) Great movies almost always have at least one great, memorable scene, usually two or three.

5) Great movies usually have some overarching consciousness bringing the elements into alignment – a director’s vision, or a writer’s personality.

6) This is the most important: Great movies usually end on a note of complexity, not to be confused with ambiguity. Their endings usually are like the sounding of a chord, with one note perhaps dominant, but with several notes in play and coloring the tone. In this way, they capture some of the fullness of life, which is rarely completely happy or completely sad, but vibrates in all directions.

LaSalle is careful to add this caveat:

[The very best] films are distinctive, great in their own way, and yet these tendencies persist from one classic and future classic to the next. In observing this, however, I want to make a crucial distinction: They aren’t classics because they have these tendencies. These tendencies are not what makes them classic. And yet it’s rare to find a classic movie — something acknowledged and lauded as great for generations — that doesn’t have, say, at least four of six of these tendencies.

Do you feel each of these tendencies is as important as LaSalle believes? Is he forgetting any factors you perceive again and again in movies you consider to be classics? Let’s hear your thoughts.

One thing for me is hard to pin down and even harder to define. It’s that ineffable magic that happens when all the collaborators come together at the top of their game, firing on all cylinders, meshing together in a sustained burst of perfection that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Movies that spring to life from the kick of interconnected inspiration, almost as if everyone on set is trying their best to impress the hell out of each other and having a blast while doing so. Movies like Casablanca, All about Eve, The Wizard of Oz, Cabaret, The Player, Network, The Big Lebowski in which the giddy electricity of mutual admiration practically bubbles down out of the screen.

38 Comments on this Post

  1. Christophe

    “Do you feel each of these tendencies is as important as LaSalle believes? Is he forgetting any factors you perceive again and again in movies you consider to be classics? Let’s hear your thoughts.”

    Sounds awfully like a college assignment… I’d say being backed by Harvey Weinstein is a requirement nowadays.

    Speaking of great movies, does anyone know what Tom Hooper is up to these days? Wikipedia mentions two projects: Freddie Mercury biopic and another biopic about a 19th century lady-aristocrat turned archaeologist.

    There were also rumors in the British press of a sequel to The King’s Speech. Apparently, it would take place in the heat of WWII and the whole crew from the first film is allegedly on board If anyone knows anything, please share. I actually enjoy his films very much and I couldn’t care less what you think!

  2. Aragorn

    ” Being backed by Harvey” could be necessary for winning awards, but then again winning awards and being a great movie are not the same thing all the time…

  3. Aragorn

    I am sorry but then the academic inside of me asks the question of “are they all equally important factors or do they have different importance weights for being a great movie”…It is in fact an empirical question. I feel like doing some longitudinal analysis and determine the weight of each factor and then use the model to test the greatness of some of the more recent movies:))) yeah I know…too much nerd talk for a saturday morning:)) But it would be definitely an interesting study.

  4. Mick is my local movie critic. (He’s usually far more generous to films than I am — shocking — not.) I had already read his article and gone through his list of 100 movies that are, might be, or aren’t classics. Almost all of the criteria are pretty obvious. Classics inevitably will have great performances, writing, direction, as well as memorable scenes.

  5. Christophe

    I know, I know, just lazy humor and a desperate attempt to plug my existential question somewhere. Going for a walk in the park now, hopefully I can come back with more inspired thoughts, or I’ll just read the marvels of insight other readers will post in the meantime.

  6. Mikhail

    ‘The Invisible Woman’ trailer

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlKt1ssfpbk

  7. steve50

    One thing for me is hard to pin down and even harder to define. It’s that ineffable magic that happens when all the collaborators come together at the top of their game, firing on all cylinders, meshing together in a sustained burst of perfection that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

    Yes – What separates of very good movie to a truly great one for me is that migration that happens when all the parts work perfectly together, then manage to transport you to a level that’s almost on par with meditation. You’re gone, right in the thick of it. What you’re seeing connects with something inside you. You might not understand it or be able to explain it because it’s a primal reaction. That’s when the magic happens, and it’s always personal and in the eye of the beholder.

    Clever direction, writing or great acting are fun, but they don’t make a great movie. These can be admired for their gymnastics even as they distract. I think that this is what most audiences look for when watch a movie – to laugh, cry, be wowed and dazzled. Few want to surrender to something they don’t already understand or have some familiarity, which is why few truly great classics (imo) are BO smashes.

    Christophe: Speaking of great movies, does anyone know what Tom Hooper is up to these days?

    Seriously?

  8. Bryce Forestieri

    4) Great movies almost always have at least one great, memorable scene, usually two or three.

    5) Great movies usually have some overarching consciousness bringing the elements into alignment – a director’s vision, or a writer’s personality.

    I know what you guys are thinking,

    SPELLBOUND and WILD STRABERRIES

    Gregory Peck and Victor Sjöström

    Dream Sequence and Dream Sequence

  9. The Deer Hunter qualifies.

  10. A common theme the past few years with Oscar is movies that make you think vs. movies that make you feel. For example, Avatar vs. Hurt Locker or The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech.

    In my opinion the great classics hit both of those – playing to the heart and brain. In turn, many of the great “overlooked” or “underestimated” movies from the past might only strike one of those, giving them their niche appeal. Some of Kubrick’s work, for example.

  11. I can’t say I agree with all of his choices but I’m glad he mentioned Two Lovers as a classic. great little underappreciated movie.

  12. Unlikely hood

    The Wizard of Oz doesn’t really fit his criteria; 2 out of 6, ok – timeless values and at least 2 great scenes – the rest are dubious. Great acting? Eh, maybe. Socially relevant? To 1900, perhaps; not to 1939, and only freak enthusiasts have understood that then or since. Complex ending? Hitting “there’s no place like home” on your head with a sledgehammer shouldn’t count as complexity. As for the vision, Salman Rushdie has a whole book about how the film is not the product of a singular vision – it’s anti-auteurist.

    If The Wizard of Oz doesn’t fit, your definition of great film must be quit.

    QED

  13. Bryce Forestieri

    Kubrick hits my heart. But I think I know what you mean. You mean a Great Hollywood Classic right? Please correct me if I’m misrepresenting your meaning.

  14. Christophe

    Exactly! This article begs the question:if a film doesn’t fit the criteria but is remembered fondly by future generations, shouldn’t we call it a classic? On the other hand, can we still say a film is a classic if it fits the criteria but doesn’t leave any kind of mark in memories or in Film history?

    Also, generally speaking, I find the 5th criterium very pretentious and subjective. How do you judge whether a film was directed by an “overarching consciousness” or not? I mean, aren’t all films the result of some sort of vision? Of course, one could argue such or such vision was misguided, unaesthetic, immature, unconvincing, underdeveloped, etc, but to set oneself as a supreme judge to decide whether a film was guided by a vision or not sounds very pretentious indeed, and suffices to say after browsing through Mr. LaSalle’s slideshow of potential and would-be classics, I heartily disagree in many cases.

  15. Bryce Forestieri

    I’ve never been a fan of the film as a whole. I much prefer Walter Murch’s RETURN TO OZ. I have great admiration for certain elements in THE WIZARD OF OZ, but I could never immerse, it never captures me. Having said that, it is an undeniable Classic. Another one that doesn’t do anything for me is GONE WITH THE WIND.

    Nobody can like absolutely all the Classics can they?

    I’m gonna say David Cronenberg’s THE FLY and Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP are true Classics.

  16. steve50

    If The Wizard of Oz doesn’t fit, your definition of great film must be quit.

    …or, just because a film is a beloved children’s classic and nostalgia benchmark doesn’t mean it’s a great film.

  17. steve50

    Watching a film is a personal interaction between you and the filmmaker, just like looking at a painting, reading a book or listening to music. The experience is bad, blah, good or great.

    We can experience them (maybe not the book) in a herd atmosphere, but the reaction is initially personal. What could be more subjective than that?

    Does the crowd judge what you like, and therefore judge to be great?

  18. You realize that each of the points has the word “often” or “usually” in it, right? Mick LaSalle isn’t saying that classics HAVE to have all of these things; he’s saying that typically, they do.

  19. A great movie must meet this criteria:

    1) It must be awesome,

    #intelligentdiscourse

  20. I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, and thank you for not using either film you mentioned to bash the other, and vice versa.

    Although I would actually say that The Social Network and The Hurt Locker do both of those things. To a lesser extent, The King’s Speech as well. Avatar doesn’t really do both but it’s still a good movie.

  21. Unlikely hood

    I think you said it well in your first comment steve50 – it’s personal, it’s subjective. One man’s The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag is another man’s Lawrence of Arabia.

    But I do love The Wizard of Oz. Salman Rushdie and I agree that it’s great; we just don’t quite know who to thank first.

  22. Out of his points I think

    4) Great movies almost always have at least one great, memorable scene, usually two or three.

    is the most important.

    When I see a movie I know will be a classic I just know it. I raised myself on the classic movies watching TBS, TNT, and TCM when I was in high school. So something in me recognizes a new classic without really being able to define it. You just have to feel it. lol

    However, I do think they have to have that iconic scene that you never forget. The scene that sucks all the air out of the theater. The one that makes the popcorn munchers stop. That’s why a flawed film can be a classic. Also I think it’s next to impossible to have a classic film without music to define it. That could just be personal bias, or that I was a member of the Mtv generation, but when I think of the classics and my favorites I almost always immediately hear the theme song in my head without even trying. They’re just inseparable. I’ll test you with my 3 favorite films. When you read the titles I bet you hear the theme. Ready?

    LOTR: FOTR… Rocky… The Godfather

    Okay now go ahead and try it with the ones you think are classics. I bet it works.

    Oh and by the way, I think Sasha is very good at picking the future classics when she names her favorites. She knows what that thing is. I know they say some actors have “star quality”. Maybe some movies have “classic quality”.

  23. Unlikely hood

    He said 4 out of 6; though he did give himself the wiggle room of the “rare” classic that might not get there. Well then I guess everything is up for grabs ain’t it?

  24. Unlikely hood

    Auteurism is a battleground. And with real stakes, because people see movies based on directors like Tarantino, Allen, Spielberg, Nolan, Cameron, etc. Netflix lets you search by director and actor. Not writer producer or even show runner (in their TV shows)! Is this giving their 40 million subscribers what they want, or telling them how to think?

  25. Unlikely hood

    It’s hard to define “great” or “classic” without circular logic. Certainly LaSalle has failed to do that here.

  26. Unlikely hood

    Music: great point. But LaSalle is all about the pre 1960 films. Quick, hum something from All About Eve! Or Rear Window? Or the Philadelphia Story?

    But music after 1970 becomes a sine qua non for greatness, fair enough

  27. Okay. I can’t remember those. lol I think I’ve seen them all only once.

  28. I think the Academy has missed the boat on choosing classics lately. In my opinion, none of those 4 are.

  29. But we’re not talking about great films. We’re talking about Classics. I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing.

    But THE WIZARD OF OZ is a great film.

  30. Yeah that’s what I mean.

    The great classics make you think and feel, and have a universal appeal (or at least something for everyone, from casual viewer to film scholar)

    In recent years Sasha’s made some points about the Academy voting on (or settling for) the least provocative film – the safest best, sorta, that anyone from any background can sit down and enjoy without getting offended. Whether it’s out of laziness, or the expansion to 10 BP nominees, I do agree that the BP choices are fine, but nothing that will stand out in the decades to come.

    The Great Classics do fit into that “everyone can enjoy them” mold, but in a good way… great way. They hit all the right notes but had progressive ideas (and/or often technologies) behind them.

  31. Good points all around.

    Funny to bring up Oz, because I always thought of that as the quintessential “if you haven’t seen it, you’re weird” movie.*

    *for American audiences, that is, I understand why other lands might not have the same reverence for it.

    I feel that Oz isn’t as great as the sum of it’s parts. The world’s introduction to Judy Garland, “Over the Rainbow”, the use of sepia and color… there are so many iconic elements of the movie that set it apart on a technical level, in my opinion.

    The story is a typical good vs. bad adventure – nothing revolutionary – but how it’s told, and the process of making it are noteworthy.

    It’s a “Great” Classic in the quantifiable sense, not solely a qualitative sense, I’d say.

  32. steve50

    +1 Chris

  33. Let’s go over these criteria:

    1) Great movies were often topical when they were new, or in response to something going on in the world at the time. (This can include costume dramas that were, nonetheless, in response to something.)

    I disagree with #1 the most of any of these. And Mick seems to disagree with himself on this, as there is maybe 30 films on his 100 that he calls a classic but also says they weren’t topical.

    2) Great movies usually embody timeless human values, things that mean the same today as they did 50 years ago and as they will 50 years from now.

    This is probably true generally, but I would amend to say that sometimes things mean something different 50 years later but its something just as powerful as the original thing.

    3) Great movies often contain a great performance.

    You’ve just effectively cancelled out all animated films. So, no to this.

    4) Great movies almost always have at least one great, memorable scene, usually two or three.

    Well, yes, but if its a classic, isn’t the whole thing “great” and “memorable”?

    5) Great movies usually have some overarching consciousness bringing the elements into alignment – a director’s vision, or a writer’s personality.

    Anyone who does not get behind auteur theory will vehemently disagree with this statement. Again, this cancels out most animated film and films which had troubled productions and changed directors or writers but ultimately emerged as major films. Or even just films with multiple, equally valuable collaborators.

    6) This is the most important: Great movies usually end on a note of complexity, not to be confused with ambiguity. Their endings usually are like the sounding of a chord, with one note perhaps dominant, but with several notes in play and coloring the tone. In this way, they capture some of the fullness of life, which is rarely completely happy or completely sad, but vibrates in all directions.

    Not sure how I feel about this one. Some of my favorite movies have uncomplicated, straightforward endings. Like The Wizard Of Oz, or Star Wars. They’re still classics, though. So right there I think that clearly illustrates that at the very least, this isn’t “the most important” criteria.

    I’ve always felt that to be called a classic is to be regarded by “the masses” (or the majority of people, or at least a lot of people) as one. Classic is defined as “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind”. I infer that such a work is judged by the community at large, but this could also imply a purely subjective judgement, so I don’t know. You know a classic when you see one, amirite?

  34. This is probably true generally, but I would amend to say that sometimes things mean something different 50 years later but its something just as powerful as the original thing.

    Like what?

    You’ve just effectively cancelled out all animated films. So, no to this.

    Not really. I remember everyone wanting Robin Williams to be nominated for the Genie in ALADDIN. And don’t forget animated roles like Gollum. I think the great performances in animated films push through.

  35. The Heiress (1949) meets all of these requirements. On screen, it has two fantastic performances by Ralph Richardson and of course Olivia de Havilland; It has that “endnote of complexity”; It has at least three fantastic scenes. And a lot more.

    Behind the scenes, everything else was aces, too: costumes by Edith Head, score by Aaron Copland, William Wyler’s direction – the list goes on.

  36. steve50

    I think you’ve covered it, Chris:

    #5 dismisses films that went thru myriad rewrites by different writers (Casablanca was done by committee on the fly) or swapped directors mid-stream (GWTW), or used more than one director.

    The problem with the theory is the confusion between “classic” and “great”. LaSalle kicks off the conflict by talking about classic status, then proceeds to start each argument with the term “great films.”

    Like classic automobiles, most classic films are appreciated for their style and their ability to provide a snapshot of a different time. Time is the key word here – if anyone describes a film as an “instant classic”, grab Woody Allen’s sock full of horse manure and clock them with it.

    Lots of films I don’t care for are considered classics, but many classics are great films. Films that have durability become classics. Truly great films speak just as clearly as they did on the day they were released. The rest are curiosities.

    Robert Towne’s line in Chinatown about politicians, ugly buildings and whores applies to movies as well, and when I hear “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” many times there’s a little voice in my head that says “thank god”. But they are still classics, and get that respect.

  37. Christophe

    Gone With The Wind is often considered a producer’s vision. Not only did David O. Selznick closely supervise the screenwriting process (writing substantial parts of the film himself), he made almost every casting decision, and the reason the film had so many directors was that they weren’t expected to be visionnaries themselves (at least not on this particular project) but simply to put their technical skills at his service to realize on screen HIS vision of the book. Some of the most iconic scenes of the film came through his own ingeniosity, he even set fire to a good chunk of his own studio to recreate the burning of Atlanta.

    But of course producers cannot seriously be considered auteurs, can they? We know full well their kind is only good for counting beans and cannot possibly have a grand creative or even artistic vision of what they’re trying to achieve!

    Also, why does auteurship necessarily have to be attached to a single person anyway? Can it not also be the fruit of a collective vision? Is 2001: A Space Odyssey not to be considered the result of an authentic vision because there were two men collaborating on that vision?

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