Some classic ways to elevate a movie's status

As the Cannes Festival elevates A Bronx Tale and A Clockwork Orange to 'classic' status, Geoffrey Macnab calls for the more rigorous application of an overused term

What is a "classic" movie? Look through the selections chosen for this year's "Cannes Classics" and you can't help but notice how rubbery and imprecise the very notion of a "classic" film has become. If it is a few years old and someone has paid to have it restored, a movie will now invariably be counted as a classic. In the era of TCM (Turner Classic Movies), DVD, digital distribution and the long tail, more films are available than ever before. In the process, the canon has swollen to bursting point.

There used to be conventions as to how films were chosen as "classics". Critics and film-makers would debate their merits and make lists. Since 1952, the magazine Sight and Sound has run a poll every 10 years inviting critics and directors to nominate their top 10s. (A new poll is due next year.) Citizen Kane invariably nestled near the top. Charlie Chaplin would slip in and out of favour, as would Buster Keaton. Jean Renoir's La Règle du Jeu and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo tended to be well placed. The lists weren't scientific but at least they suggested a consensus. The film-makers most frequently nominated (Fellini, Eisenstein, Renoir, Welles, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bergman) were acknowledged as "classic" directors.

There was something self-perpetuating about the lists, too. These directors' movies were the ones most frequently revived in the repertory cinemas or shown on late-night TV. The critics were always aware of which titles had previously been favoured. They seldom strayed too far from familiar turf.

What constitutes "classic" cinema in 2011 is a far tougher question. In Sight and Sound's more recent polls, film-makers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have barged into a frame that used to hold only old-timers. Meanwhile, the definition of "classic" films is becoming ever more elastic. Visit the "classics" pages of movies available to download on iTunes and the juxtapositions are often absurd. Bawdy British comedy Carry On Camping nestles alongside Carol Reed's The Third Man; Norman Wisdom and Elvis Presley vehicles are available alongside Westerns, Greta Garbo films and Michael Winner's 1970s vigilante thriller Death Wish. Instead of being a mark of distinction, "classic" is simply a grab bag into which anything can be thrown if there is nowhere else to put it.

The old idea that "classic" movies were either arthouse titles or the most prestigious Hollywood films has been abandoned. The kitsch, the genre titles and the offbeat are now championed as never before. Ed Wood's 1959 film Plan 9 from Outer Space (often called one of the worst movies in history) is now regularly referred to as a classic, as are the dumbest of the Abbott and Costello movies and the lowest-grade horror films. The very term "classic" has become so loosely bandied about that it has ceased to have any real meaning.

In Cannes this month, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) is being given the reverential treatment. Warner Bros has restored the movie. Its star Malcolm McDowell will be in town for its 40th-anniversary Cannes Classics screening on 19 May, as will Kubrick's widow, Christiane Kubrick, and his brother-in-law Jan Harlan. McDowell will be holding a masterclass. Inevitably, a new documentary has been made (Once Upon a Time... Clockwork Orange) telling the story of the film.

What is clear from all the fuss and fawning is that A Clockwork Orange's rehabilitation is now finally complete. Kubrick's hugely controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel about a young delinquent and his gang of thugs has been tamed. This was a movie billed on its initial release as "the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven". As has been exhaustively chronicled, it provoked furious censorship rows. There were allegations that it had caused copycat crimes. Many critics admired it. Others reviled it. For example, Pauline Kael in The New Yorker accused Kubrick of "sucking up to the thugs in the audience" while Vincent Canby, her rival critic, called it "a tour-de-force of extraordinary images, words, music and feeling".

Whatever their response, this was a provocative and dangerous film. Kubrick eventually withdrew it from circulation in the UK, adding yet further to its mystique. At the age of 40, the film has been completely shorn of its sense of menace. It is just another "classic" film that can be watched with detachment and academic interest alongside other Cannes Classics such as Georges Méliès' 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970).

Another "classic" screening in Cannes is Robert De Niro's A Bronx Tale (1993). This is an extremely nice and well-observed film in which De Niro (making his directorial debut as well as co-starring) plays a hard-working New York bus driver. To his dismay, his son is taken in hand by a flamboyant local gangster (Chazz Palminteri) who reads Machiavelli. The bus driver wants to bring his son up one way but the gangster has other ideas about how the boy can get ahead. De Niro may be President of the Cannes jury this year, and A Bronx Tale was certainly a little underrated on its initial release, but it is still a little hard to understand why the film has been elevated to "Classic" status.

Maybe we should welcome the ever more indulgent definitions of what counts as "classic" cinema. There is an argument that old snobberies and pretensions are crumbling. Critics and film fans are no longer in thrall to a naively auteurist view of cinema in which films are treated as if they are the equivalent of cherished novels (or, as 1970s academics would call them, "classic realist texts"). Organisations such as Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and the British Film Institute's National Archive do extraordinary work in acquiring, restoring and championing neglected films from around the world. They leave it up to others to define what is and what isn't a classic movie.

Five years ago, when the director and critic Paul Schrader set out his own version of a film canon along the lines of the literary canon described by Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon, he took a deliberately high-minded and elitist course. Even then, the idea of choosing 60 films that really mattered, and then grouping them into "Gold, Silver and Bronze" according to their importance, seemed anachronistic in the extreme.

Today, you can't imagine such a study even being commissioned. However, it is surely audiences who are let down when the term "classic" is used so indiscriminately to describe films which so often turn out to be run of the mill. Maybe it's time for festivals and distributors to be a little more selective and rigorous when it comes to conferring classic status on the movies they show. Otherwise, mediocrity risks eclipsing true quality.

Cannes Classics runs throughout the Cannes Festival, 11 to 22 May

What is a classic? Please send us your choices for classic films to

Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower