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 Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
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.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy