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 firstname.lastname@example.org