Fri, Mar 10, 2006 - Page 17 News List

'What is a classic?'

Hollywood has named the best movie of 2005, but that alone will not guarantee its entry into the pantheon of all-time greats

By Philip French  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Last Sunday in Los Angeles, Crash entered the record books as winner of the Oscar for the best picture of 2005. But will it become a classic? Will it be recognized as a cinematic landmark or milestone? Are there other potential classics this past year that have been overlooked by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the public and critics? Will future generations mock us for not greeting these overlooked pictures with proper regard? Have recent years actually contributed any films to the permanent repertoire of world cinema?

Several querulous guests at the worldwide banquet to celebrate the centenary of the cinema a decade ago expressed the view that everything of value had already been achieved. All that was left to be done in the future, they felt, was remakes, conscious or unconscious.

According to Frank Kermode's 1975 book, The Classic, the first person known to have used the term "classic" to describe a work in the great canon of literature is the second-century Roman writer, Aulus Gellius. The Greek and Latin texts he discussed were from a distant past, and he wrote that "classicus scriptor, non proletarius" ("The classic writer is distinguished from the rabble").

By the late 18th century, the meaning of "classic" extended beyond the ancient world to other literatures and arts, though, in the mid-19th century, Sainte-Beuve put the question: "What is a classic?" which was to be the title of TS Eliot's 1944 address to the Virgil Society.

Aulus Gellius wrote, or quoted from a predecessor, that "truth is the daughter of time." He had in mind hundreds of years. More modestly, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, first published in 1938, proposed itself "as a didactic inquiry into the problem of how to write a book which lasts 10 years."Enemies of Promise did so last, and for much longer and is consi-dered a classic study of the literary life.

When Connolly wrote Enemies of Promise, the cinema was a mere 43-years-old, and it almost certainly never occurred to him that more than a handful of movies would survive. In a sense, he was right. The pioneer moguls had little interest in preserving their productions; 80 per cent of silent pictures no longer exist. This neglect continued into the 1950s and 1960s, when the major studios didn't bother about the way the colour of their widescreen pictures faded with age, and the original negative of My Fair Lady was allowed to decay in Warner Brothers' basement. But all over the world, film archivists and that new breed of academic -- the film scholar -- has been preserving films and retrieving forgotten reputations.

When I became a serious student of the cinema in the late 1940s, when few movies were shown on TV, you had to catch old films at film societies, in ragged prints in back-street cinemas or when re-issued. But there was a firmly established, relatively small canon of classic movies that had been created by the editors of serious film magazines and the authors of books on the new art.

Most Hollywood films were frowned on. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes were unrepresented in the cinematic repertoire, which largely consisted of films from Germany (mostly silent), Sweden (ditto), France and the Soviet Union. Italian neorealism was embraced, and these low-budget, naturalistic films persuaded potential film-makers around the globe that they should make similar cheap movies that recorded the world around them. A big change came in 1951 at the Venice Film Festival when Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) brought Japanese cinema onto the world stage.

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