Hooked on classics

lampA recent issue of Entertainment Weekly was devoted to a list of so-called “new classics,” a top one-hundred list of the best movies, books, TV shows, and so on, published since 1983. The lists themselves are liable to provoke discussion (Die Hard is #9, ahead of Goodfellas, Schindler's List and Unforgiven?) but perhaps a more interesting question is whether, in the Media Age, the very idea of a “classic” still means anything.

The term “classic” has had any number of meanings, but it's useful to go back to its origins: as a way of describing the art, and particularly the architecture, of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. It was first used in this sense during the Renaissance, where it became a byword for certain aesthetic principles: harmony, simplicity, symmetry and elegance. Based (sometimes inaccurately) on “natural rules” of art derived from the ancients – the Golden Ratio, the three dramatic unities – classical art aspired to be timeless and universal, and it is from that quality that our modern idea of a classic has emerged. A classic is something that retains its value; that may be used as a touchstone or a template for things that come after it. Simply put, a classic is something that lasts.

That's one definition, anyway. Fairly often “classic” is used with a negative connotation; Mark Twain famously defined it as “a book which people praise and don't read.” Sometimes it's used in a face-saving way: when New Coke failed, its manufacturer, rather than admit defeat, kept it on the shelves while bringing the original back as “Coke Classic.” (The latter product soon went back to being simply Coca-Cola; New Coke was re-branded as Coke2 and slowly phased out, though for whatever reason it remains available in Micronesia.)

Probably the best example of the word's flexible connotation is “classical music.” Originally used to describe the period where composers such as Mozart and Haydn applied classical values of simplicity and harmonious structure to music, in the 20th Century it came to mean all pre-modern music. As a result, depending on the user's point of view, it could mean “good music,” “longhair (intellectual) music,” or, perhaps most often, “boring music” or “music that's supposed to be good for you.” (The series of Hooked on Classics records, which remixed works by Mozart and other pre-modern composers over a disco beat, was one of many attempts to get young people to listen to classical music.)

A classic, therefore, is something with enduring value: something that everyone agrees is good even if they don't personally like it. The question is: does anything still fit that definition? Mike Dover, in his Wikinomics blog, points out that the very things that make something a classic to one audience can make it anathema to another: The Big Chill, a cultural touchstone for Baby Boomers, is presented in the Generation X movie High Fidelity as being so loathsome as to taint all the music on its soundtrack. His post led to a lively discussion about whether there are any classic movies that span the generations, or if each generation has its classics. What's interesting about that discussion is that while a number of movies came up several times, there really was no consensus for any of the generations represented: some posters mentioned movies that had aimed to capture their generation's experience (The Big Chill, Reality Bites, Juno), while many others suggested ones that spoke more to their own personal history: the Harry Potter series, Say Anything, and The Matrix were each referred to as having been important influences at different ages. Even the Bob and Doug McKenzie vehicle Strange Brew received a few votes, as did Entertainment Weekly's #1 choice Pulp Fiction. One of the posters' suggestions isn't a theatrical movie at all: Star Wars: the Phantom Edit is a version of the first Star Wars prequel, re-edited by fans, that was distributed online.

What once were “cult” movies may be tomorrow's classics. Poster Tammy Erickson described the Baby Boomer movie experience this way: “We ‘played' at cult movies, ‘wasting' as much time there as Xers later would on Dungeons and Dragons or Ys on World of Warcraft. I must have seen The Harder They Come nearly a hundred times. Others dressed up for and shouted along to The Rocky Horror Picture Show over and over again.”

With more and more choices available, with the expansion of the cable universe in the 1980s and the arrival of the Web in the ‘90s, movies – indeed, any single medium – became less important, as “narrowcasting” replaced “broadcasting.” Instead of being a work whose value is accepted, if not necessarily appreciated, by a broad population, a classic now may come to mean something that is deeply loved by a small number of people. When even a throwaway line from a Will Ferrell movie can inspire merchandise – you can buy T-shirts that illustrate Steve Carrell's classic non-sequitur from Anchorman, “I love lamp” – “classic” may come to mean nearly the reverse of what it once did: something exclusive and esoteric, rather than universal.Perhaps that's how we should read the Entertainment Weekly “new classics,” where Pulp Fiction is #1, Titanic is #3 and Blue Velvet is #4: not as being a ranked list, with each entry being slightly better than the one after it, but as being based on how noisy and vehement each movie's fan club is.

Questions for classroom discussion

  • List two or three books, movies or TV shows you consider to be “classics.” What makes you think of them that way? Do you think that your friends would agree with you? How about your parents or teachers? Why or why not?
  • Is there anything you can think of that everyone might agree is a “classic”? What makes it that way?
  • How often do you think “classic” is used in a negative way? Why do you think it has both a positive and a negative meaning?
  • Do you think anything will be widely regarded as a “classic” in the future? Why or why not?
  • Can something be a “classic” if only a small group of people consider it to be one? Why or why not?