My friend Andy has posed the question of what defines a classic movie--and does a much-loved but questionably-artistic movie like Back to the Future fall into that category? Will future generations look upon this film the same way they do as "Casablanca", "Gone With The Wind" and "Citizen Kane"? Is it a worthy successor to "North by Northwest", "Gaslight" and "It Happened One Night"? Just what is a "classic" movie, anyway? As someone who spent endless hours as a child enthralled by the adventures of Marty McFly and good old Doc Brown (ask my brother; after the seventeenth viewing he begged me to find some other obsession), I have a fondness for the film that goes beyond reason. Which makes it all the more difficult for me to be objective on this question.
I went to Websters for a definition of "classic" for some guidance, and the most relevant entry seems to be: serving as a standard of excellence ; of recognized value.
When I think about movies like Casablanca, The Godfather, and The Wizard of Oz--all typically considered classics--that definition seems to fit perfectly. From story to sets, direction to acting, these films meet a standard of excellence that can be universally acknowledged.
But that all feels very dry to me. Does a film have to be huge in scope or comment on the current social atmosphere to be a classic? Isn't it ultimately the truth and humanity of a film that speaks to people? Can't truth and humanity be achieved in a silly 1980's sci-fi flick about a time-traveling teen?
Is a classic movie defined by how many people love it or simply which people love it? Must it have critical acclaim and is that more relevant than audience acclaim? Should movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Goonies fall into the classic category? Will they be remembered? Will they be loved? Will they withstand the test of time?
Well, this line of thought is inspiring a lot more questions than answers. I think the ultimate test for a classic movie is whether it speaks to a generation of people beyond that for which it was made.
I will forever remember the feeling of my heart racing as Doc attaches the power cables at the last possible second sending Marty back home followed by twin trails of fire. I still laugh to think about Marty's mother calling him "Calvin" because of the name stitched into his underwear, then squirm to remember her sloppy groping (like a 1950s Jocasta) as they sat in the car outside prom. And that sweet sweet moment when Marty returns to find life has changed for the better--to see Biff waxing his father's car, stoop-shouldered and completely cowed. There are a hundred memories from this movie that I cherish.
But can an eight year old girl watch Back to the Future today and see past the dated soundtrack and hairstyles to the story beneath. Will she be moved by it? Will it stay with her? I'm not sure.
But that's the beautiful thing about movies. You don't have to justify your tastes to anyone. One man's classic is another's boring piece of junk (Chinatown was painful to get through and I thought The Maltese Falcon was kinda slow). I don't need a stodgy bunch of critics to tell me Back to the Future doesn't merit the title of "classic." It meets my "standard of excellence" and has oodles of "recognized value"--so for me Back to the Future will always be a classic.
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