When can I say something is a classic?

So, when can I actually say something is a classic?

The glib answer is whenever I want, of course 😀

But while working on a semi-functional menu for the Review Heap and checking over some of my tags – I saw one that caught my eye: classic.

Of course, I instantly began to doubt myself, wondering “am I using this tag judiciously enough”? I think I’d only tagged three titles thusly out of the scores of reviews I’d done at that point. After a quick look through them I added two more and then started to doubt myself again. For instance, I thought about tagging Pyscho-Pass… but is it really old enough to be a classic?

Another pause.

.

‘Age’ is hardly the only valid metric for deciding whether something is a classic or not, right? I mean, I reckon it certainly is useful – if a text has maintained some sort of critical and/or audience-based acclaim over a long time then it probably is pretty damn classic. But should something quite good (in my opinion) like Pyscho-Pass be precluded from that status because it’s less than 10 years old?

(To change gears for just a tic, I wonder if this might be a good discussion-style kinda post? I don’t do many of them but this seems like it could work, and so if you’d like to weigh in, please do!)

So after a few quick searches I found some interesting quotes/posts/ideas from a few different areas: cars, games, beauty, literature, furniture and music. Obviously, they won’t all be directly analogous to film and television and further, not all of the quotes below are from famous or scholarly sources either, but I think they’ll still be useful.

At the very bottom I’ll narrow down some parameters that I want to try to use here on the blog perhaps.

To begin at last, generally speaking:

A classic is an outstanding example of a particular style; something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality; of the first or highest quality, class, or rank – something that exemplifies its class.

(Wikipedia)

That’s a pretty good start I reckon, high quality and exemplary. Now I’ll change gears into the world of automobiles for a moment, where one source defines ‘classic’ as:

For example, the Classic Car Club of America defines a classic as a “fine” or “distinctive” automobile built between 1915 and 1948. For insurance and registration purposes, the age of a classic car, in most cases, is at least 20 years old but not more than 40 years old.

Here ‘age’ pops up but there’s a minimum for ‘classic’ of around 20 years, and a top range too, when insurers get involved at least. Obviously I can’t speak to their categories but using that idea of age as marker would suggest Pyscho Pass isn’t actually ‘old enough’ yet.

A quick one now:

Furniture and small appliances tend to be considered ‘vintage’ from 25 to 50 years old and older.

There’s that ‘couple of decades’ kinda requirement again! Now I want to jump over to literature for a bit, to first come at the metric of Time from the opposite end:

Modern classics in literature are like that—smooth-skinned and young, yet with a sense of longevity… A classic usually expresses some artistic quality—an expression of life, truth, and beauty.

Thoughtco

Longevity appears here, which I like – in this instance they’ve suggested that the beholder has to make a call about what is an ‘instant’ or ‘modern’ classic based on potential longevity. That I think is pretty interesting as it sets us each up, in a way, as kinda arbitrary arbiters. Not sure beauty fully works in terms of language or say, a visual style when thinking of film texts, because those production elements can be outstanding, distinctive or exemplary without being conventionally beautiful, right?

Still, onward – now from Italo Calvino:

A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers… A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

I like some of this as well; a classic text rewards repeated engagement – seems like a criteria that most folks would accept too. It’s also interesting to see him mention genealogy but also a place ‘above’ the rest, perhaps – and so I now feel like a classic can only be a true classic if it’s seen as better than the other classics out there 😀

This from Richard J. Smith, writing about the I-Ching:

  • First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them.
  • Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’
  • Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom.
  • [Fourth] One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

Okay, more stuff I like here, though again I see ‘beauty’… but maybe I’m being too narrow in my definition when I see the word used here? I keep thinking aesthetics, yet maybe I shouldn’t – though I definitely believe memorable is a useful word. The first criteria is interesting too – if I double back to Pyscho-Pass, the series feels like it does identify fundamental human problems and maybe offer some guidance too.

I stumbled across this blog post from 2010 and it’s going back to ‘time/age’ again but brings in the idea of the wider genre – and I think it’s clear that while all the songs in the example are rock songs, (so the grouping is of similar things on the surface) there are still differences in how audiences respond to these purportedly equal members of that group of classic songs.

When I was at the gym this afternoon, before I had put in my iPod earbuds, I heard U2’s “Beautiful Day” on one of the local classic rock radio stations. No complaints from me, of course, but really … how old does a song have to be to be called “classic rock”?

“Beautiful Day” was released less than 10 years ago — September 2000. Partly because U2 has really slowed down its pace of album releases, that song was the lead single just two albums before the current one. Just doesn’t seem like it belongs next to 25-year-old Van Halen songs, 35-year-old Zeppelin songs, and things like “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The other point this example triggered for me, is whether a band which started in say, the late 70s like U2, is always playing ‘classic rock’ even when they release a song in 2010 and such a term in music clearly refers to the past. Obviously, the band’s work spanned a range of genres and styles over the years but this becomes similar to a related issue, I guess: namely, when unpacking any art movement that features terms like ‘modernism’ or ‘contemporary’ I have to remember that sometimes that word is ‘frozen’ and it only refers to a particular period.

Therefore, ‘classic rock’ is perhaps closer to a historical genre than a description of quality and so we might have classic films that are of a time and place but more valuable as historical documents rather than paragons for the future.

Anyone else getting sick of the word classic yet? Just me? Okay, well, now I want to share a short exchange from a gamespot forum, dated around five years ago:

#1gamerguru100

I know this can vary for different things. In your opinion, how much time passes before a movie is considered classic? Video games? Cars? Something else?

I can’t really come up with an example. 😛 I mean, when did NES and SNES become classic video game systems? The early 2000s maybe?

What do you think?

Master_Live

Like you said, it varies. I would say for example (to name a few):

GoldenEye (1997)

GTA III (2001)

Halo 1 (2001)

are already classics.

top_lel

I would say 16 years but that would make me classic too.

The_Last_Ride

10-15 years i would say

deactivated-5b1e62582e305

I don’t think it’s only a measure of time but more about how much impact it’s had. Something like Call of Duty 4 that came out 7 years ago can already be considered a classic simply because of how it changed the industry.

So once again, time seems really important but also now the question of how much ‘impact’ a game had on those that followed. To me, that makes the two go hand in hand to some extent – for instance, to truly judge the impact of one text on those that followed, you obviously have to actually wait around a few years to see.

In that case, can I say Pyscho-Pass is a classic because it will probably one day be cited as an influence on future productions? Or is Pyscho-Pass the result of the influence of other classic texts? I guess we only need to look to Philip K Dick’s work (specifically the film adaptations like Blade Runner and Minority Report) to see what director Naoyoshi Shiotani felt were influences on Pyscho-Pass.

And as a side-note, is the series no longer a classic (in my head) now that subsequent seasons have lowered in quality or audience response?

But finally now, this from a 2018 thread online where folks were arguing about classic beauty:

Classic beauty just means a beauty that involves a symmetric, well-proportioned face, features on the delicate side, none disproportionate (even if its beautiful or sexy in its own way, e.g. Angelina’s mouth, Amal’s eyebrows), perhaps a statuesque, sculptural quality to face and body.

Here there seemed to be concerns around aesthetic and structure, which I think can be applied to art just as easily because we obviously care about the look of animation, the quality of the writing, especially the plot and characterisation at a minimum.

Phew – bigger post than I feared!

But it looks like idea of longevity (or at least a sense that longevity is likely) comes up often, along with the actual features of the text (which I take to mean both style and content) and yes, a certain amount of chronological distance from the present (distinct from longevity) along with the actual or even potential impact on a genre/medium and/or upon the texts that followed the potential classic, are all key factors that I should consider – based on my admittedly cursory research here.

I guess something like the following could be among things for me to think about before using the ‘classic’ tag in my reviews (not that it ultimately matters, but I’ve had fun here :D):

  • Longevity
  • Impact on other texts
  • Aesthetic or structural qualities
  • Worth multiple viewings

Okay, done! I’d love to hear if you’ve got anything to add, as I’m sure I’ve missed something.

And I haven’t decided on Pyscho-Pass just yet, though maybe it shouldn’t be so hard? I think the first season at least ticks 3 of the 4 criteria I mentioned above for me, but I’m wondering whether the Longevity aspect can hold out? I mean, will folks turn away from the show in the next couple of decades if the subsequent seasons continue to be received poorly/not as highly as the first?

I’ll keep thinking!

AND for curiosity’s sake, here are the films I’ve tagged with that precious ‘classic’ moniker so far:

The Review Heap Classics (as of Nov 2019)

Though if you’re expecting certain films or shows to be there well, they might not show up simply because I haven’t got around to them yet – for instance, GITS is missing but won’t be missing forever!

Published by ashleycapes

Ashley is an Australian poet, novelist and teacher. He's currently running a casual review blog called "The Review Heap" focusing film, anime, games, books and music - and (very) occasionally other stuff too. He is the author of half a dozen poetry collections and a few novels, some published traditionally and some self-published. He also occasionally publishes other folks too.

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