October 17, 2018

How do you measure the quality of a “classic” film?

Last year, I was doing a comparison of the films on the WJEC French curriculum. There were four films on the A-level curriculum, La Raffle (the Round Up), (A very Long Engagement), La Classe, and Le Havre.  Which of those four would I recommend?

Well, for learning French, La Raffle had a huge weakness.  In the edition distributed in the UK, it was impossible to turn off the subtitles.  So, considering level of language, ability to toggle subtitles, and other factors, I thought that Le Havre was probably most suitable for the purpose of learning French at A-level.

That said, Le Havre had other qualities.

The most historical film of the four (A Very Long Engagement uses the war as a backdrop, but I think only the costume department knows that), it could help students understand a time in history.  Sure, most of the dialogue was probably made up, invented for exposition, in order to present facts in an easier to digest way.  But, the main events help us to see what happens and why in history.  So, for history class, I’d recommend that.

For more advanced students, and those who are planning on teaching in France, I think La Classe is pretty good.  It was based on a book by a French teacher, who then moved to France.

The director’s track on A Very Long Engagement was incredibly informative.  We learn a bit about big budget French filmmaking.  Even though I didn’t like that movie, it would probably be the most interesting to use in a media studies class.

Okay, can you see what I’m doing here?  I’m discussing the merits of four films, without really getting to which film is best.  I think all four of them could work for a certain purpose.

When you look at the films selected at film school (I studied film in 3 countries at degree level, took short courses in more, and have taken online tasters from all over the world) you see some of these films come up over and over again:

  • Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • BattleShip Potemkin (1925)
  • Triumph of the Will (1935)
  • Nosferatu (1922)
  • La Battaglia Di Algeri (1966)
  • Le Chien Andalou. (1929)

Okay, now, what do those films have in common?  Most of them were not the top of the box office.  We don’t tend to study Gone With The Wind, Independence Day, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Ghostbusters.

Two were political propaganda for totalitarian regimes who threatened other countries, and often banned for that reason.  Nosferatu was found guilty of copyright infringement, so the original prints were ordered to be destroyed.  (Copyright is important in film history, but we don’t tend to study the context of the adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)

Le Chien Andalou was banned in France for other censorship reasons, and most of its commercial (and academic) success seems to have stemmed from the fact that it was banned.  It’s not a great movie, it has no plot, there’s just a gross out scene with a sliced cow eyeball that looks vaguely like it may belong to a person.

La Battaglia di Algeri was seen by some as an instructional film for terrorists.  And, so, it was banned in some places (and I hear still is.)

Birth of A Nation may have been a commercial success, but it was also one of the first films to be banned on a wide scale in the United States.  The Supreme Court found that films were not covered by the first amendment, at the time.  You’ll also note that in the distribution of later films by the same director, the (perhap fake news) story of riots in Paris were used.

Of course, Birth of a Nation was also taken apart by communist filmmakers, who wanted to learn film art.  So, it informed politically banned Battleship Potemkin.  But, Walt Disney also had links with all the great film movements from different countries (he influenced the Soviets, and his company invited Leni Riefenstahl to America), and yet Disney films are almost never studied at film school.

If you give me another list, I could probably find more political motivations for inclusion.

Okay, so truly awful banned films don’t make it, right?  Well, they had us watch some pretty dire tv programs, just because they received a lot of complaints.  Is that the way to learn to make films, watching what offends people? Probably not.  That’s probably why so many short film festivals run by film grads show such uninteresting (yet offensive, if you can stay up that long) films.

The films on the curriculum aren’t banned, but sometimes you can find political reasons they may be included in film class and other classes.  Sometimes, teachers of media studies try to slip in a rated 18 film, like Pulp Fiction, by claiming it’s a work of art.  In one book, Pulp Fiction is used as an example of the combination of animation and live action.  Well, what about Pete’s Dragon, Roger Rabbit, and so many other films that have done that for generations?

Some people who call themselves Short Film Freaks, or something like that, recently sent me some data with a poll for “non-artistic selection for film festivals.”  They try to measure art with charts.

Length is important, but not for reasons they said.  Brevity is wit?  Well, if you go to the cinema, would you pay full price for a ten minute film?  No, audiences want longer films.

Why do festivals accept shorter films?  Because they can pack more into the program.  I’ve been looking for the video, it’s some stuttering festival director from Los Angeles I believe, who admits that in a pinch, he chooses the shorter film if two are of equal quality, because he can more easily fit it into a program.

  • Politics
  • Censorship (and to spite the censors)
  • Suitability for language learners
  • Historical relevance
  • Length

There were many great comedians in the silent era, including Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Hal Roach, and others. Charlie Chaplin took a swipe at the Third Reich, and he was implicated in most of the scandals of his time (from the Hays Code to the communist “witch hunt.”)  He made a film where he sprayed congress with water, to show that they were all wet in implicating that Hollywood was Un-American activities committee.

Now, Chaplin was a great filmmaker, very popular with all audiences and his movies are still watchable today.  But, his near universal inclusion is probably so film lecturers who know nothing about filmmaking can dwell on the politics.

I start to wonder who might be included in 50 years time.

The fact is, a film does not usually exist in isolation.  Uncle Buck was a better (and more popular) film than The Abyss, but it doesn’t have as interesting of a making of, no one nearly died in making it, so it has been largely forgotten.  1989 was a great year for films, but some of the most enjoyable films from that year are hard to find, and have faded into obscurity.  The “popularity” of the films of that year is measured by people who may have been born after it, and never had a chance to see classics.  (Of course, comedy, unless your life is very political, is an extremely difficult genre to sell to film historians.)

Marilyn Monroe is better remembered than others, not solely because of her talent, but because of her allegedly links to JFK, her unhappy marriages to other notable historical figures and her tragic death.  While John Candy died too young, there just isn’t as much gossip about him.

If you want to make a commercially successful film, you can safely ignore the qualities that win awards or that make a film remembered.  However, one sometimes wonders if we as historians can do more to help people remember the truly great films from the past.

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