Last week, a friend and I discussed the term “classic.” What does it take for something to be considered a “classic?” The dictionary definition is an exemplary example of a particular object/style/what have you that will stand the test of time. Picture a 1967 Corvette L-88. But is that entirely true? I can think of many things considered classic that aren’t particularly good, let alone exemplary examples. I argue the designation “classic” is more about standing the test of time in an authentic way rather than being of superior quality.
Therein was the crux of our debate. My friend felt that quality was important to “classic” status and I did not. So, I decided to explore this idea with our movie reviews this month. There is something about each of these movies that is “classic” and I thought that maybe through writing this down, I could better understand that term.
And I hear you, you all are saying, “Collin, we just want movie reviews. We don’t care about your petty debates. Here you go again, inserting your personal life into something for everybody.” *sigh* Classic Collin, am I right?
Das Boot (1981/1997) [Rated R]
To start, I should clarify that I watched the three hour and 20-minute Director’s Cut of Das Boot. I haven’t yet tracked down a copy of the full four plus hour version but if you guys can point me in the right direction, I would appreciate it.
Das Boot is both a theatrical film and a TV miniseries about the crew of a German U-boat during World War II. It is not hyperbole to say Das Boot is one of the most authentic war movies ever made. If you put stock in this sort of thing, it is currently listed number 68 on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 movies of all time. Nominated for six Oscars, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Film Award, a Director’s Guild Award and several others, Das Boot can easily be called a classic.
Das Boot contains the vast majority of its long running time within the confines of an aging submarine filled with the joy, pain, tension, fear and boredom you would expect really happened to the sailors who piloted these crafts. The movie is based on an German novel written by Lothar-Günther Buchheim who was a war correspondent aboard a U-boat during World War II. Bucheim witnessed the day-to-day life of these men and chronicled their joy and pain. His story is an account of what life on a German U-boat during World War II was like for the captain and crew. This isn’t a movie about a war or even a single battle. It is a movie about people.
I want to be very cautious here to not reveal too much about the plot. Not because there is some grand plot twist but because, if you have never seen it, I want you to go into it with fresh, open eyes. Set your phone on vibrate, put down the iPad, turn up the sound and share the cramped confines of a WWII submarine with the actors. While you are watching it, try thinking about how this was made. Most of the scenes were filmed with a handheld camera by the cinematographer Jost Vacano who wore a full-body padded suit to protect himself and the actors as they ran through corridors of the mock-up interior of the sub. The actors actually attended special classes to learn to move quickly through the confines of the set, just as an actual U-boat crew would. Director Wolfgang Peterson (Yeah, he’s the same guy that directed The NeverEnding Story. I know, right?) even made the actors stay indoors for the length of the shoot (two years) so their skin would obtain the same pallor of men who rarely saw the sun during battle.
It is this attention to detail, this commitment to truthful storytelling that makes Das Boot so compelling. When you watch it, the film feels real. You sympathize with the sailors and feel the same feelings they experience. It’s not the easiest way to spend an afternoon, but I highly recommend giving Das Boot a good uninterrupted try. It truly is a classic.
9 paws out of 10
UHF (1989) [Rated PG-13]
Weren’t expecting this one, were you? My buddy considers UHF to be a classic comedy. He thinks it is hilarious. Apparently, lots of people do as it currently sits with a 7 out of 10 rating on IMDB (which, by the way, that’s my rating too).
But when UHF came out, movie critics HATED it. In his review, Roger Ebert gave it one star out of four and said, “Those who laugh at ‘UHF’ should inspire our admiration; in these dreary times we must treasure the easily amused.” I think that is a little harsh. It’s got plenty of laughs in it. But I wouldn’t argue that it is the pinnacle of comedy writing in 1989, a year that included Uncle Buck, Major League, Ghostbusters II, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and many others. So what makes this movie a classic?
I propose that what makes UHF a classic is that it has stood the test of time by being true to its own nature. If you have chosen to watch UHF, you know what you are getting – 97 minutes of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Let’s face it, either you like him or you don’t. The key to the success of “Weird Al” and ultimately, UHF, is that he has never changed. Yankovic has not wavered in his quest to bring folks laughter through his silly behavior. You’ve never seen “Weird Al” in a serious role (and don’t try to tell me his part in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II was “serious”). He is who is is, rain or shine, and has been for 54 years. That’s timeless. That’s classic. And so is UHF.
UHF is the story of George Newman, a daydreamer who can’t hold a job and is constantly told to grow up. George is put in charge of a local TV station, Channel 62, that his uncle won in a poker game. George finally has a place to use his imagination. He and the station blossom much to the joy of his friends and family, but the owner of the competing local network affiliate attempts to snuff out his new competition. George and his friends fight in the only way they can, by being themselves.
I’m not going to lie to you guys. This is not an award winner. Nobody that made this movie even moved on to win an Academy Award in a different movie. Michael Richards is probably the best known person in this and, well, we all know what happened to him. And yet, I’ve watched adults use quotes from UHF in business conversations. There’s something here that people love, that sticks with them after all these years, and I argue that it is its dogged adherence to being true to itself and its star, “Weird Al” Yankovic. People love “Weird Al” and those same people love UHF – warts and all.
7 paws out of 10
Last Vegas (2013) [Rated R]
“Now, Collin, are you really going to try to tell us that Last Vegas is a classic?” No, not exactly. But I would argue that it is about the tests of time and about becoming a “classic.” Last Vegas is about four guys, in their golden years, who have been friends since childhood and meet in Las Vegas for a bachelor party. It is essentially a buddy/party movie in a similar vein to Eurotrip or The Hangover. Buddies get together in an out-of-the-ordinary location. Old drama comes up. Hillarity ensues. It’s a classic setup. The actors in question are themselves “classic:” Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline and Robert DeNiro … I’m not expecting too much debate about that assertion.
Time has changed these four friends. They have loved and lost. Their bodies show the effects of age. Things just aren’t the way the guys remember them and this trip to Vegas is a chance to set things back into place. Of course, you and I both know this isn’t going to happen, at least in the way the friends intended. Ultimately, each friend learns that age has not stolen the essential elements that make him an individual. In fact, it is the passage of time that stripped away some of the artifice of youth to reveal who each person is at his core and why he needs the others. In the end, they are the same four friends they were in their youth and their friendship remains as strong now as it was then even after all that life has thrown at them.
Isn’t that really what you want from something that is a cinema “classic?” A story true to itself and about prevailing against the machinations of time and progress? Is Last Vegas going to be considered a classic someday? Probably not. It’s cute. It’s got some funny lines. It’s got ex-LMFAO member Redfoo grinding on Robert DeNiro. It’s entertaining but easily forgettable. But I suspect there are a group of folks out there who it will speak to. Folks for whom the truths in Last Vegas hit home and who delight to see these four older men prevailing against the ravages of time. People for whom this may be a classic.
6.5 paws out of 10
When the Coca-Cola Company changed the formula for Coca-Cola in 1985, they didn’t change the name, at least not at first. Instead, they just added a “new” badge to the cans, bottles, labels, etc . . . and created a massive advertising campaign promoting “the new taste of Coke.” People hated it. Coca-Cola pulled out all the stops to get people on board but the public wouldn’t have it. It wasn’t the same Coke they loved and had grown up drinking. The Coca-Cola Company was stunned. They spent millions researching, taste-testing, re-formulating and marketing this new product. All the data said that this should have been a big hit but the public wasn’t buying it.
The Coca-Cola Company got the message. Three months after the introduction of New Coke, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings broke into the midday soaps to announce that Coca-Cola would revert back. The original formula won against the marketers and business metrics that said a new formula was needed. They branded the new cans of the old formula, the true formula, Coca-Cola Classic.
One could debate whether the original formula of Coca-Cola is a perfect example of soft drinks or colas. Some folks can’t stand it. I’m a Dr. Pepper cat, myself. But what you can’t argue is that the original Coca-Cola has stood the test of time and continues to succeed precisely because it stays true to its original nature. Well, maybe not its “original” nature since it no longer contains trace amounts of cocaine but you get my point. I contend that what makes something a “classic” is not that it is a sterling example of quality but that it is, instead, an authentic example of a product, service, etc . . . that has stood the test of time.