“I’ll Be Back”: The New Classics and Cultural Literacy

terminatorThe other night my family watched the original Die Hard movie. To me it feels like a classic, one of those movies that you need to know to be culturally literate. Then it struck me how much things have changed. When I was a teenager, the classic movies were Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, The Godfather, or Citizen Kane. But the “classics” have changed, moved on.

How many teenagers today have seen Casablanca? Singin’ in the Rain? Now, to be culturally literate, you need to know Star Wars, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Caddyshack, Terminator, The Breakfast Club, and yes, even Die Hard (yippee-kai-ay, Motherf***er”).

I look at the two lists and I’m struck by how different they are! The movies that were considered classics when I was a teenager were so serious! But, today when I think about the movies I think young people should know it’s all silly stuff, like Animal House and Holy Grail, or some action flick like Terminator.

I looked at the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies and I’ve seen about 65 of them. What I noticed, though, was that the majority of the movies are serious, artsy films. Yes, I think many of the movies on this list are excellent, but I don’t really want to watch them over and over. I mean, I can’t imagine wanting to watch Grapes of Wrath or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Schindler’s List ever again. They were depressing! They are excellent movies, but I’ll take a funny Bill Murray blowing up a golf course over a lobotomized Jack Nicholson any day. But, that’s me.

Of course, “classic” movies and movies you need to see to be culturally literate are not always the same thing. I wonder, though, if the old classics are passing out of knowledge (except, perhaps, with film students), to make room for new “classics”. How many young people know about “Rosebud?” I also noticed that only 13 of the movies on the Greatest list were done after 1980…13! Most of the movies on that list are old. Some are very, very old, like 1915. As I’m regularly reminded (like when I hear music I listened to in high school considered “classic rock”), the 80’s were a long time ago! I don’t know how many young people now go past the 80’s to pick up on movies or music.

I think when I tell young people today what “classic” movies they need to see, I’ll stick with my favorites, so they know where “It was a Cinderella story”, and “Now go away or I will taunt you a second time”, and “No. I am your father.” come from.

What movies do you consider to be “classic” and/or necessary to see to become culturally literate?

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