What makes a film a classic? It’s one of those questions that has both a thousand answers and none, and is often defined more by the person asking it than by the work itself. Usually, we chalk it up to time and a vague collective consciousness—not everything we call a classic this weekend will still merit the name in a few decades—but maybe there are some other, more concrete, details that make some films stand out above the rest. It’s a tricky question that touches on the line between art and craft, and subjective and objective. If we can explain it all, what’s to stop anyone from churning out a string of pearls?
Story, of course, makes a classic, but even so, great craft can overcome a lot of dreck. Consider Casablanca: a classic by any measure, it was based, according to author and critic James Agee, on “the world’s worst play.” And yet it returns to the big screen year after year, including, this week, for Sunday and Wednesday screenings at Amherst Cinema. But while the Bogart and Bergman chestnut is worth seeing all on its own—even if you’re not interested in the World War II resistance story, the film is an education in the birth of 20th-century cultural references—even more interesting is a sister presentation the theater is hosting prior to the Sunday screening.
“Film School in 60 Minutes: Casablanca” is the name of the noon program—which is free for Amherst Cinema members—and local filmmaker Nina Kleinberg promises to provide some context for what makes the film so special, including background stories about the cast (for instance, that Rick’s Café Americain was populated not just by actors, but actual refugees from Hitler’s Europe) but also a brief overview of some of the film techniques used in the production. Peeling back the curtain on the craft of it all, Kleinberg discusses the different camera angles, lighting, and shooting styles that add up to the film’s signature look. She also dives into the music of the film, showing how composer Max Steiner took the melody of the popular tune “As Time Goes By” and reworked it into a central musical theme in the film. In all, it promises to be a look at a side of Hollywood that most viewers don’t ever get the chance to see.
Also at Amherst this week is Il Sorpasso, the 1962 film widely regarded as Italian director Dino Risi’s best. Vittorio Gassman stars as the aging hedonist Bruno, who caroms into the ordered life of a younger man, Roberto, and manages to bring both exhilaration and tragedy to his new friend in a few short days. While the moral of the tale may seem clear in print, Risi’s film, with its picturesque views along the Italian coast, makes us pause in our assumptions. Who wouldn’t be seduced by a convertible, good company, and the promise of beauty?
Finally this week, some news out of Easthampton, where Popcorn Noir is undergoing a bit of a transformation. The Cottage Street venue, which shows films for free as part of a subscription model, has a new name and events coordinator: Liz Jensen will be bringing in a wider variety of live entertainment to the newly christened Platinum Pony. But while the name on the door may change, owners Kristen Davis and Tom Doherty will still run things behind the scenes, and Popcorn Noir will continue as the venue’s film club, allowing members access to special screenings and other events. This week, they bring in Sita Sings The Blues, the 2008 animated film based on an Indian epic and set to a jazzy score. In a world filled with films that are the result of collaborative efforts, Sita brings a decidedly individual focus: directed and animated entirely by artist Nina Paley, it is a labor of love based on her own romantic history, but one that far outstrips any one entanglement to reach us all.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.