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I was driving to work last week listening to a local morning show do one of their typical trivia games.  The woman who called in answered the Christmas-themed questions with excitement and enthusiasm.  That is, until she was asked what Clarence received at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  She guessed correctly (his wings), but admitted she had never seen the film.

I was somewhat taken aback.  How can someone in America have managed to avoid seeing “It’s A Wonderful Life”?  Who would want to?  The movie is, by all definitions, a classic.  But, as soon as I had that thought I remembered something else.  There is a documentary among the special features on my DVD for the greatest film ever made, “Casablanca,” called “As Time Goes By.”  The documentary, narrated by Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, tells the tale of the making of the film.  One of the points it makes is that “Casablanca” was just another film at the studio at the time.  The executives didn’t even necessarily see it is one of their big films of that year.

And, when you think about it, that’s the case with every classic out there.  They were all just another movie being released that year, seemingly no different from any other.  But, why do we remember and cherish films like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars,” and “Casablanca,” but forget films like “6000 Enemies,” “The Cassandra Crossing,” or “Escape from Crime” which were released those same years?

In short, what makes a classic?  One would imagine the answer would be simple, but I argue that it is very complex. 

The reason one movie is remembered and another forgotten is, of course, in many ways dependant on the quality of the film.  And, this applies to the truly awful (“Plan 9 From Outer Space”) as much as the Oscar winners and other great films.  But it goes well beyond that.  Truly classic pieces of art, whether they be movies, books, paintings, plays, or any other form of artistic expression, find some way to connect to us at a level that is almost undefinable.  They draw our psyche in and communicate something on an almost primal level, often unexpectedly.

It is the ability of these artistic endeavors to show us the shared experience of being human, with all its highs and lows, fears and failures, love and hate that makes them so special to us over the years.  It is that moment of humanity as a larger concept that endears us to these works.  They stir something in the primal soup of our collective psyche that allows us to remember that we are not alone in this world.  There are others sharing this ride through the universe and we all of us can find some small piece of common ground somewhere.

So, this holiday, grab a classic out of your DVD collection or catch one on TV.  Watch Jimmy Stewart yell Merry Christmas to Bedford Falls.  Listen to the Cowardly Lion sing about being the King of the Forest or Sam play “As Time Goes By.”  Heck, toast the season with a glass of Ovaltine with Ralphie while you’re at it.  All your old friends are there waiting for you. 

After all, they’re classics.

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