Monday, March 08, 2010

Coming to Casablanca for the Waters

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

I am told that I am fascinated with a mediocre albeit legendary movie. That is how Casablanca, a 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid,(Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), is sometimes described by snobby critics, the kind I suspect have forgotten how to enjoy a movie, surrender to it or to approach the movie on its own terms.

Great movies may never be held to pre-conceived standards or formulas. Great movies, rather, create the rules and define the paradigm. There is a famous scene in Casablanca in which Inspector Renault asks Rick Blaine how he came to be in Casablanca. 'For the waters,' Ric answers. 'Waters? Casablanca is in the desert' the inspector replies. Rick deadpans: 'I was misinformed!' Similarly, one does not see or appreciate a movie but on its own terms.

Great films don't follow the 'rules'; they make them!. An excellent example is 'Chinatown' often cited by script gurus, at least one of which compared it to a 'fine Belgian tapestry'. 'Casablanca' follows the rules it helped make. Like 'Chinatown, it is consistent and true to itself, true to a 'universe' of its creation.

There is a time and place for analysis. But there are times when one must simply tell the left brain critic within to just shut up and enjoy the movie. Casablanca is such a film, a film to which millions have surrendered, sacrificed their pretenses, and are enriched by doing so.
“Casablanca” is perhaps the most celebrated, beloved movie of all time. It is the greatest love story ever told, and yet it is a riveting, captivating work on so many levels. Chances are, you’re familiar with the story, it’s hundreds of accolades over the years, and at least one of its six famous lines of dialogue. So what more can I say about this movie that isn’t already well known? If nothing else, I can say that if you haven’t seen “Casablanca,” it is a marvelous film, one of the best ever made, and if you don’t enjoy this one, you probably don’t enjoy too many of the right movies to begin with.

--Weekend Watchers
Millions of fans had not been born when the film debuted. What does Casablanca have that many bigger, more expensive films do not? How does this deceptively simple story, where most of the action takes place in a single room, succeed where exploding asteroids, obese aliens and other computer generated improbabilities fail?

Casablanca has at least this much in common with Shakespeare: much of the dialog has become a part of the language. Phrases like: "'s lookin' at you, kid" and "I stick my neck out for nobody" are now a part of our heritage. "Round up the usual suspects" inspired a movie of its own. The snappy lines would have made Oscar Wilde proud: "I don't mind a parasite; I object to a cut rate one." Also --Rick tells Renault that he came to Casablanca for the waters. Renault objects: Casablanca is in the desert. "I was misinformed", Rick deadpans. The most famous line of all --"Play it again, Sam" -- was never uttered in Casablanca: The actual exchange was:
SAM: Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You're bad luck to him.

ILSA: (softly) Play it once, Sam, for old time's sake

SAM: I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.

ILSA: Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By.”

And the music! As Time Goes By is not the only standard made timeless by its use in Casablanca. Sam is playing and singing It Had to be You as we enter Rick's Cafe Americain for the first time. It is the music --as much as the improbable cosmopolitan atmosphere, the smart white jackets and bow ties, the Nazi threat --that conjures up our nostalgia for a past we never knew and perhaps never was.

Ric's Cafe Americain is itself an important story element, if not a character. Dramatists often speak of the 'unity of opposites' that pit a protagonist and antagonist in dramatic conflict. Dramas only work when characters are locked into conflict in which one must prevail, stakes are raised and both sides stand to win or lose. Stories are not built around two sides which merely hate one another and walk away. Drama requires a fight --often to the death. Something of value is always at stake --love, truth or justice, perhaps. It is a hero's job to defend these virtues with his life if need be! In folk and fairy tales, these virtues are symbolized by a 'Holy Grail'. In modern drama by a defense of virtue itself against crooked gangsters, tyrants or corrupted society. In tragedies, life itself is on the line and the end is often marked by the death of the 'bad guy' as a result of his own evil designs or incompetence.

Even so, some critics will tell you that Casablanca is a mediocre movie. Humberto Eco both damns and elevates 'Casablanca'. He wrote: "It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects." [From: Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) pp.260- 264] But Eco has a point to make. Having told us that Casablanca is a mediocre movie, he goes on to tell us why it is great:
It opens in a place already magical in itself -- Morocco, the Exotic -- and begins with a hint of Arab music that fades into La Marseillaise. Then as we enter Rick's Place we hear Gershwin. Africa, France, America. At once a tangle of Eternal Archetypes comes into play. These are situations that have presided over stories throughout the ages. But usually to make a good story a single archetypal situation is enough. More than enough. Unhappy Love, for example, or Flight. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that: It uses them all. The city is the setting for a Passage.... The passage from the waiting room to the Promised Land requires a Magic Key, the visa. ...But eventually we discover that the Key can be obtained only through a Gift -- the gift of the visa, but also the gift Rick makes of his Desire by sacrificing himself For this is also the story of a round of Desires, only two of which are satisfied: that of Victor Laszlo, the purest of heroes, and that of the Bulgarian couple. All those whose passions are impure fail.

Humberto Eco, Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers
What more do you want from mere celluloid? Eco's language is familiar to anyone who's read Joseph Campbell, anyone fortunate enough to have followed the great series of interviews of Campbell by Bill Moyers. These ideas, many traceable to Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, psychologist Carl Jung and a generation of Hollywood script gurus like Christoper Vogler, have influenced a generation of film makers --notably George Lucas and Steven Speilberg.

Quite simply, Casablanca speaks to us with the same force and with the same authority as the Arthurian Legends of whom Winston Churchill wrote: "If they are not true, they ought to be." If Casablanca is not literally true, it might have been. If it is not literally true it is true of war in general, it is true of the disastrous effects on human life at every scale. We love Casablanca because love triumphs and rises above hate, atrocities, intrigue. As corny as it sounds, we not only want but need to believe that 'love conquers all'. It is in a cynical age that we need heroes more than ever.

Let's be honest: no one watches a movie, performs an analysis of it and, as a result, decides to either love it or hate it. Everything I've said about Casablanca is objectively true but one's own reactions to Casablanca are direct, visceral and hardly intellectual. I'm a sucker for As Time Goes By; I wanna take on Rommel whenever I hear the La Marseillaise; I can't look at Ingrid Bergman without falling in love.

Critics are often confounded by films like Casablanca. Insignificant errata mean nothing to a great story. What matters is whether or not the story affirms mankind's nobler aspirations, whether or not the goal that is sought and the 'hero' that seeks it is worthy. The greatest story arc in Casablanca is precisely that: Ric, cynical, hard boiled, disillusioned and embittered, rises above those limitations and achieves greatness in the act of sacrifice. Ric does not merely leave Casablanca. He escapes an entangling web of self-imposed limitations.

Someday you'll understand that. Not now. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life! Here's looking at you, kid.

As Time Goes By

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