18 January 2010
From My Angst to Casablanca Appreciation in the Course of a Few Paragrpahs
Just forge ahead then, when you can't write, write anything. It's the process that's going to count anyway, the product? Not so much. Look, how many people see or care what I write anyway? Just check out the comments section. No, I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I never intended this blog to be for anyone but me. Making it public and writing in such a way that is meant to be interesting to people is just a device to create structure.
The most selfish thing we can do is act on behalf of others. It makes us feel good to aid those in need. As well it should. I flatter myself that sometimes a person out there in cyber space reads one of my posts and is amused or edified or decides to watch a film or re-visit one (maybe it's you, Celeste K. In Akron). Not as altruistic as aiding earthquake victims but we all do what we can when we can.
As a first step toward chasing away the mulligrubs I watched Casablanca (1942), a film I've probably viewed more than any other save Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Casablanca deserves to be loved. It's got one of the tightest scripts in film history. It's not just all the great lines but how there's not a wasted word of dialogue. So many memorable lines and no unnecessary ones. I reviewed the DVD for Amazon and noted there that the unsung hero of the film was director Michael Curtiz. Casablanca has the feeling of an epic yet clocks in at around one and three quarter hours. So not only is there no wasted chit chat there are no wasted shots. But here's the trick, Curtiz didn't rush anything either. There are several occasions when the camera lingers on Rick (Humphrey Bogart) or Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and always to great effect.
Curtiz was a fairly straight forward story teller but was not afraid to employ a zoom or use perspective or create shadows ala John Huston. While Curtiz made many other excellent films, this was far and away his masterpiece and its a bloody shame his inestimable contribution to Casablanca has been too little appreciated.
Then again when you're slapping together a classic there's plenty of credit to be divvied up. While Bogie and Bergman get the lion's share, Casablanca boasts an amazing supporting cast. Paul Henried (Victor Lazlo), Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Claude Rains (Renault) and Dooley Wilson (Sam) are well known for their respective roles and Peter Lorre is rightly lauded for his small but crucial contribution as the slimy Ugarte. But it's hard to imagine Casablanca without S.Z Sakall as Carl, or Marcel Dalio as Emil, the croupier. Remarkably, Dalio was uncredited for his performance. He had previously worked in France appearing in three of the great French films of all time, Pepe Le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939) (hell, those are three of the great films from anywhere of all time) and he had significant quite credited roles in each. Dalio barely escaped France as the Germans invaded in 1940. His getaway, which included bribing a corrupt immigration officer in Lisbon, is worthy of a Hollywood rendering. Sakall and Veidt also came to Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis.
Casablanca is clearly a case of everything coming together magically and perfectly. Sure the story resonated with audiences in the midst of World War II for its patriotic and anti Nazi messages, but it has continued to capture imagination for decades after. There is romance, the tortured, jilted, confused and unrequited kind that doesn't just tug but yanks at our heart strings. There is also one man's redemption. Initially Rick will "stick his neck out for no one," than risks prison to see a freedom fighter leave with the woman of his dreams. So we witness this man's rise from unabashed selfishness to the ultimate noble gesture.
There is a familiarity to Casablanca that can be comforting. We know snatches of dialogue by heart. In college, (this before the time of VHS and DVD) a roommate had recorded much of the film's audio on his eight track (you're old if you remember those) and we used to listen to it along with or instead of studying. A particularly favorite line of ours was "put down that phone, put it down!" (I dunno, you tell me why).
While Casablanca is rich in snippets that have become part of our culture (round up the usual suspects, here's looking at you kid, play it again, Sam) it is best enjoyed from start to finish as the embodiment of the classic that it is.
I suppose then that Casablanca is a comfort film. Great art is supposed to challenge us but it can also soothe. Moreover we find new things to appreciate within every time. Casablanca is a film that keeps on giving.
(So what did I learn from writing my blues away? Well, I'm no good at being noble but it doesn't take much to see that the problem of one little person doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday, reader, you'll understand. Here's looking at you....)