Friday, February 12, 2010

Remembering Casablanca

So I had space to write a Valentine's Day-themed article in The Daily Gamecock today, and decided I'd never really done a long-form retrospective of a movie. Not that I'm planning on making this a regular feature of my section, but I think it's an enjoyable read:

Property The Daily Gamecock

Among their seeming endless capabilities as markers of our culture, films — more specifically film genres — seem to inspire plenty of marathons at certain times of the year. Halloween is prone to screening blocks of terrifying classics, while Christmas lends itself to a stable of heartwarming and nostalgic looks at family spirit.

Valentine’s Day has its own group of annual prerequisites, and Hollywood is quick to offer new entries each year. This weekend, for example, the studio powers that be are pushing the aptly named “Valentine’s Day” as a star-jammed ensemble piece that tries to appeal to literally every demographic.

While all couples clamor for a date movie, that perfect two hours of escapist, heartwarming entertainment replete with the right balance of laughs and love, those looking for something different should dust off the DVD of one of Hollywood’s perennial classics.
Admirers often discuss 1942’s “Casablanca” with a glazed over sense of nostalgia. Its complex and honest look at souls trying to find logic through love while awash in the political web of North Africa during World War II is indeed one of the most beautiful movies to ever come out of classic Hollywood.

It still sits atop many “best movies of all time” lists nearly 70 years after its release, but at a time of year when we’re anxious to discuss the virtues and detriments of love and its often material and superficial gestures, it’s worth taking a peek inside how “Casablanca” works, and why it’s worth remaining on the list of annually screened love stories.

Foremost, “Casablanca” was never supposed to be a success. It was a film like a dozen other films, an assignment handed to director Michael Curtiz, a great craftsman who built his reputation as a filmmaker who could excel in any genre — a man of all trades.

It was shot fleetingly on the Warner Bros. backstage sets, and while it employs two major stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, who at the time were just emerging as players, no producer thought “Casablanca” would do more than serviceable business.

It’s perhaps this humble quality, this sense of selflessness that gives the film its grace. It is in many ways a work devoid of artistic flourish, one that conforms almost totally to the normative aesthetic styles of any Hollywood production of its time.

But what’s most striking about “Casablanca” is how it balances its love story around the lingering threat of World War II. Set in Morocco, a stopping port for potential evacuees trying to make their way out of war-torn Europe, the major concerns of the competing powers of the war are allegorically embodied in the film’s various characters.

Taking that into consideration, the isolationist, bitter capitalist Rick (Bogart) is the representation of America in the months and years leading up to Pearl Harbor. The story of Rick learning to overcome his animosity towards ex-lover Ilsa to help her and her revolutionist husband is the story of America coming to terms with its inherent obligation to help its allies in the war.

But again, “Casablanca” premiered in Nov. 1942, meaning its production occurred mere months after America’s entrance into the war. It just so happens that this microcosmic allegory is also a love story and a redemptive one at that.

And, spoiler warning, the two Hollywood stars don’t end up together in the end. Rick famously lets Ilsa get on the plane, a conclusion that goes directly against the grain of any similar-minded picture of the time — a majority of all Hollywood films ended with a couple embracing, regardless of genre.

“Casablanca” survives as one of Hollywood’s most loved movies not necessarily because of its artistry, which it has plenty of in very subtle ways, or because of any kind of innovation, but because of the way it deals with America’s international position at a pivotal moment of its contemporary history.

It’s a love story about redemption and humanity, to be sure, but it’s also about nationalist pride. Unlike so many love stories that have the eternal power of love on their minds more than its incessant complications, “Casablanca” extrapolates the story of two individuals to the grand scheme of historical ramification.

So if it’s true that movies can provide us with emotional experiences and help define how we perceive these emotions, “Casablanca” created a space to imagine the manifestations of selfless love.

No comments: