February 24, 2012

#3: Casablanca

Michael Curtiz's 1942 wartime romance Casablanca ranks highly on any "best of all time" list I can find, and yet it didn't enchant nearly anyone in my living room the other night... until the last scene at the airport hangar. What is it about this Best Picture winner that keeps people devoted as time goes by? (Sorry, I had to... no, that's a lie. I didn't have to. But I did.)

Company: Kecia, impatient moviegoer but dedicated friend; Ali, bride-to-be and film maven; Cuellar, newbie to my apartment and fellow bridal-party-bridesperson come fall; Adam, Gabe, Paul and Ryan, tribunal of homo moviephiles, lined up in a row on the couch

Cuisine: it was a feast! Paul brought white chocolate puffcorn (right? I didn't get any!), Cuellar and Ali brought homemade guac (with peas in it!?), peanut butter M&Ms and a plate of smelly cheeses and weird crackers (amen), and I created a fantastical new themed creation. Popcorn with olive oil, cumin, turmeric and Hungarian sweet paprika. Moroccan popcorn. I call it... Moroccorn. It could have been a flavortastrophe but it was actually delicious.

All right. It's December, 1941. Never mind that this for me immediately conjures up Pearl Harbor: we're on the other side of the planet, lambies. But the politics of the time are very important: Morocco at the time was a protectorate of France, basically meaning it was an autonomous collective being diplomatically and militarily provided for by France. This rule didn't end until 1956, and in the early 40s, when France was under German occupation, Casablanca became a hotspot for Vichy, Italian and Nazi military officials as well as a refugee haven for those wishing to escape the Third Reich and flee to America. 

One of those refugees is Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a fugitive leader of the Czech resistance against German rule. He has escaped from a unspecified concentration camp, which may not have struck too much of a chord with American audiences at the time, as reliable accounts of mass murder by the Nazis did not even make its way to the U.S. government until late 1941. To a contemporary audience, knowing what concentration camps did to people, Victor doesn't look like he's spent much time in a camp, but that's neither here nor there.

Victor and his wife, Ilsa (the stunning Ingrid Bergman), enter Rick's Cafe Americain, hoping to obtain letters of transit that would allow them safe passage to America from the bar's owner (and, incidentally, Ilsa's former lover), Rick Blaine (Oscar nominee Humphrey Bogart). It's very convenient that he happened upon some after being entrusted them by a crime lord. But if I was him, with that girl and that past, I maybe wouldn't want to help her out either, especially suspecting that she's still in love with Rick.

See, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair in Paris a while back, when she had believed Victor to be dead after attempting to escape the camp, but when she learned he was alive and in hiding, she left without explanation to go find Victor. Cold-hearted snake. At least she left a note!

So the whole story hinges on Rick's life-changing decision between love and virtue: does he keep Ilsa for his own, knowing she still loves him, or does he surrender the papers to her and Victor, guaranteeing them asylum at the cost of his own happiness? The fact that the entire plot hinges on this one moment gives the film a slow albeit steady pace until the very last scene when the decision is famously made, but by that time, the slow-moving story and Bogart's borderline-unlikable Rick had annoyed my whole crowd. Rick is overly sensitive (although, as Ryan pointed out, Bogie's "not sensitive enough to make me think he'd cry"), depressed and kind of a drag to be around. Watching him push everyone away, including sweet Sam the pianist and any other friend brave enough to approach him, is hard on an audience. I get that he's heartbroken, but Bogart's stoic style doesn't grab me, and I think it hampers his attempt at a character arc.

Plus, as Adam so astutely pointed out, the fact that Rick's biggest problem in his life is that he lost the girl makes him less sympathetic when the threat of real global violence, fascism and genocide loom around every corner. Shouldn't this tale seem more universal? (I keep coming back to The Best Years of Our Lives (#37 on this list) as an example of a wartime romance that works. Watching this made me want to rewatch that.) To be fair, though, like that film, Casablanca also chronicles a current conflict, and so maybe audiences really just wanted to be taken out of their lives and away from their troubles and watch an impossible and heart-wrenching romance when they went to the cinema.

The relentlessly romantic piano score provided by Sam underscores some amazing dialogue (and not just "Here's looking at you, kid" but a lot of great lines that people often forget, like "How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. One day they may be scarce.") The film has a lot going for it, but for whatever reason it didn't strike a chord with my collected audience that night. I'm sure I'll give it several more chances in my lifetime, but just now it didn't rip at the heart strings the way I'd expected it to. Do I have higher expectations for it, given its untouchable status in the pantheons of great American cinema? Sure. Am I quicker to judge it? Maybe. Bloggy blog about it, why don'tcha.

Only two left, and the next one was recently voted by TIME Magazine readers as the greatest Best Picture winner of all time. With the Oscars on Sunday, my mind is certainly on Oscar history. The Corleones make an offer you can't refuse in The Godfather.

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