Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Movies: Love, Emotions and The Honorable Thing

In which I have difficulty handling the Dynamic Between Cinematography and Script in a film as good as Casablanca (1942)

I’m not going to pretend that I have anything really innovative to say about this classic film of classic films, so I am going to dialogue with one of the dozens of useful reviews available online, this one by James Berardinelli )—the comments in his review represent what I found to be pretty standard views on the film (Berardinelli in red).

Being impressionable, I was absolutely floored by the cinematic craft in this film (see this image ) Best Years was clever and meaningful and thoughtful, Casablanca is rapturous and breathtaking, and especially so in black and white. Thus:

… while it's fascinating to examine and dissect all that went into the making of Casablanca, the greatest pleasure anyone can derive from this movie comes through simply watching it. …

and therein lies the problem … or rather the lesson I learned about film: these pleasures are a part, not all, of the story being told. The famous romantic triangle in the film involves Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, who had an affair in Paris when Bergman believed her husband, portrayed by Paul Henreid, was dead. Bergman leaves Bogart (without explaining) on a train platform in the rain with a penned note slowly washing away when she discovers Henreid’s character is still alive, until they all accidentally meet in Casablanca (French N. Africa) …

… When the two see each other, sparks fly, and memories of an enchanted time in Paris come flooding back. Bogart and Bergman. When anyone mentions Casablanca, these are the two names that come to mind. The actors are both so perfectly cast, and create such a palpable level of romantic tension, that it's impossible to envision anyone else in their parts (and inconceivable to consider that they possibly weren't the producer's first choices). Bogart is at his best here as the tough cynic who hides a broken heart beneath a fractured layer of sarcasm. Ilsa's [Bergman’s] arrival in Casablanca rips open the fissures in Rick's [Bogart’s] shield, revealing a complex personality that demands Bogart's full range of acting. As Ilsa, Bergman lights up the screen. What man in the audience wouldn't give up everything to run away with her?

Visually, emotionally, the movie drew me into the love relationship between these two. The strength of that portrayal is what continues to draw viewers, and what everyone walks away with. But as the movie finished I was completely caught off guard: what was the script trying to say about them? What is love and what does it mean in this story?

… Less known is Paul Henreid, a romantic lead who was on loan to Warner Brothers for this project. Most viewers know Henreid as "the other guy" in the romantic triangle, and, while his performance isn't on the same level as that of his better-known co-stars, Henreid nevertheless does a respectable job. …

At the very end of the movie, and it’s seventy years old, so I’m not apologizing for spoilers, when Rick/Bogart must decide whether he and Ilsa/Bergman go, or she goes with her husband Laszlo/Henreid (there are only two visas out of Casablanca), he decides against what his heart wants:

—“ Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it … ”
— “No.”
— “… Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life …”.

Bogart does not offer these words ironically, as though he’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe. We’re supposed to take this as a real, true answer, as the resolution of the plot.

… The themes of valor, sacrifice, and heroism still ring true. …

Yes. But, wasn’t the movie about romantic, overcome those social stipulations and free yourself to commitment, free, passionate love? Or at least, that was what my emotions, directed by the cinematography, were telling me!

I submit that the script, the story, is about Rick/Bogart and Ilsa/Bergman not really loving each other in a way that’s going to “amount to a hill of beans”—to misquote a line—anywhere but in Paris as the Germans march in, and in Casablanca. (Reading through the script later, the importance of the role of Sam the Entertainer stuck out—he’s the only one besides the lovers who understands their relationship at all and he refuses the play that song again because he knows the kind of person Bogart becomes around Bergman is bad for him).

Rick and Ilsa are the defining cinematic portrayal of love. Why? Well, they had that fling … and they have a song … and it was raining in the train station … and she gets all fuzzy whenever he looks at her—I’m not being sarcastic, those are the film techniques that worked on me emotionally, and to an extent they work that way in real life, too. However, when Ilsa asks Rick to think it through for the both of them, he concludes that she has to go with her husband because they love each other in the sort of way that will make someone ditch their Parisian fling on a train station in Paris to go nurse “the other guy” (aka, the husband) who is making her life painful when she could let him bleed to death in a box car and no one would know; how many people care that that is an amazing story, an amazing love?

Rick realizes he and Ilsa have what will last … in Paris and in Casablanca; Ilsa and her husband Laszlo have what will last them for the rest of life, because love—real love—is about sacrifice, not what Rick and Ilsa had in Paris. The script memorializes this in the line: “We’ll always have Paris,” to which in the end I (and I think this was intended) responded, “{Sigh}Yes, Rick, you poor sap, and that’s all you’ll have—that and that song you guys have to keep playing—and it kills us all, but it’s true.”

… the existence of two scripts for the last day of shooting (one version had the ending as filmed; the other, unproduced version kept Rick and Ilsa together) … .

So, they really did, very intentionally, make the choice and I’m not making this up. But, the adulterous relationship is so alluring[1], the characters so compelling, the visual eye candy so enrapturing that it takes a monumental effort to see past all of that and hear what is really being said. To illustrate the point:

If Casablanca was made in today's climate, Rick and Ilsa would escape on the plane after avoiding a hail of gunfire (Rick would probably be doing the two-fisted gun thing that John Woo loves). There would be no beautiful friendship between Louis and Rick. Who knows what would have happened to Victor Laszlo, but he wouldn't have gotten the girl. One of the things that makes Casablanca unique is that it stays true to itself without giving in to commonly held perceptions of crowd-pleasing tactics. [2]

Recalling again Mr. Berardinelli’s comment: “What man in the audience wouldn’t give up everything to run away with her?”

If the cinematic craft entices everyone (or at least the men) to think that, but then in the end Bogart doesn’t run away with her … you get a very powerful demonstration of Bogart’s character that is really difficult for the audience to process – if the audience is visual-ated into really wanting Bogart to run away with Bergman, are they able to be emotional-ated into coming away with great respect and admiration for Bogart’s character and a desire to emulate him, or a suppressed determination to run away with said girl should said opportunity ever present itself?

Other questions: is this a timeless question for the cinematic craft, or a question for the present trends among moviegoers? can cinematic craft, which works us up with so much emotional energy, effectively support the point of a story like Casablanca or is the conflict I am sensing one that has been conditioned in people of my generation because of what we have been led to expect from cinematic love?

Casablanca tells a love story that is truly joyful, though painfully so, where the characters all find a real love—interesting the real-life power of a heterosexual male friendship—and the sort of love that keeps families and marriages going. The danger of the medium is exactly that, as Berardinelli put it, Laszlo-The Husband is known to viewers as “that other guy” because the medium overwhelms the attention and emotions of the viewer. So, not unlike real-life flings, the moviegoer’s senses are so bombarded, the mind so intoxicated, it is no easy task to understand what the story (our conscience) is telling us: to walk away because that kind of love won’t last. Really they don’t, and shouldn’t be thought to, amount to more than a hill of beans, but you’ve got to think to realize it.

Online transcription of the Script

[1] Managed without showing us how they like to have sex and therefore more alluring and romantic.
[2] Though, I think this “now vs. then” thing can, and often is, overdone. For instance, we also recently watched Gene Kelly in American in Paris (also in the top 100 movies) portray exactly this sort of romantic-fling-conquers-all ideal. Really, its Gershwin’s music that makes the movie.

1 comment:

bourgeois wife said...

I wonder why they chose to retain the ending they did. Maybe they kept the one they did so as not to scandalize the audience--i.e., self-censorship for marketing purposes.

I also wonder about the significance of the setting and Laszlo's role in the social-political situation. Would we be satisfied with the ending if Laszlo were a car mechanic instead of a resistance leader?

Rick seems to imply that the reason he's not taking off with the girl is because Laszlo can't keep doing his noble liberation thing without her. (Which, on a tangent, sort of sucks for her, if she's the wife only to serve a function for the man.) What American audience is going to root to undermine the cause of liberty?

In contrast with your charitable response, a more skeptical interpretation seems to be that the conflict is really between the fling and the cause not between the fling and wedded love.

I'll have to watch it again and think more about this.