Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Favorites - The Casablanca Test

Just so you know: There are probably twenty or thirty flicks on my top ten movies list.

I've been thinking I need to start working through them here in the Friday Favorites.  I've also been thinking that I need to do a series on the movies referenced in The Man Who Did Too Much, (which features a sleuth who probably has sixty or eighty movies on her top ten list).

And, as Karla says in that book, "You can never go wrong with Casablanca."  So here we go....

Casablanca is, arguably, the greatest motion picture of all time.

It's a freaking shame that it hasn't made it to the top of the AFI list. It is the one constant on my top ten list.  It's always there sitting at the top.

I understand why it gets overlooked by movie geeks though.  Besides it being too universal, and too popular to be hip, there is another really important reason.

It's pretty obvious that Casablanca -- unlike, say, Citizen Kane -- got lucky.  The most brilliant aspects of the film were not planned. It was not meant to be an art film. It was just a gestalt of having so many talented people working on what should have been a slick Hollywood pot-boiler, and the story just happened to resonate with an intense, and universal, situation going on in the world.

But resonate it does.

"The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

This is, in essence, the theme of Casablanca.  There are things more important than you.  More important than your fear or your emotional needs.  More important, even, than your life.

There are even things that are more important than love.

This is a universal truth, not just in the movies, but in reality.  There are times when your little problems -- the things that matter so greatly to you -- just don't matter at all when seen in the larger context.

And that's what maturity is.  Understanding that is what it means to be a grown up.

The reason Casablanca is the greatest movie of all time is because of the incredibly textured and nuanced layers exploring this theme.  You usually only get that level of nuance in artsy flicks which are not accessible to the ordinary viewer. You certainly never get that kind of nuance with such a strong high-minded message.  Generally, as one of the great Hollywood moguls once said, "if you want to send a message, call Western Union."  A message usually derails a movie, and kills nuance.

Casablanca managed it by not doing it intentionally.  It was the product of magic.

All of those talented people were working on a Hollywood potboiler.  The message and nuance came because the world around them was coming apart.  Their lives were soaked with perspective on what really mattered and what didn't in the world. The horrific reality was on their minds with everything they did.  It was on the minds of the director, the actors, the writers, the script girl, the grips.  The audience, the producers.  And all their friends and family members.  All on the same wavelength.

Nobody knew what was going to happen in the world, and that just resonated with the fact that nobody on the picture knew how the story would end. They wrote four different versions of the ending.  And they didn't know which one they would use until the they filmed it.  And that ending was right, because that's what was in their hearts.

"The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

That just soaked right into the picture, right through their fingertips.

And because they weren't trying for that message, the movie gives full and glorious flower to the problems of the little people. We see dozens and dozens of little people throughout the movie.  The young Bulgarian couple, the pick pocket, the second-largest banker in Amsterdam.  Struggling, surviving.  We see Rick's pain, and Ilsa's fear.  We see the woman's disappointment that her diamonds won't bring her enough money.  We see the desperate resistance man shot before the picture of Petain.

And we see them in full measure. No stinting on how important these things are to those people, but also no exaggerating them.  We see at least as much funny and silly as grandiose or sad.

All of this little reality, sets us up.  It gives us a sense of the bigger picture, so then when they pull the standard Hollywood emotional manipulation scene -- when the one guy who sees the world's problems as more important than his own triggers a patriotic display -- it's more than just a Hollywood scene. It's real emotion. It's earned emotion.  It's a revelation.

But it's also pure Hollywood.

That kind of gestalt -- where every layer of the artistry works together like clockwork -- is not something you can try for. It just happens.  For most of us, as artists, we just have to write the story about the problems of three little people, and hold a mirror to life that we hope illuminates a corner here and there, and we hope that some how it will rise above.

And sometimes it does.

I will certainly write again about Casablanca, about the technique, the humor, and yes, the nuance.

See you in the funny papers.


Unknown said...

What a wonderfully written analysis of Casablanca! Okay, so... (don't hate me for this) I've never seen Casablanca. Not because I haven't wanted to see it, but more because circumstances never aligned to get that opportunity.

You've lit a fire in me to watch this movie now, though. I'll be making a trip to the video store on Sunday to see if I can track it down.

Thanks so much for your depth in this post, and your comparison to us as writers. We, too, cannot force a message into our work. If the message is meant to be said, it will come out in more subtle ways through our writing.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks for dropping by, Mike.

And yes, do see Casablanca. It will enrich your life. (For one thing, you'll suddenly start spotting all the references to it in our culture....)