Monday, March 07, 2005

"Everybody comes to Rick's" . . . but why?

In part because of this post by the esteemed Fearful Syzygy and in part because in my Humanities class we've reached the 20th century and I wanted to show a film that is both highly regarded and wildly popular, I'll be showing Casablanca in my class this afternoon. And, because we in the class keep bumping into those questions of What is Art and Who gets to decide what Art is, it seems that this film is an especially good one to think about when addressing those kinds of questions.
Below is the text of a sheet that I'll be handing out to my students today. I should tell you that I don't have answers to the questions I pose, in part because I've not (yet) seen the film enough to come to any conclusions. But I'm looking forward to watching closely today to see if anything becomes clearer.

Some Notes on Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz; starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre)

Casablanca is #2 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films (Citizen Kane is #1). Roger Ebert, in his commentary on this DVD, says he has literally never read a negative review of it. And yet: in one of the documentaries in the DVD, cast and crew members recall that as they made it, no one had any special sense that they were making a film that would live on in American popular culture for more than a few months or so, much less for over 60 years. In those days, major studios cranked out their films at an amazing rate (Curtiz himself directed two other films that year; for most of his career he averaged between two and three films a year). Casablanca was just another product of the old Warner Bros. back lot and studio system, one of dozens of films made in 1942. Or, to put it another way: the makers of Casablanca never had higher aspirations for it than that it would turn a profit.

So what is it about Casablanca that leads the AFI rank it as the 2nd best film of the past century? In our occasional discussions of what art is, I said that whatever else Art is, one thing it seems to me that it must have is a kind of deliberateness, or intentionality. Films exude intentionality, whether or not they are “good”: someone writes a script; people design and build sets; people play the roles in the script; someone points a camera in the direction of the actors; a director gives orders to all those people; etc., etc. None of THAT is accidental. But still: as noted above, no one on the set of Casablanca or at Warner Bros. was under any illusions that they were making “Art.” As Ronald Reagan once said of his own movies, “[The studios] didn’t want them good; they wanted them Thursday.” This is not to say that those involved in making Casablanca wanted to make a bad film; it IS fair to say, I think, that they would have been happy with “good enough,” and if “good” happened, well, cool.

Has the audience—viewers, critics, other actors and directors—decided, then, that Casablanca is Art, independent of its makers’ intentions? Certainly in part. If people didn’t like it and didn’t keep on liking it, it simply would not have survived long enough so that its characters and dialogue would become part of our national popular culture. But an audience still has to have something to respond to—and that, of course, sends us back to the film. What did an early 1940s audience see in this film? Did they respond to the plot? The characters? To both? Do we, at a 60-year remove, see the same thing(s)? Is it “just” an exceptionally fine product of its time and place, or is there something about it that causes us, as we watch it now, to think that it has something to say to us as well?

These are the same sorts of questions we can ask of any piece of art, keep in mind. The vast majority of films made are done with the purpose of getting us to pay to see them and be entertained by them—which is fine. But as with some paintings, sculptures, music and literature, some films cross a line and become perceived as something more than entertainment. What and where is that line? Who determines whether that line gets crossed? Casablanca, it seems to me, is a good test case for discussions about the nature of Art.

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jennifer said...

What about a film such as American Beauty? There's a film that makes it tough to discern where the lines of "entertainment" and social criticism merge. I know it doesn't have the stature a film such as Casablanca has and many of your students have most likely already seen it. Still, it's well worth a classroom dissection any day and you can certainly take it from many, MANY angles. Food for thought. peace!

jennifer said...

Your questions are great by the way.

Raminagrobis said...

Firstly, I must say that the handout you've prepared there is great; well, it certainly informed me of a few things I never knew about Casablaca.

I've seen Casablanca a fair few times (mostly drunk at Christmas), and I must say I've never quite considered it a great piece of art. The thing is, Humphrey Bogart (or Humpty Go-Cart as my mum calls 'im) is probably my favourite actor (my two favourite films of his being The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon), and I love Casablaca undyingly, but...well, why do people like it so much? Isn't it just a WW2 melodrama? I realize this is precisely the question you're asking, to get your students thinking, but I must say I'm at a loss. I mean, as far as the quotes go, The Big Sleep has better dialogue; as far as plot goes, why not Double Indemnity?; and if we're talking 'bout pathos and subtlety, it's gotta be Sunset Boulevard every time.

Having said all that, I feel I ought to repeat that I love Casablanca. I just can't quite figure out why...

John B. said...

To you both:
Thanks for the kind comments.
Jen: What you say about American Beauty (a very fine movie and one that I love, by the way) is right, but--even though I hadn't realized I was thinking this way about Casablanca this morning when I decided to show it--American Beauty is very self-conscious: it aspires to Art, or at least "pretty good." As I was watching Casablanca tonight, though, I kept thinking that there's a directness, an earnestness in the film, in the sense that it has no pretense of being anything especially transcendant. It is itself; it has no symbolism; it points to no grand Message About Life. By way of comparison, think of Citizen Kane, released the year before: it's difficult to think of a more self-aware film. The most self-aware element in Casablanca is that Ingrid Bergman, because she thought she looked better in left profile, is shot that way almost exclusively.
Which brings me to Raminagrobis' comment. Like you, I like Casablanca without quite knowing why, and I agree with your choices of "better" films. But this film has a real power that those don't; or, rather, its power is different from that of the others. In class tonight, I asked the students what they thought a 1942 audience would respond most strongly to, and without hesitation they said, "The war story." I think that's right: someone in the film mentions early on that its year is "1941," though whether it's set before or after Pearl Harbor isn't clear. As I told the class, in some ways a 1942 audience would have felt as though it was watching a newsreel (its opening certainly evokes that feeling). So, along with that lack of pretense, Casablanca has a sense of Here and Now that few films have.
I think that still carries over to today. Ilse and Rick's love and the choices Rick makes not just for her but for vulnerable people generally during the film remain powerfully compelling virtues for this unabashed sentimentalist. So maybe that's the answer. Maybe.

jennifer said...

So is that then the new direction or evolution in "great films" to try and aspire to art or at least "pretty good"? There are many of course that don't even try to be anything other than mindless entertainment but then you have those rare gems such as American Beauty that not only aspire but transcend. Is this the issue with a work that can be seen or is intended to be a polemic vs. one that is produced solely for "entertainment" or as the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes? What has changed to you that makes a film such as Casablanca one without an agenda?
With so much CRAP being produced, is the merger of ART and sincerity too much to hope for? I'm thinking here of Adorno/Horkheimer's work on the Culture Industry and bell hooks "Outlaw Culture." Perhaps you could have your students read some excerpts of their work and apply these theories to the films you're showing to see where the line between "ART" and "Earnestness" and "Entertainment" converge/diverge?

I think too of a film such as "The Life of David Gale" or "The Shipping News" and how they truly differ from "American Beauty." Gale has a hollywood gone wrong feel to it. I honestly think it feels too much like dead man walking and tries to think too much for the audience without letting them think for themselves.
I HATED the shipping news. ABSOLUTELY HATED IT. Why do you think though a film such as AB can be so amazing (or the Matrix) on so many levels, asking so many questions and then other films can go way too far either trying to be too intellectual or not intellectual enough? I really dislike films that play into stereotypes of any sort, unless they later purposefully break those stereotypes keeping you in a sort of postmodern limbo. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting things about your notes on Casablanca is that no one thought the film to be anything special, that it was just another day job, that (and I never though I'd be agreeing with Regan) “[the studios] didn’t want them good; they wanted them Thursday.” I believe this points to something that enables great art, or indeed any: endless work. As something of an apprentice writer, I've found the essential thing is not to come up with plans based on ancient esoteric texts or the organs of the body, or to go wondering around taking diligent notes on the wildlife, or even to check what you've written for spelling, grammar errors. It is to sit down every day for as many hours as you can spare, writing.

So, part of what makes any great film is that those involved don't do it just because they believe it a great work of art, but because they have to, whether through love of the craft or a paycheck at the end of the week.

There is nothing worse than to become utterly convinced of the greatness of the work; it could spur you on to make it great, but more often than not, it can make you freeze in the shadow of the work's potential greatness.

Of course, work does not in itself constitute greatness, otherwise there would be a million B-movies making the "best-ever" lists, but it is essential.

John B. said...

This is a couple-of-days-delayed response to both Jen's and Anonymous's comments. I think I can answer both of you simultaneously by saying that the production of Art depends, of course, on the effort of its makers but/and equally as much on an audience's receptivity, whether in the moment or down the road. I personally think Casablanca works because its story is (still)compelling AND because the actors do good work (I think Bergman's performance is especially fine).
I also think a reason why Casablanca works so well is that, in the end, it's apolitical. Rick's decisions are made with the goal of undermining the Germans, yes, but I get the feeling that Rick is no flag-waver: he acts in favor of those who value the integrity of human beings and does not help those who don't (such as Peter Lorre's character).
But there exist powerful, even transcendant films with very clear agendas that I would also rank very highly--and them, as well, because of their sincerity: Schindler's List, The Killing Fields, and even a messy film like Apocalypse Now.
So: perhaps the key for me is that sincerity be present at some level in the piece, that it be honest in its intentions and that the audience sense that honesty.