Sunday, July 03, 2011

"Where I'm going, you can't follow": On chess boards, Casablanca and postmodern space (updated)

A still from Humphrey Bogart's first scene in Casablanca. On the set, Bogart played chess with Claude Rains and Paul Henried; it was Bogart's idea to have the chess board be Rick's stage business as he talks with Ugarte. According to Roger Ebert's commentary in the edition of Casablanca I have, Bogart preferred chess to poker because in chess, no one can cheat. Image found here.

[UPDATE: This piece in is something of a summation of attempts to explain Casablanca's enduring appeal. It includes a nice discussion of the details of Rick's chess board and chess's larger semiotic function in the film--in particular, for both chess and the film, the significance of Rick's playing black.]

Humphrey Bogart doesn't have a traditional entrance in Casablanca. He doesn't walk into a scene. Rather, it's more like the audience makes its entrance into Rick's scene--which is to say, his space: the camera, taking on the point of view of a customer at Rick's who moves through the bar's entrance and seating areas and observing all the bargaining and haggling for papers, for money, for favors, then moves toward a table on which we see a drink, an ashtray, a chess board with a game in progress, and the hands of someone signing someone's tab for a waiter. (Perhaps he's signing our tab--after all, the scene is shot to appear as though we're accompanying the waiter who brings it.) The camera then pulls back to show Rick contemplating the board, holding one of his opponent's already-captured pieces.

The board itself isn't the scene's focus, of course; if it were meant to be, director Michael Curtiz would have made it thus. (Ebert in his commentary notes several times on Curtiz's economy as a director; with very few exceptions, every shot we see in Casablanca functions to help move the story along.) Still, in those shots in which we see the board in this scene, there seem to be some continuity problems that are worth pondering in their own right. Each time it appears, it is as though we're seeing a different game: at least two shots show different, well-advanced games; two others show a board whose game has barely begun, if at all. I think, to be honest, that the only work the chess board is intended to do here is just be a chess board and thus serve as an outward sign of Rick's careful, strategic thinking. We're probably not supposed to notice the pieces' very different arrangements on the board; the film's continuity editor (if it had one) either missed the problem or decided (or Curtiz did) that it didn't matter. But let's imagine for a bit that these inconsistencies are in fact intentional. Then, we can read the chess board as conveying the idea of different games being played simultaneously, all of them on one board, as we stand there waiting for Rick to OK our tab. Rick is in his bar all night, every night. Each night is a new series of simultaneous games for him--in those opening scenes, Rick deals with a bewildering variety of customers and they with each other--all playing out in the space of his bar, whose very tables are laid out like squares of a grid. [Aside: compare the interior of Rick's to the chaotic interior of Ferrari's bar, the Blue Parrot.]

Perhaps that is why, in the scene(s) involving the chessboard(s), we never see who Rick's opponent(s) is/are. "Everybody comes to Rick's," Captain Renault tells Major Strasser earlier in the film. Perhaps, potentially, everyone is Rick's opponent. Even--and especially--Ilsa: the one person most capable of hurting Rick . . . because, we will learn, she already has.

Ilsa confronts Rick in his office. Note the shadow pattern on the walls behind her; click in the image to enlarge. Image found here.

More below the fold.

Again: The last thing I'm claiming here is that Curtiz intends for the chess board to work in his movie in the way I've described it above. However, I do want to claim that these apparent errors in fact end up reinforcing Casablanca's strong sense of de-centeredness, of the city's being comprised of façades behind which little if anything (and certainly nothing pleasant) withstands closer scrutiny. Better put, Casablanca shows us a constantly-shifting space with no constants ruling apart from a far-off, bureaucratic System and, within this place on the periphery of that System's domain, most everyone's acting solely out of his/her self-interest. Few if any here are traditionally Good or Bad; all have in them the potential to be either, though corruption in this place is far more likely than redemption is. We have vague allusions to shadowy pasts; multiple rumors of deaths that turn out not to have been true--or, as Laslow says of the five different rumors regarding his death, "True every single time"; language either emptied of meaning or obliquely acknowledging that its speaker cannot freely speak the truth of a matter; and, presiding over all, the rhetoric and machinery of the Surveillance State. In such a place, people alternate between wanting to believe in and mocking the old verities of love and disinterested sacrifice for others in service to a Greater Cause. The verities are no different from any other narrative whose intrinsic value (never mind their truth or the motives of those who act in accordance with them) can be scrutinized and adopted or mocked, too, because, after all, what does anything matter in the end? ("[I]t doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.")

Chess boards are stylized maps on which one can assert power over another. I suspect Rick much prefers them to real maps, which depict spaces divvied up and controlled by others. I hope no one tells him, though, that he happens to be a character in Casablanca, a movie obsessed with maps and grids--human projections of virtual boundaries onto physical space, over which the vast majority of us have little say, much less the power to control. Consider the film's opening sequence: a raised-relief globe which turns to the western end of the Mediterranean; the camera moves toward France and, at the same time, a wipe replaces the relief map with a two-dimensional paper map that shows the circuitous route people fleeing the Germans had to take to get to Lisbon and thence to the U.S.--this map functioning at the same time as a screen on which is projected newsreel footage of war refugees. The film's central plot device is the possessing of Letters of Transit. Rick Blaine's language often wryly comments on the conflicts between what people wish the world were and its stubborn physical and political realities. Rick says he had come to Casablanca "for the waters;" when Captain Renault asks what waters Rick means, that Casablanca is in the desert, Rick says, "I was misinformed." When the German Major Strasser asks what nationality Rick is, he replies, "A drunkard," which prompts Captain Renault to declare Rick "a citizen of the world"--yet Rick's Everyman's homeland--his saloon--cannot hide him from Ilsa: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into mine." When Victor Laslow requests a table as far from Major Strasser as possible, Rick tells him, "Well, the geography may be a little difficult to arrange . . ." This world is a rootless one: with the single exception of Ferrari, the owner of the Blue Parrot, who seems to have fully assimilated into the culture of the place, it seems anyone who speaks on the matter would rather be somewhere, anywhere, besides Casablanca. Everyone here is in some sense a refugee. Moreover, the name aside, no one can really say what Casablanca is on its own terms, apart from the palimpsests the expatriates have turned it into.

Casablanca, in other words, is a virtual-space rendering of a place called Casablanca--and that place's correspondence to a real place by that same name is a tenuous one at best. All we know about these places, really, are what we can say about them via the suspect medium of language.

One of this blog's very first posts asked about the source(s) of Casablanca's enormous popularity among both cinephiles and people who just love good movies. Aside from the usual responses of "good acting" and "good story, tautly told," in that earlier post I couldn't make sense of how this film, shot on a very tight 2-month schedule and "just" one of 50 that Warner Bros. made that year, "just" one of the three films Curtiz would direct that year, is #2 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 films. As I watched it yesterday for the first time in quite a while, searching for possible answers, the simplest one of all is the one that occurred to me: It retains its immediacy despite its precise placement in time (December 1941). For this film's first audiences, it must have felt like a newsreel: A reader for Warner's first read the play on which the film is based on December 8, 1941; in the very week of Casablanca's release, the Allies had begun the north Africa campaign. For us watching it today, I daresay, it feels like we are watching our own world in embryonic form--and, if we're really thinking about the particulars of the film's romantic triangle, we're seeing just how difficult it is to love authentically, balancing self-interest and sacrifice, in such a place.

Some films, their intentions aside, just get really, really lucky. Casablanca appears to be one of those films.


R. Sherman said...

Casablanca is certainly timeless for the reasons you suggest. The setting really doesn't matter. The story is a simple one. A jilted lover reunites with his love thanks to the existence of some MacGuffin or another. Bad guys wish to do lover's current flame ill and only the "jiltee" can save the day. Will he, or won't he?

For that reason, I agree regarding the bar, the town, the country are really just "props." It may have been edgy at the time, given the newsreels, but they do feel almost too stylized. Whether that's by design or not, I cannot say. Given the frenetic pace of film production, the "lucky" hypothesis seems plausible.


John B. said...

Hey, Randall. Welcome back from the Outer Banks.

Re your remark that the setting is incidental: Yes. The play on which Casablanca is based, Everybody Comes to Rick's, was set in Casablanca. The film was going to keep the play's title, but Warner's suggested the change in order, it hoped, to capitalize on the recent success of Algiers' exotic locale. The play's writers, though they hadn't been to Casablanca (they were inspired by refugees they had seen gathered in a café in Vienna), were legitimately interested in depicting the difficulties of refugees from the war; for the studio, though, the title was a business decision.

As for the stylizing, I don't think it was deliberate, exactly. It was a back-lot film, with lots of sets borrowed from other films; Ebert in a couple of places pokes fun at some of the incredibly fake-looking and implausible shots. The airplane's approaching early in the film, for example, renders nonsensical the city's geography if a viewer gives it some thought. But what matters in that scene is not its realism or lack thereof; what matters is all those people looking skyward, filled with hope, as it approaches, that someday they'll be on one of those planes as it leaves. (Well, that, and that the plane's also conveniently flying over Rick's.)

Given all that, how then do we read their hopefulness when the scene shifts to the airport and we see Major Strasser deplaning? Is that juxtaposition something the film actively asks us to consider? Or is it a coincidence of the story's narrative thrust? If this seems like a nit-picky sort of question, consider that we never feel the need to ask such a question of, say, Citizen Kane.

Matthew King said...

“Casablanca, in other words, is a virtual-space rendering of a place called Casablanca” (if it isn't post-modern what is it eh?)

“human projections of virtual boundaries onto physical space, over which the vast majority of us have little say, much less the power to control.”

This concept of virtual space (within an infinite framework and imagine the myriad definitions of the space itself completely variable, infinite dynamic capacity). That is to say the same “stuff” could be mapped infinite ways”... really got me stoked. I like this idea a lot.

There is something in this statement that got me passionate. conflicted. On the one hand I have this inner “yes” (in a rather beatnik affirmation) and on the other hand there is this sort of sadness at the idea of “little control”. I find myself wanting to say, “...But, everyman has the ability to create and develop his own 'space'”. [and not just with the sad ending of Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man']

This reminds me of some of the cuber-punk fiction I have read over the years. And I think, possibly maybe, this is what all those stories (see William Gibson's Burning Chrome) are about: dissolution of traditional space, emergence of new ones. But the best of those stories, the one's where Molly Millions (biologically enhanced street samurai) or the ones about the keyboard cowboys (translate elite hacker making his final score) are about the individual making some stand against this “little control”. I guess I have to show the hero in everyman to really conclude this, for to 'make this stand' is indeed a heroic effort. But I believe it is within the capacity of the most humble of us.

But anyway, this virtual space image, makes me wonder whether there might be a gold mine of analysis metaphors with in the (various iterations of) systems theory.

P.S. Thank you for the book offering. I've already located it at the school library.

Matthew King said...

Interesting, was reading the Wikipedia entry for William Gibson after posting my comment and found that his autobiography is called "No Maps for These Territories".

I hereby coin a new term: No-Map.

John B. said...

Hey, Matthew. Thanks for the thoughtful comments--and for reminding me that I do really need to read some Gibson.

The Postmodern condition (which is, by the way, the title of a book by Jean-François Lyotard) isn't exactly one in which the individual's freedom gets affirmed, just as you note. If you think about it, the West's previous intellectual movements, no matter how they differed from each other, all sought in some way to affirm the intrinsic worth of humanity in general; with Romanticism came the affirmation of the worth of the individual. As Lyotard describes in his book, and just as you mention in your first comment, postmodernism--for better and for worse--provides us with the foundations of systems theories and their analysis; Lyotard's term for "system" is "grand narrative." It's out of these ideas that have arisen critiques of human institutions of every sort, and all of them found lacking.

Well, sure. No intellectually-honest person could or should conclude otherwise. But some don't go any further than that conclusion and despair for our culture: ideally, we want/need human institutions to be models of cultural and societal values. But--just as you note--the question for the individual in such a world is how best to respond to it in as authentic a way as possible. Postmodernism doesn't provide any direct answers, but it does provide us with tools that, if used correctly, I think can lead us to those answers. For Rick, it is the putting aside of his love for Ilsa in favor of the greater good of insisting that she go with Victor Laslow (whom she also loves) so that she can help him with his work of resisting the Nazis. Self-sacrifice for the cause of defeating evil: you can't argue with that as an ennobling choice, no matter what Rick might say ("I'm no good at being noble . . . "). For the protagonists in Gibson's stories, it's the striking of blows against the empire in various ways. For believers in God, it's thinking very carefully about the foundations on which faith rests.

Maps are a very good metaphor for all this. Who thinks what is important, and why? And where are we (literally and virtually) in/on that grid?

Sorry for prattling on so. Thanks again for dropping by.