Thursday 19 April 2018 6.11am
‘Knocking Them Off One by One’ 2018
I am now so acutely aware of how many of the original 100 films, I set out to watch, remain unwatched, that I’ve moved into a phase of intensity that is unlike anything experienced so far. To finish the BFI Critics 100 – a very fine goal – I have to knock more than forty great films off in seventy days. You may well ask what I’ve done with the previous 295-days if I’m only just over the halfway point?
The answer is, that delving into one or two films often led me towards another six or seven other films. As I check my list I realised that I need to be knocking off five or six films a week from the original list. If I’ve spent three hours writing a blog entry then I still need to find a film which I can knock off the list.
Fellini week, for instance, ticked the box for 8½ (1963) and La dolce vita (1960), but I also watched La Strada [(1954)on the BFI Director’s Top 100 list], Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Fellini’s Casanova (1976) and Amarcord (1973). Writing notes to myself about these films so I can better understand Fellini takes time and now I’m aware I need to move more quickly through some of the films I already know well.
Today, at 4am, after over four-hours spent writing about Fellini, I chose Casablanca as one I could watch and write about because I know it so well. I’ve just finished my 8th, 9th or 10th viewing of it. Like Vertigo, Blade Runner and 2001 it remains a film that I have watched many times and still see the greatness. I believe many great films are happy accidents. The film that is screened in a cinema or that is finally put back together again, pieced together from various sources is often the result of outside forces that have changed the finished film considerably from the screenplay which was accepted when the budget was set and production began. I’m fairly certain that Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Some Like it Hot and Sunset Blvd will live up to my memory of them as well.
It’s just after 6am and the kids will be up any minute.
I want to say that Casablanca is one of Hollywood’s most enduring films because of its two major Stars and the emotion (or lack of it) which they put into delivering the lines in the script. It is greater than most other American films made in the 1940s because it cleverly combines cynicism, romance, love, desperation, music and wit, with a story about one of the most terrible wars the world has known and the effect Hitler’s Nazis had on many races around the world.
Because it is made before America became involved in the Second World War, it has a Newsreel quality to it, and shows itself to be largely ignorant of what Hitler’s larger plan was and what was happening outside of France and Czeckoslavakia.
It is, and remains, a beautiful film because of its innocence. The disconnection – by distance – between Europe and Britain and the United States, makes it a film that can ignore the larger picture and concentrate on the smaller reality. It can focus on the panic that went through every European country that Hitler was targeting immediately and maybe targeting in the near future. It is also completely ignorant of what would happen to involve America in the war.
As such, it is one of numerous films made by Hollywood about what the writers thought they knew was happening in Europe before the American involvement. It dresses it up as a film with cynical people and cartoon Germans, everyone out for what they can get to help them have purpose for another day.
Casablanca features two cynics, and a woman torn between two men, and a man who will hopefully continue to inspire the European underground forces to work against Hitler’s march across Europe. It plays pathos and sentimentality against the grim reality of people who have been dispossessed of their country and people who can see a way to make money out of this situation through trickery and connivance and its inevitable result: deceitfulness, which shows itself in characters who only care about their own future.
The film then weaves a romance amongst these circumstances, which – normally – will have the two people who most of the men and women in the audience find most attractive, together at the end. It doesn’t deliver that denouement. Instead, Casablanca‘s final scene expresses, without words but through actions, a kind of individual honour that people must do. Despite their personal involvement, the man and woman who are in love – in the most complete sense that Hollywood has ever dished up – choose selflessness. They choose to do the right thing (intellectually) even though it feels like the wrong thing (emotionally).
Casablanca‘s main theme is that everyone is corrupt and if you’re not corrupt then you’ve become too cynical to care anymore about addressing the minor corruptions that you know are going on around you every moment you are alive and breathing. Rick builds a world in which he can live, in which he can survive, around himself. He’s like everyone else in Europe or the surrounding areas affected by WWII. He’s trying to make a buck whilst keeping out of trouble. Whether it’s the local authorities or the invading authorities he tries to keep his nose clean. He wants to run his business and stay out of trouble. One of his most revealing statements is, “I stick my neck out for no one.”
That’s how the survivors survive. Then there are the true-believers. Then there are the villains. Then there are the impassioned people who will fight against anyone who tries to take away their freedom.
In Casablanca‘s plot is every conceivable story about people and the way people react to the circumstances they are experiencing and enduring.
Most people in the world think they’re not paid what they’re worth, or not appreciated for what they do. Their bosses are answering to their bosses and everything is a delicately balanced series of dominos. Most people want more than what they have. Most people want to rise above the position they currently occupy. Casablanca shows all three stations: 1) the workers 2) those who are workers but can conceive of rising to a higher level, and 3) those who have the power and wield it as they please.
Casablanca wraps it up – the entire bundle – in a nightclub which is often filled with beautiful music performed by wonderful musicians. The music, which (even more-so now than then) makes people access their emotions, draws out feelings. For Germans it is a song they see as their own. For the French it is a tune that defines who they are. For Bogart and Bergman it is a song that has become too painful to hear anymore.
I don’t know how much attention the writers and director paid to the lyrics of As Time Goes By but everything you need to know about what is going on below the surface, for all of the essentially good people, is in its lyrics.