Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #085 on the list, Michael Curtiz‘s Casablanca. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
It seems like quite a few of the films that I have written about lately in this count-around (it’s not really a count down, since I’m not taking them in any particular order) have fit into the category of films that are extremely familiar, and indeed part of our shared cultural lexicon, and yet that there are a lot of people (myself often included) that have not actually seen the movie.
Casablanca, it appears, is just such a movie.
Recently I had a chance to watch a gorgeous 4K restoration of the film, thanks to our local independent movie house, the wonderful Belcourt Theatre. When I went, I was accompanied by my 13-year old daughter and a couple of older (than me) friends, and while we were there, we met up with a couple of friends who are younger than I am. Not exactly a completely random grouping, but probably a fairly indicative sampling of the crowd that was there.
It turns out that of the six of us only two (myself and one of my younger friends, who is even more film-knowledgeable than I am) had actually watched the movie all the way through before. If you expand that out, you could make the guess that fully two-thirds of the people in that crowd had never seen the entire movie (and yes, I know, I’m being completely unscientific about this, and using completely anecdotal evidence, but I honestly do suspect that, if anything, the actual number might even be a little higher).
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here. I’m not casting aspersions on anyone. There are lots of movies that I’ve never seen, and a lot of them are ones that cause friends of mine to look at me askance as if to ask “Really?! How can that be?”. But, at the same time, we’re talking about Casablanca here, one of the most quoted, most referenced, most well-known films of all-time, a film that is truly part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Or at least it was. During the 20th century. Now? Hmmm… I wonder.
Part of the problem with Casablanca today was somewhat epitomized, I think, in the discussion that my daughter and I had after the screening. Now you have to understand that though she is only 13, she has embraced the concept of going to a lot of these older movies with me, and quite often will either ask to see something that surprises me, or, say, if we see a trailer for something that’s upcoming will surprise me with her choices, so it’s not like she doesn’t have a background with older black and white movies. And yet, when it came to Casablanca, it seems it left her less enthralled than the rest of us, and she actually said that it felt “slow” to her.
As we talked about it further, and as I reflected on her response to the film a couple of thoughts occurred to me. Now again I want to note that I haven’t really had a chance to discuss these thoughts with her, so I may be off base, but there are two things that occur to me.
First, Casablanca is a very “adult” film. I don’t mean that in the way that it is most often used, in the way that, say Goodfellas or some other R-rated (or even unrated) movies are considered “adult”, but in its basic themes of loss and sacrifice, especially where love is concerned. That is to say, even though on the surface there is always the simmering tension between Rick and Ilsa and Lazlo, and even though at many moments the screenplay does veer very close to the edge of the melodramatic will they or won’t they, in the end, it’s the overarching theme of inevitable loss that really sets the movie’s tone. Yes, there is a “happy” ending, but it is an ending that come with a price for nearly everyone involved, and I wonder if that sense of loss, and an ability to relate to that, isn’t something that only comes with… well, if not with age, at least with a certain bit of experience, with having dealt with that kind of loss that younger people who have not yet been through those circumstances, who have not felt that pain and lived with it simply cannot really relate to yet.
Perhaps that is why, as the “The End” card came up, and my daughter caught the sadness on my face, her response was not agreement, but surprise that the end of the movie had affected me as much as it had. Because for her it was much more about the plot, which, it’s true, the end twist is telegraphed so far ahead that it seemed really to only be played out, for her, in an overly drawn-out fashion, as opposed to what I was reacting to, which was the atmosphere and the performances and the dialogue that make that ending so much more than just “who’s getting on the plane?”
Secondly, there is the setting itself. Not so much the city of Casablanca, that is set up very well, but rather the fact that, as we are now well over a decade into the 21st century, World War II is not only history, but it is ancient history. By that I mean that while even for me the war was over almost twenty years before I was born, for almost anyone younger, especially those born after, say, the years of Vietnam, the War, and the restrictions and deprivations that it brought about, the atrocities and the fear are almost entirely unrelatable, and the film might as well be set in ancient Greece. It is certainly not as immediate as it would have been for viewers back in its own time, nor is it something that is still even a part of the collective, shared conciousness that it would have been for those of my generation who grew up knowing those who had actually been a part of it.
Even the mere concept of the need for letters of transit, or the tension between the Germans and the French resistance, which make up the central focus of the film really become more and more something that has to be explained outside of the context of the film or absorbed and expounded upon within it and are not something that any audience today is likely to have any innate knowledge of. So I wonder where that puts lines like “We’ll always have Paris”, which of course, has its own textual meaning, but loses much of its subtext when there isn’t that emotional resonance that accompanies the knowledge that come with the fact that the train that Rick is getting on really is the last train out of the city before the German invasion, and that there is no chance that Ilsa could simply catch up to him later due to the invasion of the city by the Germans.
So where, then, does that leave a movie like Casablanca, I wonder? Because it is a film that, although it is often spoken of as timeless, and in a way it certainly is, is also very much a product of, and inured in, it’s time. In the years to come, will it continue to be one of those movies that “everyone” has seen or at least “knows” even if they haven’t seen the entire film, or will it eventually become another one of those movies that was once considered essential viewing for anyone and everyone, but is now simply a cultural artifact, lost to the sands of time, seen only by those who like to dig to find those films that they have heard of or people who, like I have with so many of the films on this particular list, run across it in a certain context and decide to “give it a try”?
I suppose that’s a question we’ll only be able to answer as time goes by.
(Yeah, sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
So what are your thoughts on Casablanca? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Also, I’m curious about what you think about my argument that some movies simply have to be seen on the big screen before one can even really judge them. And if you agree with it, what films you would put into that category. Let me know in the comments below.