MONDAY, JANUARY 24, 2022
What Yevtushenko said: Has it really been eighty years since Casablanca appeared?
Actually no, it hasn't. According to the leading authority on the topic, "the film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942."
According to the same source, the famous film "went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Churchill and Roosevelt."
It hasn't been 80 years just yet, but TCM is showing the film in some big-screen theaters this week, jumping the gun a tad. In the Washington Post, Dave Kindy has recalled the film in a short essay which has already generated well over 2,000 comments.
As Kindy recalls, Casablanca remains the most mysterious of our great films; it's the unmistakably great film which wasn't intended as such. It wasn't expected to be a great film. This factor help animate the ongoing quest to explain its magic, its never-ending significance.
What makes Casablanca so great? Different people say different things. For ourselves, we'll offer a few tiny points:
Casablanca a stunningly well-wrought portrait of the so-called "human condition." Also, it wonderfully mocks the gloomy existentialism which had been the calling card of high Europe—of the Kierkegaards and the Sartres, even later of a figure like Camus—down through the annals of time.
In fairness, high Europe had plenty to be gloomy about as of the time Casablanca appeared on the screen. Europe was experiencing the disaster og Nazism in a way we Americans weren't, not even out there in Hollywood.
That said, the film captures and mocks the existential crisis—the crisis of "the absurd"—right from its opening moments. Everyone is trapped in Casablanca, a city from which there's no way out. They gather in Rick's Cafe to dance and sing, but they know there's no solution to the human dilemma.
At that point, the mocking humor of the comedically brilliant Julius and Philip Epstein takes over. This may be the cleverest movie script of all time. The final use of the immortal repeated phrase, "Round up the usual suspects," must be the greatest moment of intentional humor found anywhere on the planet.
Along the way, we get to see a semi-heroic portrait of human behavior in the face of vast impending evil. At Rick's Cafe, we human beings really want to sing and gamble and gambol and play:
We human beings just wanna have fun, until you finally push us too far:
At that point, we'll stand and fight, and sing the Marseillaise. We'll stand behind the heroic leader who is right there in our midst.
Do we in this country still know how to do something like? We've become so fragmented by our many identity groups that the answer is far from clear. There's nothing "wrong" with any of these groups, but it isn't clear that a very large modern nation can hope to succeed with so many such identity groups. The forces pulling people apart defeat those pulling a nation together.
Casablanca is very funny, and it's deeply insightful—and that works in several ways. On the one hand, it's a movie about saving the world. But it's also a movie about three little people, whose problems amount to something much more than a mere hill of beans.
As we read through the comments to Kindy's piece, we were struck by this remark by Indyagnostic:
COMMENT: I guess that I'm the only one who fell asleep during the movie. But then I didn't like the Beatles either. I've tried watching it again, but it's a movie where everyone loses. Depressing.
Is Casablanca a movie where everyone loses? In part, we'll assume that means that Humphrey Bogart loses Ingrid Bergman, and perhaps that Ingrid Bergman loses him.
But along the way, something extremely important happens. Near the end of the film, the Bogart character gets to say this:
"We'll always have Paris."
What has happened has given Rick Blaine the story of his own life back. This allows him to return to the fight—to be himself again.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The late Joan Didion said that.
Some of the stories we tell ourselves are about our own lives. But some of the stories we tell ourselves are about the worth and the value of other people and other people's lives.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Yevtushenko recommended a story which starts like this:
No people are uninteresting.
No people are uninteresting, Yevtushenko said.
Presumably, that would include the people who voted for Donald J. Trump. At these times of ugly tribal loathing, we recommend the poet's tale.