Thursday, February 24, 2011

Exit Visas from Paradise


One thing marvelous about the secret language of Hollywood's 'production code' is the way poetic/romantic dialogue invariably packs a subversive undercurrent - hip screenwriters compelled to bury layers of dirty innuendo beneath shallow graves of poesy. When it's done right, the code--such as it is--works well, as children and adults end up seeing two completely different movies.

Watching CASABLANCA (1941) for the millionth time last night, for example, I noticed deep currents of sexual bartering in the dialogue that just weren't there before. I realized the film is now--for me-- completely different than it was back when I taped it at 15 and watched it incessantly. Back then it was a tale of witty rapport between Bogie and Raines, some Nazi action, thrilling music, some draggy romance redeemed by Bogie's toughness. My old teenage-days film making partner Aland and I studied Bogie's every move - this was how we wanted to be when--if--we ever had dates of our own.

Now, countless dates and viewings later, I find the whole enterprise much richer, dirtier and more cynical. I'm presuming you've seen it, so forgive spoilers: Let's start off with Bogart's embittered reunion with Ilsa after she sneaks back to see him after her first visit to Rick's American with her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), seeking the letters of transit (she leaves Victor asleep back at the hotel). She tells Rick how important it is she gets the letters of transit, how hard it's been for her since they parted, etc., to which he coldly mentions hearing similar sob stories 'before, with a tinny piano playing downstairs,' a remark so cruel it shoos her off .

It wasn't until this most recent viewing that it dawned on me: the 'tinny piano downstairs' is an allusion to a brothel, where the women hang out and drink cocktails with the potential clients in a downstairs lounge with a piano player, before luring a man upstairs for sex and maybe post-coital sob stories the women might tell--poor moms overdue on their rent, etc.--in order to maybe dig a larger amount of francs from the pockets of their homesick clientele. Bogart's indication that he's heard stories similar to Ilsa's with the tinny piano playing downstairs suddenly has sleazy meaning that no child would ever discern, at least I never did. Now, of course, brothels are far less commonplace. I've never been to one, but by now I've seen enough Godard movies to know they existed... in Paris... where Bogart lived before the Nazi invasion.

This ties in with the overall sleaziness on coded display in Casablanca itself, namely the exchange of sex for exit visas courtesy the womanizing Captain Renault (Claude Raines). He makes this offer to a young Bulgarian refugee, whose young dumb but handsome husband is trying to win the money needed at roulette in Rick's back room. Rick foils this plan by letting him win, to which Renault is only mildly disappointed (I'll be in tomorrow with a beautiful blonde, and it will make me very happy if she loses.")

I kind of gleaned this coded transaction as a youngster, but in this latest viewing, such transactions seemed the life blood of the film, and serve all the better to sketch out the sleazy rubric so popular in pre-code women's pictures -- the "How far would you go to save your husband?" theme, explored in films as old as TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931) and BLONDE VENUS (1931), right up to JEOPARDY (1953) and 1993's INDECENT PROPOSAL. The popularity of these pictures seemed to stem from the need to find scenarios where it became heroic, noble to cheat on your husband, thus allowing bored dreamer housewives to have their socially verboten kuchen and eat it too. If a woman would only cheat on her husband to save his life, well, then Hollywood scenarists would find hundreds of occasions, as if all of life was one compromising situation after another. Lazlo's issue is no different than Herbert Marshall's radiation poisoning in BLONDE VENUS, or Barry Sullivan's being stuck under a fallen beam as the tide rolls over him in JEOPARDY. Another even sleazier unspoken coded concept--rather unique to CASABLANCA--is the indirect conversation between Ilsa and Lazlo where she basically gets advance permission from her husband to sleep with Rick, if necessary, in order to secure their exit visas. Now that is seriously European of him! One can't help but be impressed by the gracious way he acknowledges the 'what went on in your bed while I was in a concentration camp stays in Vegas" credo.


It's to Henreid's credit as an actor that he makes this mcguffin-hungry anti-Nazi activist such an innocuous tool that he also 'deserves' to be cuckolded. I'd say that 'deserving' is linked, though not spelled out, via the scene where  Lazlo insists the orchestra play the French national anthem which interrupts the drunk singing of the German soldiers. First of all, it's rude, and naturally going to have bad repercussions for Rick's cafe, ending the party thanks to Major Strasse's (Conrad Veidt) outrage. In fact, Lazlo's presence contributes directly to Rick's loss of status as someone everybody knows and respects in Casablanca. Lazlo reduces him to a man without a bar--at least temporarily-- all for a few moments of French "we conquered these Arabs first, so fuck you" pride. Why is it noble for France to sing their anthem in Morocco? Aren't they just there first, but nonetheless conquerors? Better the French nationals should realize the humiliating sting of occupation and ask the locals, 'hey, what's the Moroccan national anthem, why don't we sing that?" Thus Rick pays the price for Victor's pride, so it's only fair Rick should steal Lazlo's woman. All this is of course spelled out only parametrically in soft dialogue about how 'for your sake, I let her pretend.'


Then of course there's the oft-discussed 'two-second light tower' dissolve, which I wrote about in relation to BABY DOLL (here) and which Maltby wrote about and Zizek analyzes. 

Another observation this go-round was how CASABLANCA strikes a particularly melancholy/happy note of a paradise where no one knows what they got until they lose it. We hear Casablanca is a rough place in the opening narration, but what we mainly see is a bar full of people having a good time, and not knowing how great they have it as they bitterly struggle to escape. The Casablanca of Rick's American is a pre-Edenic paradise, reminding me of that magical realist masterpiece of the 1980s, LOCAL HERO, in which Peter Riegert plays an oil man sent to buy out a remote Scottish seaside village in preparation for a massive oil refinery. it's citizens are anxious to sell out and get away while Riegert soon realizes they don't know how good they have it at this magical locale, and how sad it will be when it's all wiped away.


The town of Casablanca is, in Curtiz' film, depicted as just a great a place to be, a giant playground sandbox costume party. Everyone is dressed up as somebody else, and make no attempt to at an Arab accent as they wear an array of fezzes and costumes culled from all corners of the Warner costume dept. European ex-pat actors, legitimate refugees from the Nazis in the 1930s, such as, for example,  vehement anti-Nazi (he emigrated his native Germany in 1933) Conrad Veidt (read my appreciation of his work in A WOMAN'S FACE here) play Nazis. As a locale--both Hollywood and Morocco--are filled with refugees from all over the world, and the actual Arab locals of Morocco are almost nowhere to be found.


In short, it's a paradise of eternal play, disguise and joy, all enabled by what Todd McGowan (1) would call an absence of the imperative to enjoy, thus creating real enjoyment. Because Casablanca is supposed to be a hell hole, the people are free to enjoy without anxiety about the presence of the big other. Zizek compares this to life under communism where since the command to enjoy wasn't present, the people were free to enjoy as an act of covert rebellion discreetly sanctioned by the state as a kind of necessary evil. When you know just who and where the 'Big Other' is, you feel almost safer, more free to enjoy than you would in an enjoyment-centered society where a definitive Other is externally absent - so becomes internalized as the stifling imperative to enjoy.  Because everyone is supposed to be miserable and trying to get to Lisbon and freedom, there is no pressure to have fun and the vibe becomes one of existential despair, which in turn allows joy to form the way it only truly does: when one is staring mortality and loss directly in the face, like the brave blokes of the THE DAWN PATROL (1938).


Of course part of the appeal, the precious moment-in-time beauty of the cafe, stems from Rick's aloof cynicism, and also the cynicism and desperation of the refugees. A triple ex-pat, Rick fled to Spain to escape American persecution for some unnamed crime, fought for the anti-fascists and then fled to France, then escaped to North Africa right before the German invasion of Paris; now he's basically at the end of the rope, protected by international law and the help of Louie (Rains), the prefect of police. In short, he's like a kid who is free from worry, and yet, or because, is a virtual prisoner (the town itself has a curfew, as if it was populated by teenagers). The arrival of Ilsa signifies not just a chance to redo the past, but to leave the perpetual adolescence of this purgatory town and move forward--ala Stanley Cavell's comedies of remarriage.


On the other hand, why bother? At the famous plane climax I felt a sense of recognition, like I was Rick, and Ilsa and Victor were all my friends my same age who went off to Westchester to wed and raise children while I stayed in the East Village and romanced a beautiful rich, already married, Parisian businesswomen, and ended up with nothing, not even a Renault (2), yet still... for all that, content. In short, Rick's staying in Casablanca and heading off to join the Free French is a heroic rejection of adulthood's sticky reproductive flytrap - his bar sold, he follows the adage of Pavement's Stephen Malkmis: "Between here or there is better than either here or there!"

Finally recognizing 'this is the place and time' to shed his neutrality on the Nazi issue and cut the last remaining cord that ties him to th natural process of aging -- signified by the plane to Lisbon "and then America" -- Rick chooses his side once again. Let the balm of war--the only true cure for lovesickness--begin! Rick is staying put in the only place where paradise may truly endure, the deepest womb of hell, where people go to escape their past, the Free French Foreign Legion... like Geoffrey in UNDER THE VOLCANO, it's his natural habitat - "and that makes Ricky a citizen of the world!"

1) McGowan's Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment informs this essay and comes highly recommended. 
2) She did buy me a very nice video projector for Xmas one year

1 comment:

  1. Wow, great post! Will share with friends who are fans of this movie.

    ReplyDelete