Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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.

As a youth, the phrase seemed a reference to schmaltzy soap operas, in other words an allusion to pop culture's signifier for trite romantic clinches. 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, the modern equivalent would likely be online mail bride services "like, "Mister, I just need you to wire me another $500 to bribe the embassy for my Russian travel visa." The actual idea of brothels as some kind of shared experience that can be alluded to in pop culture on the other hand, has faded to the point that line passes us right by these days, unless we're so familiar with the film we can begin to examine even previously ignored lines for hidden meanings.

The "tinny music" element ties in with the overall sleaziness on coded display in the city of Casablanca itself, namely the exchange of sex for exit visas between pretty refugee women and police captain Renault (Claude Raines). Renault makes this offer, apparently, often enough that Rick has become his go-to backer, assuring these young things he always keeps his word 'afterwards.' We see a typical examplewith a pretty young Bulgarian refugee woman who asks Renault while her naive young husband is trying to win the visas via 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 proposition as a youngster, but in this latest viewing, such black market transactions seemed the life blood of the film, sketching out the sleazy rubric so popular in 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 films seemed to stem from sexually frustrated housewives' need to justify their real or imagined infidelity; in these contrived scenarios, cheating becomes heroic, noble. If a woman could only cheat on her husband to save his life, well, then Hollywood scenarists would find hundreds of occasions for just such a trade, as if all of life was one compromising situation after another (and the men all desirable, charming, rich or studly). Lazlo's endured cuckoldry is no different than this Czech boy's, or Herbert Marshall's 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 in Paris while I was in a concentration camp stays in Paris' 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 implied, though not spelled out, via the scene where  Lazlo insists the orchestra play the French national anthem to interrupt the drunk singing of the German soldiers'. First of all, it's rude, not patriotic. Second, it's naturally going to have bad repercussions for Rick's cafe, ending the party thanks to Major Strasse's (Conrad Veidt) outrage. So Lazlo is a party pooper, a buzzkill. 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, Germans" pride. Why is it noble for France to sing their anthem in Morocco? It would have been great if halfway through the French anthem, the Moroccan busboys and waiters started singing their own national anthem. Until then, it's just one colonizer replacing another. Thus Rick pays the price for Victor's own arrogant pride (though he's not even French), 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 here. 

Another observation this go-round was how CASABLANCA sketches a particularly melancholy/happy portrait of a paradise where no one knows what they got until they lose it. We hear that Casablanca is a rough place in the opening narration, but what we mainly see is a bar full of people having a good time, with the great piano of Dooley Wilson guiding us through beautiful tracking shots--Rick's is pre-Edenic paradise, evoking 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. Its citizens are anxious to sell out and get away while Riegert 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, no matter how much money they all make.

The town of Casablanca is, in Curtiz' film, a kind of Arab-themed corner of Hollywood, a giant playground sandbox costume party with real life refugees from the war-torn Europe's theater and film departments as refugees stuck at the exit ramp out of Axis-occupied world and off to freedom in America.  Everyone is playing someone hiding who they are, dressed up as somebody else, and few making even an attempt at an Arab accent as they wear an array of fezzes and costumes culled from all corners of the Warner costume dept. In the metatextual refraction sense, the influx of artists-- Jewish, homosexual, and politically anti-Nazi--such as Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt (read my appreciation of his work in A WOMAN'S FACE here) finding a Casablanca-esque expat oasis in Hollywood, often playing the very Nazis they had escaped from, held an irony certainly appreciated by the sardonic Weimar artisans and actors, whose work taught us all to savor sardonic black humor as a consolation in a world gone mad, like Walter Huston, teaching Tim Holt to laugh at the loss of their gold dust fortune at the end of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.

In short, Hollywood's Casablanca is a paradise of eternal play, disguise and joy, all enabled by what Todd McGowan (1) would call the absence of the imperative to enjoy. Because Casablanca is supposed to be a hell hole, the people are free to enjoy without anxiety, without the specter of 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, a 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 more free to enjoy than you would in an enjoyment-centered society where a definitive Other is externally absent and so becomes internalized, stifling enjoyment via the imperative to enjoy.  Because everyone is supposed to be miserable if they can't fly to Lisbon and freedom, there is no pressure to have fun, which 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.

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 that war to France, then escaped to North Africa right before the German's march into 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, he's like a kid who is free from worry because he 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 in an Ilsa remarriage--ala Stanley Cavell's analysis of screwball comedies (with the Ralph Bellamy part being Viktor Lazlo).

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 from college who decided 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, yet for all that resistance to the 'normal' plan of family-raising, contented. Like Rick, I wound up staying in Casablanca and heading off to join the Free French, symbolizing a heroic rejection of adulthood's sticky reproductive flytrap. His bar sold, he follows the adage of Pavement's Stephen Malkmus: "Between here or there is better than either here or there!" and so he flees once more.

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 the natural process of aging -- signified by the plane to Lisbon "and then America" -- Rick chooses sides against the Nazis once again. Let the balm of war--the only true cure for lovesickness--come home to America, where it belongs. Rick is staying 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. 

1 comment:

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


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